4 winners and 3 losers from the 2016 Tony Awards
The 70th Annual Tony Awards may go down in history for multiple reasons — not only because of the awards’ spotlight on the game-changing Hamilton but for the Broadway community’s heartfelt response to the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando.
In the middle of all the tragedy and celebration, Hamilton stood out as the evening’s dominant force, nabbing 11 awards including Best Musical. But with Hamilton achieving a near shutout in the musical categories, and attention in the play categories divided between several acclaimed revivals and one lauded newcomer, the Tonys also served up plenty of disappointments.
Here are our picks for the night’s real winners and losers, whether they took home a trophy or not.
This one may be obvious, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking musical revolution capped off a tremendous year that began as soon as it opened on Broadway last July. The hip-hop phenomenon, which garnered a record 16 nominations, just missed out on tying The Producers for most Tony awards won (with 11 wins, it was one shy of The Producers’ 12 wins in 2002).
The musical also just missed sweeping the acting and creative categories, with Phillipa Soo losing Best Actress in a Musical to The Color Purple powerhouse Cynthia Erivo and Miranda, who plays Alexander Hamilton, losing the Best Actor award to his own co-star, Leslie Odom Jr., who plays Aaron Burr.
With Hamilton tickets nearly impossible to come by these days, the Tonys offered a rare chance for non-Broadway audiences to see a live performance from the show. Pundits predicted the musical would give the perennially underwatched awards a giant ratings boost — and they were correct; Sunday’s Tonys telecast earned the awards’ highest overnight ratings in 15 years.
The Tonys were so aware of Hamilton‘s long shadow over the proceedings that Tony host James Corden even lampshaded the Hamilton effect by joking about the show’s inevitable awards sweep in his opening number … which was also a parody of the opening number from Hamilton, performed by the entire Hamilton cast.
Not only did the Hamilton cast get to perform a grand total of four musical numbers over the course of the night — most musicals only get one Tony number each — but Miranda joined a composer-led singalong of “Tomorrow” from Annie and, prior to Sunday’s event, sang along to his own cast recording in Corden’s Broadway edition of carpool karaoke, which re-aired during the ceremony.
Meanwhile, the Tonys devoted an entire running segment, occurring outside the theater at regular intervals during the show, to letting every nominated musical cast perform their own version of Miranda’s #Ham4Ham, the weekly street performances in which the Hamilton cast and guests perform short songs and skits for the lottery crowds outside the Richard Rodgers Theatre.
The move was a tacit acknowledgement from the Tonys that Miranda’s street shows have made waves in the theater industry, and that they have become a case study on how to deliver content to hungry internet audiences who can’t get into the theater, all while having fun and keeping fan morale high.
As if all that wasn’t enough, the cast of Hamilton had their show’s performance introduced by none other than the president and first lady of the United States. Speaking from the White House in a pretaped segment, Barack and Michelle Obama praised Hamilton, describing it as a civics lesson students can’t get enough of and “a musical about the miracle that is America.”
Geez, the show had us at “My name is Alexander Hamilton.”
Winner: Diversity (but there’s still more work to be done)
If there was another obvious theme at the Tonys this year, it was the high number of shows with diverse casts on Broadway this season. “Think of tonight as the Oscars, but with diversity,” Corden joked. That notion was especially evident during the performances from the five nominated musicals whose casts are composed mostly of performers of color or are otherwise ethnically diverse: Hamilton, Shuffle Along, On Your Feet, and the revivals of The Color Purple and Fiddler on the Roof.
The result of all this onstage diversity was an exciting first for Broadway: All of the awards in the acting categories for musicals went to people of color. One of the only diverse productions that didn’t win was the Lupita Nyong’o–helmed stage play Eclipsed, which held its own in the play categories but ultimately lost out to the less diverse casts and crew of the Arthur Miller revival A View From the Bridge and the acclaimed new play The Humans.
But though this was a historic year for minorities in theater, not everything was rosy. The much-touted Asian-American musical Allegiance, which told the story of Japanese internment camps during World War II, was totally absent from the Tonys, having lasted only four months on Broadway earlier this year. And as of 2012, 80 percent of all roles on Broadway were still going to white actors. It may take time to see if the work of the 2015-’16 season will shake things up enough to make lasting change on the Great, er, White Way.
Winner: Cynthia Erivo
A short British actress with lungs of steel, Erivo has been garnering raves for her performance as Celie in the new revival of The Color Purple since she first performed the role in London last year. New York magazine called the production “one of the greatest revivals ever,” and Erivo’s performance “as great and full a transformation as any previously put on the musical stage.”
The Tonys audience got to see the last show-stopping moment of that transformation, the self-empowering “I’m Here,” in which Celie, after a lifetime of abuse and fear, realizes she has everything she needs within her to make her own life.
Thanks to her knockout performance, Erivo had the audience on its feet before she had even finished singing, a rare feat with a crowd that seemed somewhat ovation-averse. Producer and Color Purple film star Oprah Winfrey was beside herself at Erivo’s inevitable win for Best Actress in a Musical, and so were the rest of us.
Winner: James Corden and sincerity both pulled out a surprise victory
Corden had the unenviable job of being the third host to follow-up Neil Patrick Harris’s four-year stint as Tonys emcee between 2009 and 2013 — last year, Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming co-hosted one of the lowest-rated Tonys ever.
But Corden kicked things off with an impassioned, earnest “I Can Do That” tribute to his own childhood dreams of being in the theater — something nearly everyone in the audience could relate to.
By the time his opening montage was over he’d somehow parodied everything from Cats to Gypsy and set the tone for the evening, painting the theater community as a warm, welcoming space open to everyone with a dream — a subtle nod to the night’s implicit theme of diversity.
It was also a night of heartfelt onstage speeches, particularly from the Hamilton cast. Renée Elise Goldsberry mentioned her decade-long struggle to have children in her acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical, while Daveed Diggs, picking up his win for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical over two of his fellow Hamilton cast members, thanked his parents for allowing him to do the unconventional and supporting him through it, from childhood on.
Miranda’s emotional acceptance speech for Best Score for a Musical was a sonnet referencing his love for the theater, his love for his wife, and his sorrow over the Orlando shootings. Pulling off the win for Best Actor in a Musical, the always articulate Leslie Odom Jr. thanked the entire cast for helping him make it through the role without failing, while director Thomas Kail declared that he was committed to making Miranda’s vision happen.
But Best Actor in a Play Frank Langella, picking up his fourth Tony win for The Father, had the night’s most unexpected and emotional moment, when he paid tribute not only to his brother’s battle with dementia but to the strength of the city of Orlando in the aftermath of the shooting and the strength of Broadway in times of tragedy: “I’m standing in a room full of the most generous beings on Earth, and we will be with you every step of the way.”
Loser: Shuffle Along (and every other non-Hamilton new musical)
Even without Hamilton, the 2015-’16 Broadway season would almost certainly have still been a historic one for musicals with majority-black casts, thanks to both The Color Purple and Shuffle Along (whose full title is Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed).
Shuffle Along has all the elements of a Tony-winning production: Its cast is a to-die-for billing of Broadway A-listers, particularly Audra McDonald (who has won more Tonys than any performer in history), Brian Stokes Mitchell (Ragtime), and Billy Porter (Kinky Boots). It sports a dynamite creative team in the form of Angels in America director George C. Wolfe serving as director and writer, and Savion Glover, the dancer and choreographer whose one-man show Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk electrified Broadway in 1996.
Shuffle Along tells a tremendous historical story — that of the ambitious and inspired all-black creative team behind the groundbreaking, influential, and now totally forgotten 1921 musical of the same name, Shuffle Along. Near the end of the show, whose songs all come from the original with slight variations, the creators of the original Shuffle Along stare down history as it scathingly informs them, “They won’t remember you.”
The new Shuffle Along is an obvious effort to change that once and for all, and while it hasn’t exactly done for black history what Hamilton has done for the Revolution in America, it’s a striking piece of metatextual historical reconstruction that deserves all the attention it’s received outside of the Tonys — such as snagging four Drama Desk Awards including Outstanding Musical. (Hamilton, which won in 2015, was ineligible.)
In anticipation of Hamilton’s Tonys sweep, the new Shuffle Along attempted but failed to bill itself as a revival of the original. And it ultimately drew an impressive 10 nominations even though it wound up going home with nothing. But given that the only musical that broke Hamilton’s streak was the critical standout revival The Color Purple, it’s possible that Shuffle Along’s attempt to be treated as a revival could still have backfired and easily lost to The Color Purple instead.
Still, Shuffle Along is an important musical that answers many of the questions that critics of Hamilton’s historical revisionism have faced: namely, where are the actual black characters within this historical narrative? Audiences who aren’t satisfied by Hamilton’s treatment of that question might be thrilled by the energy and life onstage every night at the Music Box Theater, where Shuffle Along’s answer is “right here all along.”
Loser: Steve Martin’s EGOT dream
Sitting in the losers’ circle — and clutching a banjo — was Steve Martin, whose melodramatic bluegrass musical Bright Star was nominated for five awards. Martin wrote the book for the musical and co-wrote the music with folk songwriter Edie Brickell.
A story about the shrewd editor of a literary magazine who comes of age as a spitfire young woman in Depression-era Appalachia, Bright Star managed to pick up the Outer Critics Circle award for Best Musical earlier this year. But with its eyebrow-raising plot and a general lack of continuity between Martin’s strong book and Brickell’s weak lyrics, Bright Star was always going to have trouble going up against the other powerhouse musicals of the night, Hamilton or no Hamilton.
That’s too bad for Martin, who’s just a Tony away from stepping into a rare circle of artists — those who’ve won the EGOT, short for an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony. The EGOT is often described as “the grand slam” of artistic achievements; Martin started down the path to the title at age 23, when he won an Emmy Award for writing The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
Martin’s comedy albums as well as his fierce banjo playing have nabbed him five Grammys over the course of his long career. And in 2013, the Oscars awarded him with an Honorary Academy Award for his contributions to comedy and American cinema.
But even if Martin fails to win the coveted Tony, he’s already part of an even more storied group of entertainers and creatives who are one award shy of the goal. That group includes venerated Broadway legends like Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Miranda himself. (Though Miranda probably won’t stay there for long.) Sorry, Steve!
Loser: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Throughout Sunday’s telecast, the Right Honourable Baron Andrew Lloyd Webber, so dubbed by the queen of England on the back of his many theatrical successes, seemed to be constantly reenacting the sad Ben Affleck video that went viral earlier this year. Every time the camera found him, it felt like he was silently begging us for help.
While Corden parodied his Phantom of the Opera onstage, Lloyd Webber looked panicked. During the short segment in which he played the tambourine while singing “Tomorrow” alongside Martin, Brickell, Miranda, and Waitress composer Sara Bareilles, he looked trapped and helpless. While introducing his own musical — School of Rock, a raucous adaptation of the Jack Black film of the same name — he appeared to be only a breath or two away from adding, “Please clap.”
Even when the American Theatre Wing, which produces the Tonys, announced that Webber had created the Andrew Lloyd Webber Initiative to deliver theater to underprivileged students in the US, the audience responded first with awkward silence, then with limp applause that seemed to cut Webber to the quick. All we could think of was Evita Peron singing “You Must Love Me.”
It’s okay, Andy. You’ve still created some of the most iconic musicals in Broadway history. Next time just embrace the absurdity of your life and add more oomph to that tambourine.