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“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two” nabbed best play and “Angels in America” was recognized as best play revival in an emotional Tony Awards that mixed Broadway razzle-dazzle with politically charged calls to arms.
Ostensibly a celebration of theater, the Tonys were an opportunity for Broadway to talk up the virtues of inclusion and diversity while also drawing attention to gay rights and gun control. Some of those messages were earthy. While introducing a performance by Bruce Springsteen, presenter Robert De Niro said, “f— Trump” twice, sending CBS censors scrambling to bleep his off-color remarks. Stage hands inside Radio City Music Hall in New York looked visibly stunned even as the actors, producers and directors in the audience rose to their feet in support.
De Niro’s words are the ones most likely to elicit a Twitter response from President Donald Trump, inspire cable news pontificating and lead to scores of think pieces. They were, however, something of an anomaly.
Most winners and presenters avoided mentioning Trump or Trump-ism by name, while making it clear where their sympathies were. Many wore pins trumpeting movements like Time’s Up or ribbons highlighting left-leaning organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union.
Tony Kushner, the playwright behind “Angels in America,” was most explicit, urging people to get out and vote in the midterm elections in November and telling them they had “21 weeks to save our democracy and heal our planet.”
Andrew Garfield won the Tony for best leading actor in a play for his work as Prior Walter, the AIDS-stricken prophet at the center of “Angels in America.” In a teary speech, Garfield said playing Walter was the biggest honor of his life.
“He represents the purest spirit of humanity and especially that of the LGBTQ community,” he said. “It is a spirit that says no to oppression. It is a spirit that says no to bigotry, no to shame, no to exclusion. It is a spirit that says we are all made perfectly and we all belong.”
Glenda Jackson, who was recognized as best actress in a play for her turn as a senile doyenne in “Three Tall Women,” praised the multiculturalism of the theater business.
“There are people in this audience, in this country, in this city from every other country in the world,” Jackson said. “And you, as always, are welcoming and kind and generous, and America has never needed that more, but then America is always great.”
One of the emotional highlights of the night came from performers who aren’t household names. Members of the drama department at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, survivors of a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people, brought the crowd to their feet with a rendition of “Seasons of Love” from “Rent.”
This year’s Tonys pitted several high-profile revivals and new shows against one another. “Mean Girls” and “SpongeBob SquarePants” entered the evening with a leading 12 nominations each. They were followed closely behind by “The Band’s Visit” and “Angels in America,” with 11 nominations each, and the two-part play “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” with 10 nods. “My Fair Lady,” “Carousel” and “The Iceman Cometh” were other prominent contenders.
Garfield’s co-star, Nathan Lane, nabbed a best featured actor statue for his performance as Roy Cohn, a venal power broker who was a mentor to Trump. Calling “Angels in America” one of the greatest plays of the 20th century, Lane said, “It is still speaking to us as powerfully as ever in the midst of such political insanity.”
Garfield and Lane weren’t the only performers to sound political notes. Lindsay Mendez, picking up Tony for best featured actress for her work in “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel,” said she was told to change her last name to Matthews when she first started working professionally. She refused.
“I want to say how proud I am to be part of a community that celebrates diversity and individuality,” Mendez said.
Choking back tears, Ari’el Stachel, who won best featured actor in a musical for “The Band’s Visit,” said he had masked his Middle Eastern heritage after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, even avoiding bringing his parents to events. That changed in part with “The Band’s Visit,” a story of the members of an Arab orchestra who forge friendships with residents in a tiny Israeli town.
“I’m part of a cast of actors who never believed they’d be able to play their own races, and we’re doing that,” Stachel said. He closed with a message to younger viewers, telling them “your biggest obstacle may turn into your purpose.”
“Three Tall Women’s” Laurie Metcalf won her second Tony in as many years for best featured actress in a play. She picked up the leading actress statue in 2017 for “A Doll’s House, Part 2.” Lane was also a multiple winner. He took his third Tony for “Angels in America,” having previously been honored for his work in “The Producers” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
Although they are congenitally ratings challenged, the Tony Awards are seen as an important opportunity for Broadway shows, particularly musicals, to goose their ticket sales. “My Fair Lady,” “SpongeBob SquarePants,” “Frozen” and “Mean Girls” were among the shows that offered up lavish numbers with an eye toward converting viewers at home into future audience members.