There were lights. There were sets. There were strapping young lads in sailor’s uniforms. But on the whole, the Tony awards were like one big inside joke to which only us theater nerds were privy. Last week, The New York Times ran an article entitled “The Tony Awards Broadcast: Broadway’s Chance to Woo America.” But rather than wooing me, the Tonys turned me off–big time.
In his 2013 opening monologue as host of The Tonys, Neil Patrick Harris sang, “There’s a kid in the middle of nowhere… So we might reassure that kid and do something to spur that kid, ‘cause… we were that kid.” If I’d been a kid watching in Nebraska, I would have seen an awards show that decided some historic categories weren’t worth airing and whose jokes catered to the Broadway world exclusively.
In an increasing trend over the last few years, The Tony Awards have been televising fewer actual awards during the three-hour special, and instead opting for more musical numbers. In the hour before the show aired, The American Theater Wing presented awards for best lighting, set, and costume design of plays and musicals, as well as best score/lyrics, best orchestrations, and best choreography. Throughout the broadcast, snippets of these speeches were shown alongside a list of the nominees. We heard only sound bites of each speech.
They’re not the most riveting, celebrity-filled categories, but as a theater person (and let’s be honest, most of the people watching The Tony Awards are interested in theater) I’m just as invested in those awards as I am in Best Musical. Most importantly though, this was a historic year for these unaired categories. For the first time, a team of women—Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron—won for best score and lyrics for Fun Home (Kron also won for best book.) Let me repeat that: for the first time in history, two women won Tonys for writing a musical. But you didn’t see it on TV. Well, you did, but only for a few seconds.
As I was watching with my friends, a mix of actors, directors, stage managers, and designers, the ladies kept chanting, “Pretty girls do tech! Pretty girls do tech!” Lights and sets, fields men have historically dominated, went almost exclusively to women. Natasha Katz won for her lighting design of An American in Paris, Paule Constable for her lighting of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Bunny Christie and Finn Ross for their set design of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, and Catherine Zuber for her costume design of The King and I. We all cheered as the names flashed across the screen, focused not on their dresses but on trying to hear a bit of what they were saying. The brief seconds for which we got to see these women onstage instead of imagining them in lighting booths or costume shops were thrilling. It was a huge night for women in theater: not just the women on the screen, but also for me and my friends, and the thousands of other girls out there who watch The Tony Awards. What this awards show has a way of teaching young girls is that the only women in theater are actresses. It was one of the few times as a young adult I’ve watched The Tonys and thought, “I can do this. There are women that do this.” In an industry that is just beginning to see a surge of women bursting through the glass ceiling, it was beyond disappointing that these inspiring ladies only got an obligatory “spotlight” for a few quick seconds.
It wasn’t all bad, though, because ladies did get to shine in performance. Once eleven year old Sydney Lucas took the stage in a point-of-illumination number from Fun Home, it was clear the show was going to have a good night. A nonlinear musical based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir deals with her complex relationship with her father and her realization at age 19 that she’s lesbian. Fun Home is the first show about a queer woman to claim the limelight in this way. A post from a friend on Facebook came up on my newsfeed: “Queer women all over the nation are crying / Life is beautiful / History is made / I can’t be articulate this is too much goodnight America.” Her sentiments were echoed in other posts. Gay men have always been a mainstay in the theater world, and queer women have been rarely discussed. Its beautiful to think that I’m entering a professional theater world where shows like Fun Home can win Best Musical.
Equally exciting was that Ruthie Ann Miles won for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for A King and I: to my knowledge and based on my research, she is the first Asian-American to win in this category, and only the second Asian-American to win a Tony for her performance in a musical. In an industry that is overwhelmingly white from all ends, Miles’ win is no small feat.
The rest of the awards ceremony was filled with the same droll you’d expect. The ceremony was hosted by Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming, Broadway vets famed from their roles as Glinda in Wicked and The Emcee in Cabaret. Unlike Neil Patrick Harris or Hugh Jackman—who have each hosted the past several years—Chenoweth and Cumming don’t have much star power outside of the theater world. It seemed to me that this choice limited viewership and relegated Chenoweth and Cumming’s material to expected Broadway inside jokes. After each musical number, Chenoweth and Cumming would have a short bit about it: Chenoweth put on an ET costume as if she misheard “Fun Home” for the movie’s famous line “Phone home.” Rather than bringing me into their world, it was just two Broadway royals presiding over their kingdom, not caring whether I stayed or left.
There was one moment that I was waiting for though, and so I kept watching. This year, John Cameron Mitchell won a special Tony Award for Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Mitchell wrote and starred in the original production of off-Broadway in 1998. Following last year’s massive success of the show’s Broadway debut (starring Neil Patrick Harris) Mitchell returned to the role on Broadway in January. His recognition is a testament to the lasting power and originality of Hedwig, a show I’ve now seen four times and have yet to get bored of. In his acceptance speech, Mitchell reminded me of what I love about theater, and what we celebrate with The Tonys each year: “People say ‘Oh everything’s been done, nothing is new.’ I say turn off the Internet, combine all the things you love in the world, take some time, and you might come up with something special that’s lasting.”
Photo courtesy of here.