Revivals redeemed a lackluster Broadway year. But now that the Tony Awards have closed the book on the 2017-18 season, it will be easy for producers and press agents to spin a self-congratulatory narrative.
“The Band’s Visit,” as arrestingly original a show as “Hamilton” and “Fun Home,” won the Tony for best musical along with nine other awards. Duplicating its success in London, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” the two-part epic by Jack Thorne from an original story written by J.K. Rowling, Thorne and director John Tiffany, took the best play honors.
The big winners Sunday night at Radio City Music Hall were both slam-dunks. Based on the Eran Kolirin screenplay for the Israeli film that few could have imagined being translated into the musical of the year, “The Band’s Visit,” with an original score by David Yazbek and a book by Itamar Moses (both winners), is an inspired creation, a music drama that floats across the stage with the autonomy of a dream. “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two,” which is easier to defend as a galvanizing dramatic event than as a model of play writing, was honored for its endlessly imaginative staging. (The production swept the design awards and earned Tiffany a directing Tony.)
In a season of superlative, risk-taking remounts of 20th century classics, the National Theatre production of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” directed by Marianne Elliott, won for best play revival, edging out Joe Mantello’s magisterial production of Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women.” And in one of the biggest surprises of the night, Michael Arden’s production of “Once on This Island” triumphed over Bartlett Sher’s magical reworking of “My Fair Lady” and Jack O’Brien’s mesmerizing staging of “Carousel.”
Top acting prizes were distributed to the formidable Glenda Jackson for her performance in “Three Tall Women,” Andrew Garfield for his spiritually resplendent performance in “Angels in America” and Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub for their incandescent poetry in “The Band’s Visit.”
No argument with any of these winners, who were eloquently heartfelt in connecting their work to their ideals both private and public. If you factor in Bruce Springsteen, who won a special Tony for his soul-rumbling concert (of which he performed a meditative excerpt that CBS no doubt saw as a Hail Mary ratings pass) one might reasonably conclude that it’s been a banner year.
Not so fast.
The annual numbers, released by the Broadway League, tout happy box office news, with season grosses of $1.7 billion fueled by astronomically rising ticket prices and modest gains in attendance. But not every show on Broadway can be a money-minter with integrity like “Hamilton” or “Springsteen on Broadway,” and the mega-buck economics, reflecting perhaps the unequal state of the nation, are crowding out space for adventurous new plays and musicals intent on advancing and widening the art form.
The paucity of adult shows of artistic merit to compete against “Band’s Visit” is made clear by the other nominees: “Frozen,” “Mean Girls” and “SpongeBob.”
Yes, it’s an old story, but there are new defenses. In the New York Times recently an NYU arts professor opined that critics writing Broadway musical’s obituary have it all wrong. What’s really happening is that more “family-friendly fare” is introducing a new generation to the theater and that’s something we should all be cheering.
No critic I know is bemoaning the extensive menu of Broadway options available to youngsters from affluent families. But the paucity of adult shows of serious artistic merit to compete against “The Band’s Visit” is made clear by the other best musical nominees: “Frozen,” “Mean Girls” and “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
Imagine someone making the point during a paltry Oscar season that, well, the movies really were thrilling if you take into account the pubescent excitement over all the superhero blockbusters. Suffice it to say a stronger year would have allowed for more than one “Band’s Visit,” which had to shoulder the burden of being the one truly exciting new musical.
The dramatic landscape may be even more dire. Last year in accepting the best play award for J.T. Rogers’ “Oslo,” Lincoln Center Theater’s producing artistic director André Bishop declared that “we are in a golden age of American playwriting.” His words remain true today, though no Broadway bigwig would dare make such a pronouncement in this year dominated by “Harry Potter.”
Nonprofit theaters on Broadway made room for Ayad Akhtar’s “Junk” and Lucy Kirkwood’s “The Children,” dramas that don’t underestimate the intelligence of theatergoers. But a viable business model for new plays on Broadway is still a tenuous work in progress.
The community of Broadway talent, so moving in its commitment to the values of compassion and inclusion, deserves artistic opportunities commensurate with its spirit. The repertoire had to fill in what contemporary playwrights and composers would have gratefully supplied from scratch.
It’s no surprise that some of the best acceptance speeches of the evening were made by actors, directors and writers from productions that stretched not only their technical skills but also their humanity. David Cromer, winning for his direction of “The Band’s Visit,” encouraged those of us not in despair to answer the call of those who are. Shalhoub remembered his immigrant father from Lebanon landing on Ellis Island with his dreams and determination. Kushner urged us all to save our democracy by voting in the midterm elections. And Lindsay Mendez, who won for her featured performance in “Carousel,” and Ari’el Stachel, who won for his featured performance in “The Band’s Visit,” spoke from their hearts about finding acceptance as performers of Latin and Middle Eastern backgrounds.
Patti LuPone, who regally shined her light on the ceremony, urged theater artists to continue to find the courage to be “society’s moral compass.” But this requires that Broadway not become enslaved to a commercial model that chokes off artistic growth.
Perhaps the most moving moment of the evening was when students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School performed “Seasons of Love” from the musical “Rent” after Melody Herzfeld, a drama teacher at the Florida school — the site of a mass shooting on Feb. 14 — was honored. Broadway has a duty to protect these kids’ theatrical future. The love that was directed at them by Broadway’s best showed that there’s no shortage of creative will.
Let’s hope that progressive producers don’t lose sight that the economic challenges distorting every area of American life are inseparable from the social and cultural concerns that were so passionately addressed by the theater world last night.
Follow me @charlesmcnulty