“We are in a golden age of playwriting,” said Lincoln Center Theater’s venerable artistic director Andre Bishop upon accepting the 2017 Tony Award for Best Play for J.T. Rogers’ stirring three-hour political drama Oslo. These words were unquestionably true, but one could only wish that the viewers of the Tony Awards could do more than take Bishop’s word for it. The entire ceremony was an often misguided and muddled affair that, moment after moment, didn’t do justice to those it intended to honor. (Whoever decided not to let James Earl Jones accept his Lifetime Achievement Award in primetime should still be hanging his or her head in shame!)
As usual, drama only got its slight due – this time by having the four nominees (Rogers, Sweat’s Lynn Nottage, Indecent’s Paula Vogel and A Doll’s House, Part 2’s Lucas Hnath) giving brief synopses of their complex work. But why no performances from any straight plays? How great would it have been to hear the words of August Wilson as spoken spiritedly by the cast of the year’s Tony-winning Best Revival, Jitney (which had actually never been done on Broadway!). Even watching a moment or two from the stunningly staged Indecent could have proved to America why Rebecca Taichman so richly deserved her Best Director award.
Further, in just 60 seconds on stage at Radio City Music Hall, I believe viewers across the U.S. would know why the great Laurie Metcalf finally and rightfully triumphed in her fourth bid for a Tony, this year as the older and slightly wiser Nora Helmer of A Doll’s House, Part 2. And if only everyone could have relished in the magnificent work of Cynthia Nixon, whose portrayal of the meek, alcoholic Birdie in Manhattan Theatre Club’s stunning revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, was such a sharp contrast to the assured, politically charged woman who accepted her second Tony that night.
As it was, you would have to have actually seen the hilarious Kevin Kline in Present Laughter and the charismatic Michael Aronov in Oslo on stage to fully understand why they earned their spinning statuettes. Their acceptance speeches, though touching, seemed unnecessarily dour.
Musicals fared somewhat better, although the palpable disappointment of not having eventual Best Actress winner Bette Midler perform a number from the Tony winning revival of Hello, Dolly could be sensed in every living room. (Still, Midler’s overlong acceptance speech – complete with the now-immortal line “shut that crap off" as the band tried to play her off – was a tour-de-force in itself. And major kudos to Best Featured Actor winner Gavin Creel for urging the wealthy to fund college scholarships.
The big winner of the night, Dear Evan Hansen – which earned six Tonys, including Best Musical – smartly showed off its breakout star, Ben Platt. His virtual solo, “Waving Through the Window,” a triumph of both acting and singing, made it no surprise that he not only took home the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical (at the tender age of 23) but earned a prolonged standing ovation from the crowd. I only wish equal time could have been given to the magnificent Rachel Bay Jones, whose Tony-winning performance as his hard-working mother anchors the show in its own way.
The crowd-pleasing Come From Away didn’t, as some had suspected, come from behind to take top honors, settling for a sole win for its director, the remarkable Christopher Ashley. And while it led the nominations pack with 12 nods, the ambitious Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 had to settle for victories in lighting and set design. Sadly, though, neither musical showed itself to best advantage in its performances. (I would have much preferred just hearing Tony nominee Jenn Colella belt “Me and the Sky” from the former, and fellow nominee Josh Groban sing all of “Dust and Sand” from the latter.)
Conversely, Bandstand – introduced with enormous feeling by Dr. Jill Biden – earned itself some converts as viewers were allowed to glimpse the sublime choreography of Andy Blankenbuehler (picking up his third Tony for his work) along with the tremendous talent of Corey Cott and Laura Osnes.
Still, these rising stars paled to the evening’s true supernovas, former winners (and 2017 nominees) Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, who burned through our screens with their unrivaled passion and power while singing “Face to Face” from War Paint. As should have surprised no one, these two legends knew how to make the most of their golden moment!