“History has its eyes on you,” Christopher Jackson’s George Washington sang in one of the most anticipated moments of the highly anticipated Tony Awards on Sunday night.
The general was facing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton, but he could have been addressing the nation he and Hamilton helped form. Reeling from the news of the deadliest shooting in our history, many had spent the previous hours wondering what was to be done in this time of seemingly endless gun violence, of terrorism perpetrated by Americans against Americans.
With the unenviable task of presenting an over-the-top, highly anticipated awards show mere hours after 50 people were slain and 53 wounded in Sunday’s early-morning terrorist attack on an LGBT bar in Orlando, Florida, the American Theatre Wing did what it could.
Even Hamilton succumbs to arguments that are as personal as political, and when the words between he and Aaron Burr become too heated, they resort to guns.
This year’s awards ceremony was dedicated to “the families and friends of those affected.” Thousands of translucent ribbons appeared on dresses and tuxedos worn by presenters and participants; muskets were removed from a live performance. British host James Corden, previously best known for his bouncy good nature and ability to sing amazingly well with famous people in a car, suddenly found himself tasked with making a statement that could somehow transport Americans from the horror of Orlando to the bounteous wonders of Broadway.
He did a wonderful job. Facing the camera, with his back to the audience, he spoke of theater’s ability to embrace everyone and vowed that “hate would never win.”
But in the end, it was theater itself that built at least a temporary bridge back to sanity.
With nominated plays that celebrated the newly arrived, the disenfranchised, the often vilified, this year’s Tonys offered a multicultural vision of America that seemed specifically designed to counter fear and anger, the political squabbling and feelings of powerlessness that have become an all-too-familiar fallout of all-too-frequent shootings.
“History has its eyes on you.”
While social media lit up after the shootings with seemingly circular unwinnable arguments about gun control and immigration restrictions, somehow a play in which the main character, an immigrant, is gunned down during a senseless duel (after his son suffered the same fate) turned out to be the perfect reminder that, brave or regrettable, it is our choices that shape our destiny.
The muskets may have been removed from the scene depicting the Battle of Yorktown that the cast performed during the telecast, but one of Miranda’s main points was not: “Immigrants,” Layfette (Daveed Diggs) says to Hamilton, who answers: “We get the job done.”
But even Hamilton, having helped win a war and build a brand-new form of government, succumbs to arguments that are as personal as political, and when the words between he and long-time rival Aaron Burr become too heated, they resort to guns. And so, as the play makes clear, history is deprived of whatever Hamilton could have done next.
Manuel had an even more pointed, and poetic, message. Early in the evening, when he received the Tony for best score (the first of 11 awards for the production), he said in sonnet rhythm, “This show is proof that history remembers. We live through times when hate and fear seem stronger. We rise and fall and light from dying embers remembrances that hope and love last longer And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.”
But it wasn’t just “Hamilton” that made the palpable energy of this year’s Tonys something more than proof that the terrorists haven’t won. Other Tony winners, including “A View From the Bridge” and “The Color Purple,” plus nominees such as “Eclipsed,” “Shuffle Along” and “Fiddler on the Roof” all deal with issues that threaten to divide us — bigotry, political corruption, violence — even as we grieve for the dead in Florida and those who die by gunshot in increasing numbers every day.
A play in which the main character, an immigrant, is gunned down during a senseless duel [is] the perfect reminder it is our choices that shape our destiny.
There was a thoughtful joy to this year’s Tonys and while it was certainly specific to the community — theater has had a very good year — it became, in the midst of tragedy, something universal.
From tragedy can come art and from art can come wisdom.
History is watching us, as we weep on the streets of Orlando, as we argue in Congress and on Twitter, as we do whatever it is we do next because we have to do something.
We can only hope history saw the Tonys too.
Follow me on Twitter: @marymacTV