Broadcast television accomplished something quite remarkable Sunday night; something that proved there is still great life in the old “dinosaur” of media. Specifically, it was CBS at play, but more about that in a moment.
At the end of a heartbreaking weekend, and the start of what is sure to be an emotional week, broadcast brought together millions of people with a three-plus hour live telecast that educated and informed in so many ways it may take time to sort them all out.
That show was the 70th Annual Tony Awards, a celebration that somehow managed to be exactly that without being disrespectful to the monumental tragedy earlier that morning in Orlando or the feelings of shock and despair millions of people around the world were suffering at the time.
In that spirit of celebration, it has to be noted that, under the most difficult of circumstances, this event, flawlessly telecast, was easily one of the finest Tony Awards in their history – or, at least, the history of their telecasts.
It’s not easy getting an audience for an awards show that celebrates artistic accomplishments that most people will never get to see. In other words, why should the many millions of people who rarely get to New York City and/or have never seen a Broadway show care about any of it? Frankly, not many do in the grand scheme of things, as has been made evident by declining ratings for Tony telecasts over the years. But Sunday night’s show made clear that there are great pleasures to be had in watching, even from afar, when the theater community gets together to honor its own and share its talents with the world.
Early ratings reports indicate that Sunday’s show earned the highest ratings for a Tony telecast since 2001. I’m not surprised at all. It was a fantastic, first-rate affair, bolstered considerably by a career-boosting turn as host by Tony winner and Late Late Show star James Corden and the unprecedented and continuing groundswell of excitement about Hamilton (right, Lin-Manuel Miranda) that has made it a household word and a cultural phenomenon. Whenever anyone from that production was on the Tony stage – graciously and emotionally accepting an award or performing any of its remarkable songs – the impact was extraordinary, even at home, where the high-definition experience makes watching awards show on television even more exciting than being in various venues. I certainly enjoyed seeing everything that went on inside the Beacon Theatre from a superior vantage point as well as the performances on the sidewalk out in front, which probably did more to encourage New York City tourism than any recent ad campaign.
The diversity of the theatrical community was also on spectacular display throughout the night – a welcome sight after the awful events of the day, not to mention the recent #OscarsSoWhite controversy. At the Tonys, all four of the acting awards in the musical categories deservedly went to people of color. At the Oscars, not one person of color was nominated in any acting category. Discuss.
The star-shine was blinding, as it generally is during Tony telecasts, topped off by appearances by multi-media powerhouse Oprah Winfrey and the legendary Barbra Streisand, not to mention Angela Lansbury, James Earl Jones, Jessica Lange, Frank Langella and so many other nominees, winners and performers. But the brightest star of all was James Corden, arguably the best thing to happen to CBS since The Big Bang Theory, at least where the young audience is concerned. Anyone familiar with his work on The Late Late Show and in its wildly popular “Carpool Karaoke” segments (which have become viral video sensations all on their own); or his British series Gavin & Stacey (seen here on BBC America), A League of Their Own and The Wrong Mans (seen here on Hulu), or his work in the theater (including The History Boys and his Tony Award-winning performance in One Man, Two Guvnors, above) expected him to shine as an award show host, but nobody was quite prepared for the emotional power of his words at the top of the show, when he explained why the big show would go on at a time of national tragedy.
“On behalf of the whole theater community and every person in this room, our hearts go out to all of those affected by this atrocity,” he said. “All we can say is that you’re not on your own right now. Your tragedy is our tragedy. Theater is a place where every race, creed, sexuality and gender is equal, is embraced, and is loved. Hate will never win. Together we have to make sure of that. Tonight’s show stands as a symbol and a celebration of that principle.”
And then there was that spectacular opening number in which he proved that he can take his place alongside Neil Patrick Harris and Hugh Jackman on the short list of outstanding Tony Awards hosts.
All the while I couldn’t help but think what a powerhouse Corden would be if CBS moved him into the 11:30 time period. But that thought is best left for another column.
A version of this column was first published at MediaVillage.