Hours after we awakened to the news of the Orlando massacre, first-time Tony Awards host James Corden had the unenviable task of opening the 70th annual celebration of Broadway in a respectful and appropriate manner, while still retaining the spirit of the awards.
Corden’s Everyman personality turned out to be the ideal balm for the evening, which saw “Hamilton” nab 11 awards, including Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Book of a Musical.
Alone onstage at New York's Beacon Theatre, the sweet-natured Brit assured the Orlando community that “you’re not on your own right now.”
He continued, “Theater is a place where every race, creed, sexuality and gender is equal, is embraced and is loved. Hate will never win. Together we have to make sure of that. Tonight’s show stands as a symbol and a celebration of that principle.”
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Corden then pivoted to an inspirational opening number aimed at young theater geeks who dream of one day making it to the Great White Way.
While the Tonys rejoice in music and dance and drama, the razzmatazz of the evening often took a backseat to deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
Nominees and presenters wore silver ribbons designed by veteran Broadway costume designer William Ivey Long as a symbol of solidarity with the victims of the shootings.
“Hamilton” genius Lin-Manuel Miranda stirred hearts and stimulated tear ducts with the sonnet he penned for his wife, which also addressed the shootings ( watch it here ):
“When senseless acts of tragedy remind us that nothing is promised, not one day…We rise and fall and light from dying embers, remembrances that hope and love last longer; and love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside…now fill the world with music, love and pride."
When the cast of “Hamilton” – introduced by a video of President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama and on stage, Common -- performed “History Has Its Eyes on You” and “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)," they did so without their prop muskets out of respect for the events of the day.
Frank Langella, winner for Best Lead Actor in a Play (“The Father”), intoned gravely, “When something bad happens we have three choice: We let it define us, we let is destroy us or we let it strengthen us. I urge you, Orlando, to be strong. I’m standing in a room full of the most generous human beings on Earth and we will be with you every step of the way.”
As for the awards, of course it was the year of “Hamilton,” so you had to pity any of its competition that didn’t have a breath of a chance of winning.
But at least some of the other worthy shows received the spotlight for the duration of a song – and the contemporary music world was well represented (I saw “School of Rock” in January and I’m still in love with those kid musicians).
-- Emilio Estefan introduced the cast of “On Your Feet,” the musical that chronicles the unlikely road to superstardom by his Miami Sound Machine and wife Gloria Estefan. The dapper Estefan was among those taking pointed political jabs throughout the show – “All the cast, we all have our papers and they’re all legal,” he said to big laughs. Sadly overlooked for many major awards, “On Your Feet” is a terrific production and lead actress Ana Villafañe, blended well with Gloria Estefan during a spirited medley that included “Conga,” “Get On Your Feet” and “Rhythm is Gonna Get You.”
-- Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, the creators of “Bright Star,” appeared onstage – Martin with his banjo – to introduce the cast performance of “If You Knew My Story.”
-- The fabulous Jessie Mueller – a Tony winner in 2014 for her amazing turn as Carole King in “Beautiful” – shared the stage with the show’s music and lyric writer, pop star Sara Bareilles, on the poignant piano ballad, “She Used to Be Mine.” It was immediately clear that anyone who feared Mueller might have peaked with “Beautiful” was, well, wrong.
-- One of the most revered figures in Broadway history, Barbra Streisand, made her grand entrance at the end of the show to present the award (to “Hamilton”) for Best Musical. It was her first Tonys appearance since 1970.
“There are medical staff standing by for the many of you hearing her name who may collapse,” Corden joked as Streisand glided out in “Hamilton”-inspired ruffles and immediately stuck the perfect tone.
“Tonight,” she said, “our joy is tinged with sorrow, but we’re here to celebrate Broadway and the beauty that artistry can bring into this world.”