The Tony Awards 2017

‘Dear Evan Hansen’ and Bette Midler Triumph at the Tony Awards

The Daily Beast

June 12, 2017

Of course, the Tony Awards are about who won and who didn’t.

They are also about the show, which is an unapologetically lengthy, theater-nerd paradise of three hours.

And the Tonys is about its host.

This year Kevin Spacey was mostly an absent one—bar odd staccato interruptions and impressions—after a curious opening number in which, as my colleague Kevin Fallon noted, he joked about coming out of the closet during a labored number taking in many of the evening’s nominees.

Still, at least when she won Lead Actress in a Musical, Bette Midler (Hello, Dolly!) owned the stage with a riotous and long speech that the Tonys band tried and failed to drown her out from completing.

Hello, Dolly! also won best revival of a musical and, for Gavin Creel, the featured actor in a musical category.

In the battle of original musicals, Dear Evan Hansen, that complex, hailed, and criticized musical focusing on youth suicide and a teen fabulist hero resoundingly beat out Come From Away, and its tale of wholesome Canadian hospitality in the shadow of 9/11.

Dear Evan Hansen won six awards: Best Musical, lead actor in a musical for its 23-year-old star Ben Platt, featured actress in a musical for Rachel Bay Jones, original score for Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, orchestration for Best Book of a Musical for Stephen Levenson, and Best Orchestrations for Alex Lacamoire (he won last year for Hamilton too).

Come From Away managed to scoop only one big award, Best Direction of a Musical for Christopher Ashley, meaning that the acclaimed Michael Greif, Dear Evan Hansen’s director, is still yet to win a Tony.

The most nominated original musical, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 won two awards for scenic design (Mimi Lien) and lighting design (Bradley King). It also put on the most stunning performance of the evening.

Andy Blankenbuehler won best choreography for Bandstand, Hello, Dolly! won best revival of a musical, though as signaled in a pre-ceremony controversy, Midler did not sing at the awards—her co-star David Hyde Pierce instead sang his solo from the show whose sumptuous costumes also won Santo Loquasto a Tony.

In the play categories, J.T. Rogers’ Oslo emerged triumphant over A Doll’s House, Part 2 to win Best Play, and August Wilson’s Jitney was triumphant in the Best Revival of a Play category.

Kevin Kline won Lead Actor for his marvelously sanguine performance in Present Laughter. Laurie Metcalf beat strong competition, particularly from Laura Linney (Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes), to win Lead Actress for her role as Nora in Lucas Hnath’s Ibsen sequel, A Doll’s House, Part 2.

Linney’s co-star, Cynthia Nixon, won the featured actress Tony for her role in The Little Foxes, and Jane Greenwood won the play-costuming Tony for her meticulously realized period attire in the production.

For assembling a set that magnificently collapses in utter chaos every night, Nigel Hook won the scenic design (play) Tony for English country house murder parody, The Play That Goes Wrong.

Welcome surprises littered the evening, not least in Best Direction for a Play, which went to Rebecca Taichman for Indecent, Paula Vogel’s play about the history of a lesbian play whose suppression in the 1920s is used as the focus for a wider meditation on profound individual and social oppression. (Christopher Akerlind’s evocative lighting won the play another Tony.)

In another (much deserved) surprise, Michael Aronov won Featured Actor for Oslo.

The evening was long, and far from frenzied. The Tonys is a welcome network TV curio: three hours of prime time featuring theater people awarding each other and speaking passionately about theater, and its importance.

Still, surprisingly, nobody at the ceremony mentioned the news story that—as timing and karma would have it—brought theater to the center of the news agenda on the day of the Tonys: Delta Air Lines’ and Bank of America’s withdrawal of sponsorship of New York’s Public Theater.

Relating to a scene within the company’s production of Julius Caesar, themed around Donald Trump’s presidency and featuring the graphic murder of Caesar/Trump, Delta said in a statement: “No matter what your political stance may be, the graphic staging of Julius Caesar at this summer’s Free Shakespeare in the Park does not reflect Delta Air Lines’ values. Their artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste. We have notified them of our decision to end our sponsorship as the official airline of The Public Theater effective immediately.”

The Bank of America joined Delta in withdrawing its sponsorship of the Public Theater later in the evening.

Indeed, this year’s Tonys were mostly apolitical, which may have been surprising to some expecting more overtly resistance-themed speeches in the first year of Trump’s presidency, especially after one of the first expressions of that occurred at a performance of Hamilton, attended by Vice President Mike Pence.

As reported by my colleague Matt Wilstein, Stephen Colbert turned up near the end of the show to skewer President Trump, though not as harshly as he does on his late night talk show.

Of the awards winners, Cynthia Nixon spoke most passionately about the present politics.

“It is a privilege to appear in Lillian Hellman’s eerily prescient play, at this specific moment in history,” Nixon said.

“Eighty years ago, she wrote, ‘There are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it, and other people who just stand around and watch them do it.’ My love, my gratitude, and my undying respect go out to all the people in 2017 who are refusing to just stand and watch them do it. Thank you.”

Gavin Creel spoke passionately about arts education, and others—like Platt—encouraged young theater-lovers like himself to pursue their passions.

A special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre went to James Earl Jones, although this, oddly, was not featured in the main broadcast.

A special Tony Award also went to Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin, sound designers for Simon McBurney’s stunning piece, The Encounter.

The standout speech of the evening belonged to Midler, who said she owed “everything” to producer Scott Rudin. She hoped she wouldn’t cry and thanked all the Tony voters, “many of whom I’ve actually dated.”

Performing in the show was “one of the greatest professional experiences” of her entire life, she said, and she was “so grateful for the outpouring of love and affection that has greeted me and this production… I can’t remember the last time I’ve had so much smoke blown up my ass, but there is no room for any more, so thank you—this is the cherry on the cake.”

A determined salesperson, Midler said she hoped many would come and see the show. Hello, Dolly! was perfect to lift spirits at this time, she added.

And then Midler carried on thanking people.

When the band threatened to drown her out, Midler said, “Shut that crap off,” and carried on talking and thanking. The band gave up. When it came to attempting to stop Bette Midler, it knew it was beat.