The 73rd Annual Tony Awards, airing last Sunday, brought diversity and inclusion to the forefront, with moving speeches by winners and presenters alike. Nominees and special guests walked the rainbow-themed red carpet, honoring the 50th anniversary of Stonewall and Pride Month with an array of hand-painted roses.
Host James Corden’s opening number challenged viewers to leave the couch and forego Hulu to return to the roots of live entertainment like Broadway. Still, this year’s Tony Awards on CBS, according to The Hollywood Reporter, hit an all-time low with audience viewership falling less than 6 million. In contrast, however, this year’s ceremony proved to make history in other ways: Ali Stroker (Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!) became the first person in a wheelchair to ever win a Tony, and Jessica Paz (Hadestown) was the first woman to win for Best Sound Design of a Musical.
Gender itself was addressed during the ceremony, with presenters Tina Fey and Jake Gyllenhaal cracking a joke about how nominations are separated by the social construct. “In 2019 I don’t know why an acting contest needs to be separated by gender,” Fey said during the introduction for Best Featured Actress in a Play. “I’ve said it for years, there just needs to be two acting categories: one for humans and one for puppets.”
Winner of Best Lighting Design of a Musical (Hadestown) Bradley King made a clearer call for diversity: “We need to make Broadway less white, less cis, and less male.”
Robert Horn, winner of Best Book of a Musical for gender-bending Tootsie, emphasized how a classical musical is still important to Broadway– albeit with some updates. “We wanted to honor the DNA of the movie [but] we knew we wanted to update it,” Horn explained backstage. “We just knew we had to make it feel relevant and make the female character strong. We wanted our character to find his morality through the strong women in the world.”
Like many of the other winners from the evening, Horn’s personal determination in the industry prevailed. “I’ve been working 35 long years for this and believe me, what doesn’t kill you will try again tomorrow,” Horn joked.
Boys in the Band producer Ryan Murphy similarly spoke about his longtime passion for the play, which won Best Revival. Murphy shared his own story growing up as a gay man and seeking examples of queerness in the media. “[Boys in the Band] was the only thing I had,” Murphy admitted. “It was the only group of gay men that I’d ever seen. I’m excited about the evolution of that idea.”
Murphy’s showrunner deal with Netflix includes an adaptation of the play for the streaming platform, in hopes to introduce a new audience to the story. “I think there’s a whole generation that’s much more bold about confronting discrimination and bias and hatred,” Murphy continued, explaining how the mass reception of the play will change with this current era. “I think social media has changed how young people interact with the world and demand their rights more.”
This year’s To Kill a Mockingbird also brought a classic story to a new generation, garnering lead Celia Keenan-Bolger a Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role for a Play. Keenan-Bolger spoke backstage about the honor of playing the legendary character Scout Finch– a hero of hers since growing up as a little girl in a segregated Detroit. “I’ve been obsessed with Jean Louise [Scout] Finch since as long as I could remember, but it’s about a cultural moment we’re living in right now,” Keenan-Bolger said. “Aaron Sorkin was asking really big questions about our country’s relationship to race [with the script].”
Keenan-Bolger’s childhood and family history made her perfect for the role, bringing a level of truth and compassion from her past experiences. “Growing up in Detroit, my parents and grandparents were fighting for justice,” Keenan-Bolger explained. “I grew up in the neighborhood where my grandparents had a cross burned on their front lawn because they were being welcoming to black families who were integrating into the neighborhood. Instead of moving to the suburbs, they raised me and my brother and sister in that same neighborhood.” Nodding to the next generation, Keenan-Bolger wondered what her four year-old son will think of the novel someday, and what the world will look like during his lifetime.
Bryan Cranston, winner of Best Lead Actor in a Play for his superb turn in Network, similarly saw the importance of the play in this political landscape. “I would like to dedicate this to all the real journalists around the world both in the…print media and also broadcast media who actually are in the line of fire with their pursuit of the truth,” Cranston said during his acceptance speech. “The media is not the enemy of the people. Demagoguery is the enemy of the people.”
The birth of “fake news” and polarizing content is eerily echoed in Network, based on the 1976 film of the same name. “The perception of the truth is often more important than the truth because if people believe it, it doesn’t matter really if it’s true or not, so the opposite message has to continuously be put out there,” Cranston continued backstage. “Whether it’s diversity or women’s reproductive rights or voting rights, it’s important to keep sounding the alarm….I think this is a siren call to the rest of the country and they must be going apeshit in Alabama right about now.”
Cranston further urged discussion about the topics that are most prevalent in the media right now– the same ones that affect people the deepest. “I want to speak my truth,” Cranston said. “If you don’t agree with it, that’s ok, but we shouldn’t make enemies of people with a different opinion.”
When Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! won Best Revival of a Musical, producer Eva Price invited victims of gun violence and advocates of gun control onstage. Oklahoma! is the first gun neutral production, Price explained backstage, meaning that for every visible prop gun used, the production makes a donation to organizations “committed to helping solve the gun violence crisis by destroying firearms that should be out of circulation.” Students from Parkland, domestic victims, and members of March for Our Lives, Everytown, and mom groups against violence were onstage to accept the Tony Award.
This year’s Tony Awards reminded viewers that art truly does imitate life, while still challenging it– and that’s a good thing. As Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Terrence McNally said, “What we do matters. The world needs artists more than ever to remind us what kindness, truth, and beauty are.”