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Inside the 2019 Tony Awards with 'Up in the Cheap Seats' Author Ron Fassler

Category Broadway

|by Ron Fassler |

Here’s what you couldn't experience via TV on Broadway’s big night

Another Broadway season has officially come and gone, with last night’s 73rd Annual Tony Awards Broadcast on CBS. However, I wasn’t watching it on TV. I was fortunate to attend the ceremony for my third time in a row (not up in the cheap seats), and it was (as always) simply the best of any of the awards shows that are telecast on national television.

And why is that? Well, for one thing, it involves theater people. And who knows better how to put on a show? And then there are the speeches, which come forth from the heart, memorized or spontaneous in a way you simply never see at other awards shows. How many people took out a piece of paper last night among 26 winners? I think I counted three. Compare that with people at the Academy Awards thanking what usually feels like an endless laundry list of people, which sometimes feels as if coming from a place of fear of omission (and potential recriminations) more than anything else.

Ron Fassler attends the 2019 Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall (Photo courtesy of Ron Fassler)

Ron Fassler attends the 2019 Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall (Photo courtesy of Ron Fassler)

Not at the Tonys. Be it an actor or a set designer, they speak from the heart and manage to be so articulate that the speeches are what I most look forward to, even though you’re getting great musical numbers all night long, and in the case of last night’s host James Corden, some terrific comedy.

As for some of those speeches, I can only report that the feeling in the theater when Ali Stroker gave her emotional speech made grown men weep (I was one of them). It was a brilliant stroke of the producers of the current revival of Oklahoma! to allow the world to see Stroker perform her superb rendition of “I Cain’t Say No” from her wheelchair, prior to the opening of the envelope. When she thanked her friends who “have held my hands and pulled me around New York City for years,” it resonated. The old expression “talent will out” came to mind, as this actress’ journey to the stage last night is one that is both inspiring and richly deserved.

Other memorable speeches included Elaine May receiving a Tony at age eighty-seven (the evening’s first standing ovation for a winner) and André De Shields’, now seventy-three and a veteran of the Broadway stage for forty-six years, who won for his splendid performance as Hermes in Hadestown (the night’s big winner, which took home eight Tonys). He spoke of his “three rules” for longevity in the theater:

“One: Surround yourself with people whose eyes light up when they see you coming. Two: Slowly is the fastest way to get to where you want to be. Three: The top of the mountain is the bottom of the next, so keep climbing.”

Number two is my favorite.

Mart Crowley’s beautiful speech, when he received a Tony for the revival of his groundbreaking The Boys in the Band, was another highlight. The play was first produced Off-Broadway in 1968, and Crowley spoke about how extraordinary it has been to see the piece finally make it to Broadway so many years later, in a production directed and acted by out gay men, something that wasn’t even possible five years ago, let alone 51. His voice broke at the end, when he mentioned that first production, and what he had to say was significant. “I'd like to dedicate the award to the original cast of nine brave men, who did not listen to their agents when they were told that their careers would be finished if they did this play. They did it, and here I am.” Bravo.

I hope the musical numbers came off as well on television as they did at Radio City. I think the best ones from my perspective in the hall were the stunning dance and vocal work from the cast of Ain’t Too Proud; the off-beat and delightful Beetlejuice (complete with new lyrics added just for the occasion), and James Cordon’s opening number, which ran for 10 minutes and was replete with some very funny jokes and some amazing dancing from an all-star Broadway chorus.

On a personal note, I was thrilled for longtime friends Bryan Cranston (Network: Best Actor in a Play) and Stephanie J. Block (The Cher Show: Best Actress in a Musical). Both were the favorites going in who emerged triumphant, and made great speeches (naturally).

Speaking of favorites, by leading with most of them in my predictions, I’m proud to say I did quite well, particularly in the fifteen categories that were on the broadcast. I only got one wrong!

One great advantage to being in the house is that James Corden went all-out during the commercial breaks and, on three separate occasions, ventured into the audience and spontaneously pulled actors out of their seats to perform karaoke. The first was a game Ben Platt (the Best Actor in a Musical from two seasons back for Dear Evan Hansen), who sang “Tomorrow.” Then it was Anthony Ramos (Hamilton), who enlisted Christopher Jackson, an original cast member of both Hamilton and In the Heights, to sing “96,000.” But leave it to the always unpredictable Billy Porter to choose to sing “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and command the stage in a way that might have grabbed him an Emmy next year – that is, if it had been broadcast. At the height of it all, he shouted out, “I didn’t come here to work tonight!”

But work they ALL did, producing a most excellent Tonys. And now…just 364 days (or so) till next year’s show. Can’t wait. ■

For more of the best of Broadway this awards season, check out the full list of the 2019 Tony Award Winners

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