Lawrence Toppman

‘Hamilton’ dominates Tony Awards but doesn’t break records

The Founding Father was one bad mother Sunday night at the 70th Tony Awards. The sold-out musical “Hamilton” won 11 Tony Awards, though it fell one short of “The Producers” as the all-time Tony champ.

“Hamilton,” which will come to Charlotte’s Belk Theater during the 2017-18 Broadway Lights season, had been nominated for a record-setting 16 Tonys, one more than “The Producers” and “Billy Elliot.” It couldn’t win them all; three featured actors and two leading actors cancelled each other out. But it came close: The only chips in its armor were best actress in a musical (Cynthia Erivo of “The Color Purple”) and scenic design for a musical (“She Loves Me”).

The triumph belonged mostly to Lin-Manuel Miranda, the star-composer who won best score and best book. (His co-star, Leslie Odom Jr., took the best actor prize away from him.) Miranda didn’t freestyle his acceptance speech for best score – “I’m too old” – but graced the show with a sonnet to his wife.

The influence of “Hamilton” could be felt even in commercials during the broadcast, from the rapping AFLAC duck to a promotion for the TV show “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” in a colonial white wig and frock coat. Disney aired a trailer for the animated movie “Moana,” which will come out at Thanksgiving with songs by Miranda (among other composers). Barack and Michelle Obama even teased a number from “Hamilton” in a video.

The adoration of “Hamilton” may have obscured a terrific showing for “The Humans,” Stephen Karam’s drama about six family members who air their deepest fears over a Thanksgiving dinner. It won four awards: best play, scenic design, featured actor and actress (veterans Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell). Karam urged “anyone out there struggling with day jobs to make work that comes from your heart – keep the faith.”

Despite the joyful speeches, a specter hung over the show from the beginning. The murder of 50 people in an Orlando LGBT club early Sunday morning elicited outpourings of sadness and support all day, and Tony host James Corden was no exception. His first words reminded us the theatrical world is safe for every kind of person: “Your tragedy is our tragedy...Theater is a place where all creeds, races and genders are loved.” (Frank Langella, winning his fourth Tony as best actor for “The Father,” used his acceptance speech to urge the families of the victims to be strong.)

Corden eventually swung into a good-natured monologue in his London accent: “Think of us as the Oscars with diversity. It’s so diverse that Donald Trump has threatened to build a wall around this theater ... This is like the Super Bowl for people who don’t know what the Super Bowl is.” He paid tribute to his theater-struck childhood with a medley of Broadway songs, switching costumes at lightning speed and inspiring kids dreaming of a stage career: “To every Broadway would-be/Don’t wonder if this could be you – It absolutely could be!”

The Tony Awards are more interesting than any other awards show I know for four reasons. First, victors are almost always humble and grateful, however much they expected to win. Second, the host assumes a level of intelligence among viewers and expects them to get inside jokes; you have to step up your awareness of theater to fully enjoy this show.

Third, you see things you’ll never see anywhere else, such as excerpts from the “Spring Awakening” revival that paired singers with hearing-impaired actors who signed their lines. (The show is about failures of communication between parents and children, so that’s apt.)

Fourth, the musical numbers give you a true sense of nominated productions; they’re reproduced by people who sing and dance them on Broadway, not celebrities. Actors regularly have to perform in musical segments after losing an award: Jane Krakowski, a nominee for featured actress in a musical, saw that prize go to Renée Elise Goldsberry and then went onstage in a perky medley from “She Loves Me.”

Musical ensembles bring fireworks to the Tonys every time they appear – you virtually never see a dud song – and as Andrew Lloyd Webber noted, introducing the middle-schoolers who blasted through a song from “School of Rock,” it’s 100 percent live. (Sadly, not all the awards are live any more: “Minor” ones such as costumes and lighting get handed out off-camera. Those included Lifetime Achievement Awards for lyricist Sheldon Harnick and producer Marshall W. Mason.)

Between appearances, nominees even popped onto an impromptu stage outside the Beacon Theatre, singing numbers or bits of numbers from historic musicals for people who couldn’t get tickets to the event inside. Let’s see the Oscars match that.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

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