The 2019 Tony Awards: “Hadestown” Triumphs, Elaine May Sparkles, and Billy Porter Wins the Red Carpet
Too bad there isn’t a Tony category that could have pitted King Kong against Cher. Biggest Diva? Most Likely to Stop Traffic in Midtown? Although both were represented on Broadway this season, neither made an appearance at Radio City Music Hall on Sunday night, where the seventy-third annual Tony Awards were presented. King Kong—or the technical wizards who engineered him onstage—received a special prize, while “The Cher Show” picked up awards for its lead actress (and the best Cher impersonator this side of “RuPaul’s Drag Race”), Stephanie J. Block, and for its costume designer, Bob Mackie, who never met a black-feather headdress he couldn’t make work. Try that on for size, ya big ape!
Hell was a big theme this year, thanks to “Hadestown,” Anaïs Mitchell’s boogie-woogie retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, which was nominated for fourteen awards and won eight, including Best Musical. (One of its competitors, “Beetlejuice,” also features a trip to the netherworld.) The show supplied the most galvanizing speech of the night, from its furiously innovative director, Rachel Chavkin. “My folks raised me with the understanding that life is a team sport,” Chavkin began. “And so is walking out of Hell.” She was speaking not of the hopeless feeling you get two hours into an awards show, with half a dozen categories and three musical numbers somehow left to go, but of the faith required to fight the “power structures” that trick us into feeling alone. “And this is why I wish I wasn’t the only woman directing a musical on Broadway this season,” she continued, letting loose some fire emojis. “There are so many women who are ready to go. And we need to see that racial diversity and gender diversity reflected in our critical establishment, too. This is not a pipeline issue. It is a failure of imagination by a field whose job is to imagine the way the world could be.” If you aren’t yet convinced that Rachel Chavkin is hard-core, consider that she was saying this while pregnant as a surrogate for her gay-best-friend’s child.
The other memorable speech came from someone nearly fifty years Chavkin’s senior: Elaine May, who, at eighty-seven, won Leading Actress in a Play, for “The Waverly Gallery,” by Kenneth Lonergan, her first appearance on Broadway since 1966. May’s performance, as a woman losing a fight with dementia, was a marvel. But so was her speech, which was so full of charm and humility that you felt like she was somehow your new best friend. “At the end of the play, I died,” she told us. (No spoiler alert necessary; the play closed in January.) “Now, my death was described onstage by Lucas Hedges so brilliantly, and he described the death—my death—he described it so heartbreakingly, it was so touching, that, watching from the wings, I thought, I’m going to win this guy’s Tony.” Grinning, she gave a little “see you later” wave. Swoon.
The evening’s host, James Corden, could have used some of May’s casual self-assurance. A practiced vaudevillian, he seemed to pitch every comic bit from a defensive crouch, as if convinced that anyone watching the Tonys was doing it by accident or was hoping to see Neil Patrick Harris instead. His opening number informed us that theatre is live, unlike television, with “actual people in an actual space,” which is both inarguable and a strange thing to hear during a live television broadcast. Halfway through the show, Beetlejuice, played by the human sparkplug Alex Brightman, performed a menacingly funny number laced with drive-by jabs at celebrity audience members. (“Adam Driver, you killed Han Solo. Not cool, bro!”) The message was clear: Beetlejuice wants the hosting gig. And, by God, he deserves it.
Here’s a conundrum: How to represent the nominees for Best Play? The Tonys have never figured it out. You can cut to actors doing scenes, but that rarely translates well onscreen. You can get Whoopi Goldberg to give plot summaries, but that’s also less than ideal. This year, the playwrights themselves gave descriptions of their plays. It may have felt like listening to book reports, but it gave us the chance to see Heidi Schreck, Tarell Alvin McCraney, and, in monster-drag regalia, Taylor Mac. Jez Butterworth, the author of “The Ferryman,” ditched the synopsis on the teleprompter—“You can Google the play”—and took the time to thank Laura Donnelly, one of the play’s stars and the mother of his child. Granted, the play was based on her uncle’s murder during the Troubles, in Northern Ireland, but it felt like a premature acceptance speech. Later on, when Butterworth did win, he said, “I mentioned it earlier, but Laura Donnelly’s uncle was killed by the I.R.A.” Right. Got it. Another odd choice was to include a performance by only one of the Best Play nominees, a spiritual from McCraney’s “Choir Boy.” It was stirring, but Taylor Mac’s “Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus” has an entire dance number featuring a chorus line of mechanical corpse penises. What gives?
While I’m grousing, the Tonys should really find a way to include both the awards for Original Score and Book of a Musical in the telecast, instead of relegating one or the other to the pre-show. This year, Robert Horn accepted his prize for the zinger-filled book of “Tootsie” off camera. The viewing audience also missed out on Jessica Paz, one of the sound designers of “Hadestown,” becoming not only the first woman nominated in her category but the first to win, and Sergio Trujillo, the choreographer of “Ain’t Too Proud,” getting a standing ovation when he recalled coming to America as an undocumented immigrant and issued a promise to Dreamers that “change will come.”
Not that the broadcast was short on inspirational moments. André De Shields, the velvet cobra who won for playing Hermes in “Hadestown,” shared wisdom from his “seventy-three years on the Earth plane.” Mart Crowley, who has had eighty-three years on the Earth plane, and who wrote the pre-Stonewall drama “The Boys in the Band,” which won for Revival of a Play, acknowledged the original 1968 cast: “Nine brave men who did not listen to their agents when they were told their careers would be finished.” Bryan Cranston, who won for playing Howard Beale in “Network,” dedicated his award to the press, saying, “The media is not the enemy of the people. Demagoguery is the enemy of the people.” (Thanks!) And Ali Stroker, the incandescent performer in a wheelchair who plays Ado Annie in “Oklahoma!” (which won the award for Revival of a Musical), not only got to sing her sexy, Dolly Parton-esque rendition of “I Cain’t Say No” but then returned to accept a Tony. She said, “This award is for every kid who is watching tonight who has a disability, who has a limitation or a challenge, who has been waiting to see themselves represented in this arena. You are.”
Finally, honorable mention must go to Billy Porter, who is currently both king and queen of the red carpet, having aced the Academy Awards and the Met Gala. He did not disappoint at the Tonys, to which he wore a red and pink gown made from the curtain of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, where he gave his Tony-winning performance in “Kinky Boots,” in 2013. Let’s hope this starts a trend in sustainable fashion. Maybe next year Cher will show up wearing King Kong as a stole.