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TV Review: The 2019 Tony Awards

The last time James Corden hosted the Tony Awards, the CBS late-night host was understandably subsumed by events onstage and off; not merely were his last bits on the Tonys stage, in 2016, occurring against the backdrop of a “Hamilton” sweep, but they were also happening in the wake of a massacre of predominantly gay people of color at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando earlier that morning. Corden’s presence on that broadcast was low-key and affirming; whatever one thinks of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s declaration that night that “love is love is love is love,” it was Miranda’s, and not Corden’s, voice that set the evening’s tone.

Corden, though as much or more a part of the actual broadcast this year, felt similarly absent from his second Tonys hosting gig, and not because he was swamped by events — or, at least, nothing particularly new. Given so many potential uses of the least-widely-viewed and thus most potentially freewheeling of the four major American awards shows, Corden’s absence of ideas felt notable, and a bit startling. The Tonys don’t need to be “political” in the way that, say, the 2019 Grammys (which opened with a lengthy bit of testimony about the experiences of female performers) did. But, given that this show is meant to represent the assembled talent of the artistic community we understand as best-equipped to put on a show, Corden’s work seemed ill-suited even to a moment at which all seemed resolved to talk about not much of anything at all.

His opening number, which began with the “Late Late Show” host sitting on a couch, was premised on the idea that there is simply too much good TV on nowadays, before making a muddled argument that theater is better than TV because it is actually live; but (jokingly-but-not), TV, especially Corden’s network home of CBS, is actually amazing and doing great work; but theater is also special, too, in that it’s doing its own kind of thing. The thematic bafflement was meant to be drowned out by an increasing drumbeat of stomps from the hoofers who joined Corden onstage — and, to be fair, their emergence from out from under his couch felt something like magic. That magic faded. As the number, fueled on its journey into incoherence by more and more appearances from the various companies of nominated shows, ground on, it was deafening, enlightening. “We do it live,” Corden kept repeating, mantra-like — but the phrase’s cruel paradox was that, for all live theater lends its charge, it requires substantial work, and thought, before. A couple more tough rehearsals, here, early on might have refined both the message and the method.

It did not have to be this way! The Corden opening number seemed like a fairly explicit rip of “Bigger!,” the good-hearted Neil Patrick Harris number still touted as the gold standard of Tonys openings, the one from 2013 in which Harris brought on “Pippin” circus performers and “Bring It On” cheerleaders in service of the idea that a Broadway infused with possibility is genuinely larger than life. Speaking to young people watching at home, Harris declared, “I promise you all of us out there tonight, we were that kid!” Corden’s declaration that theater is sometimes better than television, if the conditions are right, felt flaccid by comparison.

And Corden just kept coming around, with the notion of the excitement around live theater de-emphasized each time by the staleness of his material. His omnipresence emphasized by the oddity of the cuts. Both Elaine May (an entertainment industry legend) and André De Shields (a performer new to many viewers who later made his presence known during the performance from his show, “Hadestown”) saw their powerful, genuinely thought-through speeches cut short significantly early by an overzealous orchestra. Neither of them were reading from lists of names; both had things to say and were saying them relatively expeditiously. They were, if anything, abundantly cautious of their time, perhaps cognizant that the show was destined to run too long for the producers’ taste — a message signaled by the producers sending everyone from lifetime achievement award winners Judith Light and Terrence McNally to costume award winner Bob Mackie to the pre-show.

That time, in the minds of CBS or of the show’s producers, was better spent with Corden, warming over material practically as old as the televised awards ceremony itself, whether asking members of the audience to show off what their face might look like if they were to lose an award or stepping into the nosebleeds to hang out with the plebes in the audience (where, interestingly enough, he found he had nothing real to say). That the Oscars, a show not explicitly centered around musical performances and one that might seem to need an emcee, had shed a host this year and allowed the show’s highlights to shine all the more seemed like a reality lost on the Tonys, a show whose core audience will watch regardless, and in numbers enough to elevate it over a typical June night on CBS. Most telling of the absence to grasp this was the musical number in which Corden appeared with last year’s hosts Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban — those two performers, occupying platforms of less reach than Corden’s own, were required to lend him a touch, or more, of showmanship, and to devour time that might be spent in any other manner, on any capable performer.

That quality of showmanship — the simple sense of taking joy in a production having been brought across well — seemed painfully absent from a broadcast that has little other reason to exist. Many, many people who watch the Tonys never have seen and never will see a nominated show in Manhattan; for that audience, a production brought off well before the cameras is the ceremony’s point vastly more than is a list of winners. And, again and again, performances seemed to default to a kind of supercut style, whereby sheer enormity stood in for artistry. Was it impressive when the scrim came up during the “Ain’t Too Proud” number, revealing a massive complement of dancers and a live band, or when all the Chers ran in during the “Cher Show” number, revealing a show of mass quantity if not detectable insights about the person behind the legend, or when “The Prom’s performance” shed the character shading of its first moments to reveal a big, bold, contextually meaningless dance number? Of course. Those people were working hard; in its way, it was more impressive than TV.

But little on the broadcast carried the charge of a performance coherent from beginning to end, one designed to tell a story rather than simply cow the audience into submission. (One of the few that tried, unfortunately, was “Tootsie,” which actually might have used a bit more pop; in an era in which “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has taken over the culture, the transformation of Michael Dorsey into Dorothy Michaels is not, aided only by a few unsteady steps into the spotlight by “Dorothy” rather than a full-fledged strut, a showstopper.) Perhaps the most elegantly-executed performance was from “Oklahoma!,” carried off imperfectly — notably with all performers somewhat awkwardly placing their backs to the seated audience — but with a genuine spirit of eagerness and an attempt to try to do something other than just get through the thing. That, to me, is what “doing it live” is all about — not just meaninglessly stating that something is “better than TV” (and if it is, who really cares in an era of blending divisions between media?) but proving that the practitioners involved are as great as they can be. Would that Corden had been able to take a memo from them, or that CBS resolves next year to allow such genuine moments to bleed through a broadcast meant for lovers of things truly live.

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