Last night, Radio City Music Hall played host to the 2nd Annual Hamiltonys, the annual Broadway theater award show in which every award is first given to Lin-Manuel Miranda, who then passes it on to another person if he so desires. Last season, when the hopes were high and life worth living, Miranda’s generation-defining blockbuster Hamilton broke ticket sales records and blew audiences’ minds, leading to a spectacular Tony Awards broadcast hosted by James Corden.
This season, while Broadway produced some electrifying plays — including debuts by nominees Lynn Nottage and Paula Vogel — its musical offerings were far more muted. They replaced rapping Founding Fathers with folksy Newfoundlanders and Shug Avery with Punxsutawney Phil. In place of triple threat late-night host James Corden, we have Oscar winner Kevin Spacey, who is also a triple threat if you count doing impressions, singing like Bobby Darin and acting really well as the three threats in question. The 2017 Tonys faced an uphill battle to entertain, to surprise and to wow.
So, it was to be expected that this year’s show (clocking in at just over three hours) was a mixed bag, a competent affair that delivered on some sure bets, gave us a few moments of showstopping prowess and even managed to sneak in a few replay-worthy moments just before curtain.
Host Doing the Most
Look, Kevin Spacey is very talented. He’s a great actor and a fine singer when in his range. It’s very impressive that he does a great Johnny Carson impression and a fair Bill Clinton impression, but I’m going to need someone to explain to me why I have to see it on my television in this, the year 2017.
As a host he was hard-working (too hard-working? There’s no such thing on The Broadway), but he got in his own way more often than not. Saddled with a shtick about being afraid of poor critical reception (um, sorry?) and asked to sing parodies of the nominated songs, Spacey simply wasn’t set up for success. It wasn’t until midway through the show, when he pulled out an impression of a man who’s been dead for a decade, that he came into his own. After that, it seemed like he basically did whatever he wanted. Bring out Robin Wright as Claire Underwood in a non-speaking cameo just because? Sure, why not? Croon a Bobby Darin song with Patti LuPone? Whatever blows your wig back. Spacey was an odd choice but he did his best.
Meanwhile, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend star Rachel Bloom totally stole the show with a series of backstage interstitials. Quick with a quip (after the Falsettos number, she reported that she was “approaching orgasm”) and seemingly at ease, I’d be shocked if she wasn’t already signing the contract for next year’s hosting gig.
With a bumper crop of quieter musicals, the roof-raising moments were few and far between this year. The cast of Falsettos performed “A Day in Falsettoland,” a number that is a master class in breath control. They had to belt while doing Jane Fonda-style aerobics and playing squash. I get winded and speechless climbing the stairs. It was a lot.
Later in the show, the Radio City Rockettes showed us what true razzle-dazzle was, performing one of their trademark numbers. (I don’t actually know if this was a trademark number. I’ve never seen the Rockettes.) But they were kicking and it was very impressive. In the final moments, they were joined by powerhouse Tony winners Cynthia Erivo and Leslie Odom, Jr. I will never not shriek with delight when an award show announcer says, “Please welcome Cynthia Erivo.” Honestly, they could have just opened the show with this number. It was razzle-dazzle, it was #choreogoals. It was Broadway.
The showstopping stunt queen of the evening, however, was Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. This show is so extra. Even its title is extra. Based on War & Peace (yes, another musical about War & Peace; seems like there’s one every season), Natasha, Pierre took over the stage and the entire theater with a rousing, full cast performance. It was the only true moment of jaw-dropping spectacle of the night. Not every musical needs to be a roof-raising, dance-in-the-aisles feast of talent, but if you were missing it before, Natasha, Pierre, Sonya, Masha and Spike delivered.
Other notable numbers: Eva Noblezada sang her heart out in the performance from Miss Saigon.
And Ben Platt, whose role in Dear Evan Hansen is the headline story of this Broadway season, delivered an instant classic Tony performance of “Waving Through a Window.”
Speaking of Dear Evan Hansen, the musical won six Tonys, including one for its score, which was written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Pasek and Paul are having a better 2017 than literally anyone. They’ve won an Oscar and now a Tony and it’s only June. I’m calling it, they’re going to be the first co-presidents by November. They also win the “Bosom Buddies” award for most coordinated speech. They alternated thank you’s and parts of a heartfelt tributes to the theatre community with genuine shock and breathlessness that couldn’t have been rehearsed.
Long Time Coming
Gavin Creel (Hello, Dolly) and Laurie Metcalf (A Doll’s House, Part 2) each won their first Tonys tonight. Longtime Broadway veterans who deliver electrifying performances every time, each award was well-deserved and long overdue.
Bette Midler also received her first Tony for acting (she was awarded a special Tony in 1974 for her special Clams on a Halfshell performance). While it was a first, it was far from a surprise. Midler’s Hello, Dolly performance has been universally hailed and although we sadly didn’t get a glimpse of it on the broadcast (they tried to get us excited about the delightful David Hyde Pierce singing a previously cut solo about money laundering or something), Midler still delivered a showstopping acceptance speech. Rocking a Reba McEntire strawberry blonde bob and a shimmering “space mermaid” gown, Midler was equal parts grateful grande dame and hammy comedienne. After a respectful length of time, the band tried to play her off. Midler was having absolutely none of it. She told them to knock it off a few times, like the true diva she is. When that didn’t work, she just kept talking until they stopped. Who outlasts the “wrap it up” music?! Bette Midler, that’s who. You start playing music while a diva is talking, she’s just going to turn it into a cabaret act.
Midler’s award came just before the final award — a Best Musical Tony for Dear Evan Hansen — and it was the perfect cap for an evening slightly top-heavy with predictability. Sometimes, no matter how non-traditional the show, the best thing to do is bring out an old pro and set them loose.