NEW YORK — Broadway has a new hero, and, oddly enough, his name isn’t Lin-Manuel Miranda. Oh, Miranda remains a trouper of exalted status in theaterland, all right. But the devotional words today go to a cuddlier, pudgier lover of show tunes who speaks not in the cadences of Upper Manhattan but of Greater London.
Today, all hail James Corden.
A television star with his own late-night talk show who came to attention in this country as an actor in the Broadway comedies “The History Boys” and “One Man, Two Guvnors,” Corden served for the first time Sunday night as host of the Tony Awards and, as a result, ushered in a completely pleasurable Era of Good Feeling for an awards ceremony, and an industry, badly in need of one.
The exciting times for musical theater that Miranda has spearheaded with “Hamilton” — winner on Sunday of an impressive 11 Tonys, including best musical — were further bolstered by the exuberant, three-hours-plus show CBS broadcast. Occurring on the day of the ghastliest mass shooting in American history, the production, with little prep time, had to find a tone that acknowledged the gravity of the events that framed it, and yet put as joyful a face as possible on a show that’s intended as much as a sales pitch for currently running plays and musicals as it is a celebration of artistic excellence.
This high-wire act Corden pulled off splendidly, imbuing the proceedings with his own mischievous, caffeinated energy. The deference paid to the day’s horror was dignified, not shrill or maudlin, and typified by the tasteful memorial silver ribbons the Tony attendees wore. The acceptance speeches, when they addressed the appalling circumstances — like the quiet, reasonable one Frank Langella delivered, after winning the Tony for best actor in a play, for “The Father” — conveyed a sense of a mature industry, one plugged into the world.
Corden was the pacesetter for this. He’s a comedian with a common touch, just the type of frontman needed by a Broadway that is looking increasingly like the exclusive domain of the 1 percent. Nothing these days is more injurious to theater’s image as a welcoming art form, open to all, than the impression that a family must sell off Grandma’s jewelry to see a show. (Given the magnitude of ticket scalping on Broadway, the calculus of establishing prices is complicated, to be sure. But the optics of “Hamilton” — a story at its heart about the birth of American political and economic freedom — raising its top ticket price to $845 last week didn’t help.)
It was Corden’s job to make us remember, and then forget for a little while, what else in the world might be going on. “Leave your troubles outside!” the Emcee in “Cabaret” famously commands, and those worries, somehow, Corden cordoned off. Trailed by TV cameras, he himself went outside the Beacon Theatre during the program: Throwing open the doors felt like an apt metaphor. On the street, the casts of various nominated musicals performed instantly recognizable tunes from shows unrelated to their own, sequences patterned on a tradition Miranda has instituted outside “Hamilton’s” theater, the Richard Rodgers.
What this helped to paint was a picture of Broadway as a charming, tightly knit village, with its own customs and indelible history. Jessica Lange, a popular Tony winner Sunday night for her performance in the current revival of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” touched tangentially on this when she pointed out that theater is materially different. “The great thing about this community,” she said, “is we do it all together.”
Corden was bolstered in his debut hosting gig — and let’s hope CBS and the Tonys have already signed him up for next year — by the bona fide electricity that’s been generated by the “Hamilton” phenomenon. Such is the aura created by the show that when it came time for “Hamilton’s” performance segment on the telecast, the taped introduction was offered by none other than the musical’s boosters-in-chief, President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. (Miranda first performed a snippet of the musical-in-progress in 2009 at the White House.) Even more astonishing was that one almost felt as though the first couple were the ones hitching their wagons to a star.
As for the award winners themselves: It’s difficult to recall a year when the Tony voters did a better job, beyond the 11 Tonys for “Hamilton,” which were more or less expected. A measure of how seriously they took their assignment was that for best play revival, they honored a production that closed in February, although it will go on tour, including to the Kennedy Center: director Ivo van Hove’s brilliant staging of Arthur Miller’s 1955 “A View From the Bridge.” Equally deserving was the director John Doyle’s revelatory “The Color Purple” for best musical revival. (Collectively, these shows reaffirmed the value of the Tonys’ newly rewarding older work.) Stephen Karam’s best-play Tony for “The Humans” sealed an impression that superior quality was the sacrosanct voting principle.
Oscar and the Academy, take note: With this triumphant evening, Corden and the Tonys are reminding you that an awards show can be irreverent, unpretentious, relevant, empathetic and sophisticated. And that all of this, really, isn’t too much to ask.