Unscripted or Not, the Tonys Were Mostly Predictable

No writers’ names crawled up the screen at the end of Sunday night’s telecast of the Tony Awards, and though the writers might not like to hear it, their absence made little difference. The names of the show’s producers and director were the same as always, and in television as in the theater, they call the game.

Naturally, the strike by the Writers Guild of America against film and television conglomerates — including Paramount, which presented the event on its various platforms — had no effect on what was produced on Broadway during the 2022-23 season honored by these Tonys, nor on who won.

Mostly those things bore out the predictions, and many people’s predilections too. “Kimberly Akimbo,” the sweet, intimate, tragicomic “nerdical” by Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire, won the most musical prizes, including one for its star, Victoria Clark, and one for the show itself. “Some Like It Hot” followed with a reasonable haul, and though “Parade” picked up just two, they were good ones: best direction of a musical and best musical revival.

Among the plays, “Leopoldstadt,” Tom Stoppard’s semi-autobiographical Holocaust drama, took the top awards, almost a foregone conclusion with that author and that subject — a subject he strangely did not mention in his acceptance. “Life of Pi,” a spectacular staging of the adventure novel by Yann Martel, fittingly won three technical awards, though I wish its astonishing tiger puppet had picked up one of the medallions in person, and perhaps eaten someone.

Failing that, the only surprise, Sean Hayes’s win over Stephen McKinley Henderson in the leading actor category for plays, was not really that surprising, if a little disappointing.

But since a little disappointment is normal, and probably desirable, all was comfy on the prize front. Perhaps too comfy. The pleasant predictability of the outcomes (and most of the performances) made the telecast, though once again divided awkwardly into two segments on separate Paramount platforms, seem canned, which is one thing we don’t want the Tonys to be. Leave that to programs that honor recorded performance, like the Oscars and the Emmys. The theater, a live medium, wants spontaneity and weirdness and even a taste of tackiness on its big night out.

As it happens, outness was a big theme, with J. Harrison Ghee and Alex Newell becoming the first openly nonbinary performers to win Tonys in acting categories. They were among the many winners and presenters who used their brief platforms to express support for diversity of all kinds: gender, orientation, race, religion, body type, ability, looks. But though heartening, that too was mostly dignified and predictable, except when the director Michael Arden turned a gay slur into a vector of vengeance upon winning for his staging of “Parade” and when the actress Denée Benton, introducing the education award to a teacher in Plantation, Fla., referred to Ron DeSantis as “the current Grand Wizard — I’m sorry, excuse me, governor” of her home state.

For me, such vivid moments were striking exceptions in an even-tempered evening, if only for the brazenness of making political sentiments regardless of the risk of alienating some part of the audience that does not share them.

Otherwise, the unscriptedness was a wash. Some performers offered banter that was just as inane as what writers usually provide. At one point, Julianne Hough, who with Skylar Astin hosted the first 90 minutes, on Pluto TV, ad-libbed, apropos of nothing, “When in doubt, shake it out.”

On the other hand, the sententious segues and gassed-up encomiums to whatever B-list star was arriving onstage were eliminated. Near the evening’s end, the host of the main show, Ariana DeBose, seemed unable to read notes she had scribbled on her arm. “Please welcome whoever walks out on stage next,” she said.

And the luck of her being a dancer meant that the lack of a purpose-written opening number could be finessed. Instead she performed a wordless choreographed sequence that also functioned as a tour of the spectacular United Palace theater in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood.

Not that I saw DeBose do it. Paramount did not win any allies in the strike standoff by offering what felt like a deliberately confusing menu for streaming the evening’s events online. During the switchover from Pluto TV, on which I saw the first part, to Paramount+, on which I saw the second, I found myself (along with many others, who tweeted about it) misled into watching the 2022 awards show — also hosted by DeBose — for several minutes instead of this year’s.

That it took so long for me to realize the problem says almost too much about the blandness and sameness of the Tonys under any circumstances. Even when writers aren’t striking, the tone is set by the people at the top of the credits crawl, who since 2003 have been Glenn Weiss and Ricky Kirshner of White Cherry Entertainment. (They also directed and produced the Oscars in March.) However competent they are at television, they do a mediocre job of presenting the excitement of live theater — and especially its excellence.

When in doubt, shake it out.

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