Tony Awards4 Key Takeaways From the 2019 Tony AwardsFrom a reflection on Pride to calls for inclusivity, there were some running themes throughout the 73rd annual ceremony.
June 10, 2019
Though the day after the Tony Awards ushers in a new season (and undoubtedly several hangovers across the theatre industry), Playbill still has its mind on some common threads seen throughout the June 9 proceedings. Below are four themes and observations from the night.
LONG TIME COMING For artists like Elaine May, André De Shields, Bob Mackie, and Mart Crowley, last night’s first-time Tony wins came after long and storied careers in the industry. De Shields, winner of last night’s Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his performance as Hermes in Hadestown, made his Broadway debut in 1973, going on to memorable performances as the title role in 1975’s The Wiz, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Play On!, and The Full Monty.
May, whose Broadway career goes back to 1960 when she made her debut as both writer and co-star of An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, won Best Leading Actress in a Play for her performance in The Waverly Gallery (her first Tony nomination).
The Cher Show costume designer Mackie is best known for his work in TV and film—particularly his association with Carol Burnett and Cher—but has been designing costumes on Broadway since 1971, including such productions as On the Town, Lorelei, and Minnelli on Minnelli.
The Boys in the Band playwright Mart Crowley won as part of the production’s Best Revival of a Play win as a result of a new rule change that took effect this year. The Boys in the Band is Crowley’s only work to make it to Broadway, 50 years after debuting Off-Broadway and becoming a seminal queer work.
THE CHER CYCLE Stephanie J. Block’s daughter will likely never have to search too far for a great Halloween costume—not if Mom’s been Liza, a pirate, a witch, and, now, Cher. Playing the gay icon is a full circle moment for Block; she made her Broadway debut as Liza Minnelli in The Boy From Oz, and 15 years later, she’s playing another singer whose signature tones permeate gay bars around the world. “I may be a masochist, but here I stand,” she told the press, clutching her trophy.
“I quit this business at least two or three times a year, and yet I still stand here because of the people who love me, and I know that it takes and endurance and tenacity,” she said before pointing out those same qualities in Cher: “That was one of the reasons why I said 'yes' to play her. Her tenacity and her resilience and never giving up on whatever life throws at her has brought me here.”
One other actor took the stage to accept a Tony for playing a real-life figure, though one generally less favored by the queer community. “The play is not a play about Rupert Murdoch; it’s a play about populism; it’s a play about the state of journalism and how we got there,” Bertie Carvel said of his performance in Ink. “Art and journalism have in common a duty to the truth, but I think their way to it is different. We are doing a play; my primary job is to serve the play. In thinking about those things, I’ve got more license than a journalist would have.
HONORING QUEER HISTORY Two gay playwrights known for seminal works exploring sexual identity took the stage during the ceremony. First was the aforementioned Crowley; in his acceptance speech for The Boys in the Band, he concluded by acknowledging "the original cast of nine brave men who did not listen to their agents when they were told their careers would be finished if they did this play."
"They did it, and here I am," he said, through tears.
Later in the evening, during a commercial break, Terrence McNally earned a Tony Honor for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre. As he spoke of his love for the art of playwriting, he said, "I love it when I know something I wrote softened the hearts of parents who had banished their son and daughter when they came out to them as gay or lesbian. I love it when I remember the artists who tried to help us understand the devastation of AIDS, even when they were stricken with it themselves."
Also receiving special recognition was Isabelle Stevenson Award honoree Judith Light. She actually noted McNally and Crowley—among several other gay writers—as key figures who "alerted the world to the devastation of AIDS and homophobia."
Before any of them stepped into Radio City Music Hall, however, they were greeted by a symbol of Pride: a cascade of roses arranged in a rainbow along the red carpet.
BROADWAY STRESSES INCLUSION Inclusion and equality were hot topics in several acceptance speeches last night, both in terms of strides being made and the work left to do.
Ali Stroker, the first performer in a wheelchair to be nominated—as well as win—a Tony Award had a special dedication in her acceptance speech. “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.”
Following her win, Stroker expanded her thoughts on accessibility on Broadway in the media room. “For the [theatre] houses where all the audience comes in, that is all made accessible. But the backstages are not. So I would ask theatre owners and producers to really look into how they can make the backstage accessible so that performers with disabilities can get around.” Even Radio City Music Hall, home to the Tony Awards, has room to grow in terms of accessibility; Stroker was stationed backstage when her category was announced so that she could get on stage to accept the award, and she was not seen onstage when Oklahoma! won Best Revival of a Musical.
Hadestown director Rachel Chavkin also shared a message of inclusion and parity when she accepted her Best Direction of a Musical Tony Award, becoming the 10th female director in history to win a Tony and only the fourth in the musical category. Chavkin spoke to how fighting against unbalanced power structures was part of the inspiration behind her Tony-winning work on Hadestown. “My folks raised me with the understanding that life is a team sport, and so is walking out of hell. That’s what’s at the heart of [Hadestown]. It’s about whether you can keep faith when you are made to feel alone, and it reminds us that that is how power structures try to maintain control, by making you feel like you’re walking alone in the darkness, even when your partner is right there at your back.
"This is why I wish I wasn’t the only woman directing a musical on Broadway this season. There are so many women that are ready to go. There are so many artists of color who are ready to go, and we need to see that racial diversity and gender diversity 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.”
Chavkin went deeper when she got to the media room: “Our field is filled with progressive people, but our field is not exemplary ...I think we’re seeing this incredible renaissance of voices. [This is] not a call for altruism; it’s a call for hiring people.”
Inclusion was big for the designers of Hadestown as well; co-sound designer Nevin Steinberg pointed out that with their win, his design partner Jessica Paz became not only the first woman to win a Tony Award for sound design, but the first to be nominated as well. Paz spoke on the importance of the moment in the media room. “I hope it inspires any young woman who feels it’s interesting to pursue it, and there’s success here.” The show’s lighting designer, Bradley King, turned to similar themes in his acceptance speech. “Now what I really want to say to all of us in the room, especially all the producers out there: There were 147 design slots on Broadway last year. Forty of them went to women, 14 of them went to people of color, just six went to women of color. We need to make Broadway less white, less cis, and less male.”