The 71st Annual Tony Awards: My Great Disappointment
So… the 71st Annual Tony Awards have come and gone and I have to say, I generally found it to be a tedious evening. Nothing used to get me more excited than tuning in each year to the Tony Awards and being blown away by some amazing performances. Somewhere around the time when the awards ceremony left the intimacy of a Broadway theatre and instead began being held at larger venues such as Radio Music Hall did it lose something for me. Ah, yes, I suppose I am showing my age by saying this, but there was a time when the awards actually felt intimate. For reasons of space and economy, it was decided somewhere along the way that barns were the better place to celebrate theatre. This still remains an unfortunate shift in my book as I long for the days when musicals like Big River, Grand Hotel, Me and My Girl, The Secret Garden, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, City of Angels, Once on this Island, and Jelly’s Last Jam charmed me on a stage that didn’t dwarf their efforts. The Broadway of today looks very different than the one I remember of the 80s and early 90s, so I suppose nostalgia can cloud one’s judgment, but this Tony Awards in particular left me feeling very disconnected.
Let us talk, for a moment, about the importance of the musical numbers that producers choose to represent their respective shows on the Tony Awards telecast. This is your four or five minutes to sell your show and make the case for audiences to come. It’s a great big commercial, essentially, so go big or go home. It’s also important that it gives us at least an inkling of what the show is about. Yes, that is a tall order, a lot to expect from four minutes, but it is essential and it used to be done well and to great effect. Almost nothing I saw at the 2017 Tony Awards made me want to rush out and buy a ticket except for Bandstand. I’ve seen some of these shows in New York, and I have to say, the ones that I did see were not captured well by the Tony Awards. Falsettos, which practically burst with brilliance onstage, looked clunky and did very little to highlight the best of that production. Dear Evan Hansen, which I have fallen in love with on CD, exhibited nowhere near the level of charisma and talent that is captured on its original cast recording. I had friends writing to me after the scene from Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 because they could not discern what that show was supposed to be about and hoped that I could enlighten them. Producers are missing a golden opportunity here, and not making a compelling case for their product.
My biggest beef continues to be the relegation of the creative arts awards to a separate ceremony where we don’t get to appreciate and truly celebrate the collaborative art of theatre. Many hands make a play or musical, and all contribute equally. This idea that some awards are important (popular) enough to be recognized on television and others are glossed over with a brief ten-second clip is artistic blasphemy. It is insulting and certainly diminishes the spirit of the evening. Spare me the rhetoric about “what the people want”, “what time will allow” and the “cost of adding time to the telecast.” It is a rotten deal and lacks both propriety and decency. I was completely astonished to find the Best Book of a Musical category now shunned to the kiddie table. That is a playwright, for God’s sake! Is this what the Tony Awards have become?
Finally, with all the causes and platforms we are typically subjected to in a Tony telecast (remember the days of the late, great Ron Silver who spoke passionately about Tiananmen Square?), why wasn’t there a little solidarity for the casting directors who are attempting to unionize? It would seem to me that there might be a little more love for these hardworking professionals who serve in an industry that is almost entirely unionized. There are those who would say that awards shows are not the place to get on a soap box, but I disagree. If the Tonys are really about the spirit of the whole theatre community (as we are often reminded) then this is the perfect time to ensure we do not leave behind a vital constituency who labor as hard as anyone else. It just seemed glaring that this was mostly overlooked.
All my gripes aside, I feel that the awards were mostly given to deserving winners. Frankly, every category was so brimming with talented individuals that anyone could have won and you’d say, “well deserved.” Kevin Spacey was particularly fantastic in the opening number, but it felt as though his role of host receded into the background as the evening went on. In general, though, I found the ceremony to be tedious and without spark, something I never used to say about the Tony Awards. Is it fair to assert that the musicals themselves have evolved past my tastes and preferences into a murky land of mediocrity, or is something in the awards show that is no longer connecting me to some of Broadway’s biggest hits? Like our friend Evan Hansen, I spent last night feeling like I was “waving through a window.”