Without a “Hamilton” juggernaut to galvanize a viewing nation, Sunday night’s Tony Awards were an unsteady package — though it turned out to be a very big evening for a show with local roots, six-time winner “Dear Evan Hansen,” which started in 2015 at Arena Stage. From host Kevin Spacey to former second lady Jill Biden to the peculiar filibuster speech by Bette Midler, these moments were the most memorable.
Wacky Bette Midler stole the headlines from a sedate telecast. The star of “Hello, Dolly!” — one of the most iconic musicals ever — did not perform, which could have blown the roof off Radio City Music Hall. But she did outlast the orchestra that tried to play her off as she accepted her expected trophy as best actress and kept talking.
“Shut that crap off,” Midler declared, standing her ground against the swelling music.
Twitter was instantly amused and, because Midler was merely rambling, a bit put off. “DOLLY’LL NEVER GO AWAY,” chimed The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri. I clocked the speech at four minutes and 16 seconds, including a bleep for profanity as Midler praised the hair design team “for the most beautiful hair on Broadway, and I am not s—ting you people.”
The anticlimax award also went to “Hello, Dolly!” for its featured performance. The musical was anemically represented by Midler’s co-star David Hyde Pierce as a bewhiskered Horace Vandergelder, standing all alone in front of a curtain and warbling a tune cut from the original, “Penny in My Pocket.”
Disappointment was severe, though not unexpected. “Dolly” producer Scott Rudin had declined to restage any of the show’s big numbers at Radio City. Still, Pierce deserved better than that.
The worst opening was the one the producers used, a fretful medley of tunes from the new musicals few people have seen yet, while Kevin Spacey obsessed about being the last possible choice to host the show.
“And Andrey isn’t here,” goes a lyric in the 12-time nominated musical “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.” That became “And Hugh Jackman isn’t here” in Spacey’s number, with the host winkingly obsessing over as many past Tony hosts as you could think of. Not particularly helping were the cameo appearances by Stephen Colbert, Whoopi Goldberg and (via video) Billy Crystal, with lyrical references to everyone from Neil Patrick Harris to James Corden. It was a lot of hand-wringing.
And it didn’t even end with the opening number. “They haven’t fired me yet,” Spacey said after the second commercial break.
The best opening was lurking in the show’s second hour. Why not start with the Rockettes, dressed in inches of tinsel and bringing old-fashioned Manhattan glamour as the Tonys moved back into Radio City? (They were staged in the smaller Beacon Theatre last year.) The number wrapped with last year’s Tony winners Leslie Odom Jr. (“Hamilton”) and Cynthia Erivo (“The Color Purple”) brassily singing “New York, New York.”
Spacey, who gradually emerged as an appealingly entertaining host, did a top-notch Johnny Carson impression, nailing the “Tonight Show” host’s voice and odd shoulder twitches — which were more amusing than anything in the show’s opener. And eventual musical best actor winner Ben Platt delivered the performance of the night, singing the emotional “Waving Through a Window” from “Dear Evan Hansen.”
Making audiences wait for a juicy sample from a much-nominated new musical — especially the one most likely to have lasting appeal — is what journalists call burying the lede.
There were also dignified performances by second-class citizens: Playwrights Paula Vogel (“Indecent”), Lucas Hnath (“A Doll’s House, Part 2”), eventual winner J.T. Rogers (“Oslo”) and Lynn Nottage (“Sweat”) were each incredibly gracious with the fleeting seconds they were given to synopsize their nominated dramas.
“We are in a golden age of American playwriting,” Lincoln Center Theater producer Andre Bishop said as he accepted the “Oslo” award with Rogers.
But showing off plays confounds the Tonys every year. Perhaps performing a two-minute excerpt from each production would be the better way to go.
The Trump effect was minimal. Politics were muted compared to last year, when the Tonys carried on in the wake of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando.
The night’s most pronounced political moments were:
- Cynthia Nixon, accepting the award as best featured actress for “Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes.” “Eighty years ago, [Hellman] wrote, ‘There are people who eat the Earth and eat all the people on it, other people who just stand around and watch them do it,” Nixon said, quoting Hellman’s play. “My love, my gratitude and my undying respect go out to all the people in 2017 who are refusing to just stand and watch them do it.”
- Kevin Kline, sporting a dashing Douglas Fairbanks mustache, during his acceptance speech for best performance by an actor in a leading role in a play for “Present Laughter”: “I’d like to thank a couple of organizations without which maybe half the people in this room would not be here: that would be NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] and the NEH [National Endowment for the Humanities].”
- Spacey’s funniest line, impersonating former president Bill Clinton and addressing Ben Platt, whose Evan Hansen grows popular as he manipulates social media: “Hillary’s much better at creating fake email accounts than you.” (Platt slinking in his chair as “Bill” said Platt bumped Hillary off Time’s 100 most influential people list was pretty funny, too.)
- Colbert, before introducing the best musical revival winner, mentioned nominated show “Miss Saigon” as “the only pageant whose locker room our president hasn’t walked in on.” The mixed laughs and groans from the crowd then drew the only mention of the president’s name all night. “Lot of Trump fans here tonight, evidently,” Colbert deadpanned.
Twitter, meanwhile, soberly fretted that Delta Air Lines has pulled support for the Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park over the current “Julius Caesar,” in which a Trump-like figure gets assassinated in the title role.
The most earnest reception was the standing ovation for Jill Biden, who arrived to advocate for the veterans’ organization Got Your Six and introduce the company of the musical “Bandstand.” Husband Joe watched from the audience, and you guessed it: He was misty-eyed.
Shows the telecast made us actually want to see included the musical “Come From Away,” with its sturdy chorus singing “Welcome to the Rock,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” and “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” a 19th- and 21st-century mash-up (it’s adapted from a bit of “War and Peace”) that felt like a party as its big cast strummed guitars and danced all over the theater.
The last word: Spacey, appearing in his “House of Cards” guise as President Frank Underwood (alongside co-star Robin Wright as Claire), handed “Hamilton” mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda the envelope for the night’s best musical prize. Turning to the camera, he muttered, “I want to get the hell out of here before Bette Midler thanks anyone else.”
This post has been updated.