Maybe it’s time for another hostless Tony Awards.
Sunday night’s broadcast of Broadway’s annual celebration of itself had trouble figuring out what to do with Kevin Spacey, the evening’s host, making use of him in ways that ranged from torturous (the opening number) to tolerable (he does pretty good Johnny Carson and Bill Clinton impressions). It fared far better when it was about the work being honored and the people who did it.
The show, on CBS, opened, as it always seems to, with a not particularly amusing musical collage, this one feeling especially ill-advised because it was full of references to new musicals that most people in the television audience had not seen. Why did Mr. Spacey begin with a cast on his arm? Hope you were watching with someone who’d seen “Dear Evan Hansen” and could explain the joke.
The Tonys have always had the dilemma of figuring out which audience to go after. Sunday’s opening number was clearly aimed at the theater insiders in Radio City Music Hall, not at the uninitiated TV viewer. Besides being unfunny, that also made it unwelcoming, which is not the way you want to start off a three-hour show. Maybe the opening number should have been at the end of the broadcast, by which point viewers would have known at least some of the references from having seen songs from the nominated musicals performed during the evening.
That, of course, would have required a type of out-of-the-box thinking that the Tonys — and, really, all of its cousins in other genres — have never had in abundance. With the show fronted by Mr. Spacey, who is not quite from the song-and-dance mold of recent hosts like Hugh Jackman and Neil Patrick Harris, there was an opportunity to do something different. This show started with a clean slate: No juggernaut eating all the attention like “Hamilton” last year, and of course no awful current event hanging over the proceedings. (Last year’s broadcast, hosted by James Corden, hit the air only hours after the mass shooting in Orlando, Fla.)
But instead of innovating, the show at the start saddled Mr. Spacey with a tedious batch of jokes about his insecurity at being host. Things improved later when he retreated to the safety of his impressions, and a late bit in which he was repeatedly interrupted by people plugging their shows was pretty funny. But it’s worth considering whether the role of host has become a liability for this type of show. The Tonys have gone with no fixed host a few times in the past; a producer with real creativity could make something out of that approach.
When the show did try something adventurous (or at least adventurous by the standards of awards shows), it was successful. Having the musical number from “Come From Away,” a show set in Newfoundland, be introduced by the Canadian-born hockey player Ron Duguay (who played for the New York Rangers, among other teams) was a delightful touch. And the strongest recurring element of the evening was having some of the theater world’s most invisible stars, the playwrights, give pocket descriptions of their nominated works.
The show, and the winners in their acceptance speeches, kept politics out of things or relatively vague for the first 2 hours and 40 minutes. Then Stephen Colbert came out to present the award for best musical revival, and — well, let’s just say that President Trump did not go unmentioned. This show could have easily been overtaken by political sniping, but that would have distracted from the work. And the best of that work made up for a lot of the show’s weaknesses.
Musical numbers from “Bandstand,” “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Come From Away” really energized the broadcast at points when it was beginning to flag. Those musical interludes and the vignettes from the playwrights made clear that the strength of Broadway is always what’s happening on the stage, not the tacky sideshows.
Those still watching as the show slogged past 11 p.m. Eastern, though, did witness some redemption for Mr. Spacey. He came out as his “House of Cards” character, President Underwood, and lingered just long enough to toss a devastating improvised put-down in the direction of Bette Midler, who moments earlier had rambled on way, way too long in an acceptance speech.
“I want to get the hell out of here before Bette Midler thanks anyone else,” he said.
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