Kevin Spacey was the somewhat surprising — though certainly not unqualified — host of the 71st running of the Broadway theater-honoring Tony Awards, broadcast Sunday night from New York's Radio City Music Hall. Having made his first Broadway appearance 35 years ago and, more recently, serving as artistic director of London's Old Vic Theater for about a decade, he has theater cred to spare.
He even has a Tony himself, awarded in 1991 for Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers." Most important, he has a sense of play and fun. What mattered all the way through is that he was game.
But unlike last year's host James Corden, and other recent hosts such as Neil Patrick Harris and Hugh Jackman, Spacey is not known for his singing or dancing. And so, naturally, he sang and danced through the first 10 minutes of the broadcast from New York's Radio City Music Hall in a medley of numbers playing off of current Broadway musicals.
Spacey was unveiled as Ben Platt's character in "Dear Evan Hansen," sporting a cast on his arm signed "#HOST," a dressing that was later moved to his leg in reference to the knee injury Andy Karl suffered during previews for "Groundhog Day."
But the import was clear, even to a person unfamiliar with any of these shows, because all the lyrics were about Spacey hosting the Tonys, including one playing off his own earlier joke that he was 15th choice for the job.
Stephen Colbert appeared from inside a groundhog head, Whoopi Goldberg came out of a closet and Billy Crystal flew in via video, all to advise the host.
This was, of course, the first Tonys of the Donald Trump administration, with which the theater world is in many ways philosophically at odds. Still, politicking was kept subtle. Here, acceptance speeches often celebrated parents, teachers and the community.
Kevin Kline, however, did name-check the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and former Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden, introducing a number from the veteran-themed "Bandstand," arrived to a standing ovation. Husband Joe, meanwhile, was in the audience. (No members of the current administration were evidently in attendance.)
More overtly, Colbert, introducing the award for musical revival, characterized the Trump administration itself in theatrical terms. "Couple of problems," he noted. "Main character is totally unbelievable, and hair and makeup, yeesh. This D.C. production is supposed to have a four-year run but reviews have not been kind. Could close early, we don't know."
As with all awards shows, three hours is a long time to sustain interest. There is a reason that Broadway plays do not generally last that long. An evening with so many scheduled high points, so many moments of focused energy, can have a cumulative enervating effect.
And yet, I will be honest, I choke up regularly and reliably through the Tonys.
It is, along with the production numbers, scripted banter and parade of internationally and locally famous faces, a performance by the fans, who are present in person at the Tonys along with the people who make the work. However big a business Broadway is, it remains the property of the people who create it and love it — it's a community, and one that's interactive by nature.
Perhaps the height of the evening came with its penultimate award, won by Bette Midler for her performance in "Hello Dolly!" Not done having her energetic say, Midler talked down the orchestra that was attempting to play her off ("I just want to say -- shut that crap off!"), earning her laughs and applause.
She then praised the musical's "optimism, its democracy … its love of life … This thing has the ability to lift your spirits in this terrible, terrible times."
"Thank you so much, how was that show?" Spacey asked in closing, taking the stage with Patti Lupone to sing "The Curtain Falls," a song written for Bobby Darin, whom Spacey has played on film. "As they say in this biz, that's all there is, there isn't any more," the song goes.
As the tune unfolded, the winners swayed in the background. It was corny and sweet, a fine way to finish.