It didn’t even seem to matter that the combined run time of the Tonys pre-show on the Pluto TV streaming service, and the CBS main event, was 30 minutes longer than last year. What possibly could have accounted for this miraculous turn of events?
It’s a more sensitive question than one might think. The Tony Awards became embroiled this year in an issue over which it had no control: a nationwide strike by the Writers Guild of America, whose members normally write the opening and introductory banter and monologues, as well as tribute speeches. Because the networks are part of the management structure that the guild is striking, the union’s writers were barred from participating. (Some award winners did still refer to handwritten notes.)
After some behind-the-scenes negotiations — during which playwrights including Tony Kushner and Jeremy O. Harris lobbied their fellow writers about how vital the Tonys are to stirring up interest in the productions in Broadway’s 41 theaters — the WGA agreed not to picket the proceedings. The proviso was that the show would be produced, gulp, without a script.
The resulting program was akin to a kitchen accidentally creating a great dish by leaving out a classic ingredient. Who knew that going script-less could be so refreshing? The Oscars have gone several times with host-less permutations, but those experiments never caught on. At the outset of Sunday’s main three-hour telecast, DeBose and director Glenn Weiss (the evening’s control-room hero) had the TV cameras pan the ornate 3,000-seat converted movie house on Broadway and 175th Street. They showed a hall with countdown clocks but not the teleprompters that awards-show presenters usually rely upon.
This proved both strategically and psychologically important. That DeBose disclosed the reality of the situation invested viewers in a freewheeling approach that everyone would be asked to adjust to. And the celebrities knew that what they said would not be perceived as canned, but as words of their own choosing. (We’ve been conditioned to ceremonial inauthenticity, speeches delivered with speakers’ eyes shifting to unseen screens, in words that don’t sound like theirs.)
Some Tony winners, hands shaking, still did the read-the-list-of-thank-yous thing, and some presenters slipped in tributes to the WGA, while others contributed the requisite political digs. Denée Benton, who distinguished herself several years ago in “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” earned the evening’s oh-she-went-there accolade: In presenting the Tony for excellence in theater education to Florida teacher Jason Zembuch Young, Benton took a devastating swipe at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). She called him “the current grand wizard — I’m sorry, excuse me, governor — of my home state of Florida.”
We theater scribes live for such peppery spontaneity; it’s what the danger and excitement of live TV are about. It doesn’t, of course, mean that writers should be subtracted from the production after the strike is over. (And anyway, we’ll have to see what the ratings tell us, though it is hard to envision the Tonys ever being robust again in that department.) It does mean that perhaps the contrived cleverness that too often translates as time-wasting “entertainment” — the packing peanuts, if you will, of awards shows — could be permanently shelved.
The lesson of the 2023 Tonys is: Let theater be theater. Give the proceedings pace, and ensure the numbers from the nominated musicals (which the shows’ producers pay to televise) are slick. The advantage the Tonys, like the Grammys, have over the Oscars and Emmys is a deep inventory of ready-made musical entertainment. Let’s not even speak of the wildly uneven and typically overproduced best-song sequences at the Academy Awards.
So please pack in more exhilarating musical moments, of the kind that were provided Sunday night: Lea Michele singing “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from “Funny Girl”; DeBose and Julianne Hough (who was goofy-charming as co-host of the pre-show with Skylar Astin) dancing Bob Fosse’s “Hot Honey Rag” from “Chicago.” And leave the wordier segments out.
It helps, too, of course, if the awards themselves honor the breadth of Broadway creativity. And the wins Sunday by J. Harrison Ghee and Alex Newell, who are both nonbinary, as best leading and featured actor in a musical (for “Some Like It Hot” and “Shucked,” respectively) gave the evening thrilling reminders of theater’s welcoming arms. The victories, too, by shows with Jewish themes — “Leopoldstadt” as best play and “Parade” as best musical revival — helped to reinforce Broadway’s image as a bulwark against the rising antisemitism besetting the nation.
Die-hard Tony watchers love to express their joy at their favorite shows’ triumphs and gripe about the ceremonies that seem to crawl like traffic on an interstate on Memorial Day weekend. They’re unaccustomed to the shocking words that escaped so many viewers’ lips as Sunday night wound down: Where did the time go?