72nd Annual Tony Awards: ‘The Band’s Visit’ Swept as Messages of Inclusion Filled the Stage

The 72nd Tony Awards honored the best in Broadway theater as a spirit of inclusion and political statements colored the proceedings. “The Band’s Visit,” a musical based on a 2007 Israeli film about an Egyptian band of musicians finding themselves stranded in Israel, swept with 10 wins, including Best Musical. The big wins for the production were a statement in itself as the Tonys decided to award a $10 million show over the other huge, pricey nominees, all based on more popular movies. Both Tina Fey’s “Mean Girls” and “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical” left empty handed. However in the play category, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two” came out victorious with Best Play and Best Directing wins. Yet by the end, much of the evening was overshadowed by actor Robert De Niro, who in presenting Bruce Springsteen’s performance began his speech with an expletive-strewn attack on President Trump.

Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles were the hosts for the evening, kicking things off with a funny piano duet poking fun at the fact that both have never won a Tony. Groban made his Broadway debut in 2016 with “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” and Bareilles first made a splash with “Waitress” in 2017. “This is for the people who lose,” they crooned. But soon the awards began to roll out and it was obvious that the evening would feel the shadow of current events. Andrew Garfield won for Lead Actor in a Play for the recent revival of Tony Kushner’s seminal “Angels in America.” During his speech Garfield made a clear reference to the recent Supreme Court decision centering on a Colorado baker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding. “Let’s just bake a cake for everyone who wants a cake to be baked,” said Garfield with little hint of humor. He dedicated the award to those of the LGBTQ community who have fought for basic rights and lost their lives in the process. Nathan Lane was awarded the Featured Actor in a Play award for “Angels in America” and also used his time at the mic to acknowledge his husband, then mentioned that Kushner’s play is important, “in the midst of such political insanity.”

A very powerful moment capturing the times came when Melody Herzfeld, a drama teacher who stayed with her students in a classroom amid the gunfire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida last February, received the Excellence in Theater Education prize. The award is given annually by the Tony Awards and Carnegie Mellon University. This year there was a striking extra touch as drama students from the school performed “Seasons of Love” from “Rent.” Herzfeld stated that, “Next to the passing of my dear parents and in-laws, marrying the love of my life and the birth of my amazing sons and reuniting with my theater students, there has never been a more defining moment of my life.”

There was also a special, rock n’ roll flavor to this year’s awards as Bruce Springsteen received a special award for his show, “Springsteen on Broadway.” Fellow musical icon Billy Joel was on hand to give The Boss his award and mentioned that Springsteen’s show has already completed 236 performances. “The Boss is busy,” said Joel of his old friend. But Springsteen’s speech was a quick, simple performance, where he thanked friends, family and the team behind the show before hurrying offstage. He would close the show itself with an evocative performance of “My Hometown.”

Prone to spontaneous bursts of enthusiasm, other presenters brought their own, memorable moments to the awards show. When John Tiffany won for Best Direction of a Play for “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two,” he took advantage of the stage to make the whole audience sing happy birthday to his boyfriend. It was a sweet, cheerful moment. Both Israel-American Ari’el Stachel and Lebanese-American Tony Shalhoub won Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical and Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical respectively for “The Band’s Visit.” They spoke about their Middle East origins, Stachel mentioning that for a while he was afraid to mention he was even Middle Eastern and Shalhoub sharing the story of his father’s arrival to Ellis Island from Lebanon in 1920. For them the importance of “The Band’s Visit” is its promotion of tolerance and acceptance among different peoples. Lindsay Mendez won Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical for “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel” and continued the theme of immigration and acceptance, revealing that when she first moved to New York she was advised to change her last name. Best Direction of a Musical went to David Cromer for “The Band’s Visit,” and in a memorable acknowledgement of a national discussion on suicide, he asked those feeling despair to reach out, and for those not in pain to try and listen.

Other major winners for the night included veteran actress Glenda Jackson taking  Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play for “Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women,” Katrina Lenk taking Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical for “The Band’s Visit,” and Laurie Metcalf winning Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play for “Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women.” Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” was honored as Best Revival of a Play while Best Play went to the evening’s only pop title winner, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two.”

While the night featured some excellent musical performances from the companies behind every major musical nominee, with “Mean Girls” being particularly fun and sassy, the dominating performance of the night was Robert De Niro. Tapped to introduced Bruce Springsteen’s performance, De Niro appeared on stage and immediately fired a verbal salvo at Donald Trump, exclaiming, “First, I wanna say, ‘f–k Trump.’ It’s no longer ‘Down with Trump,’ it’s ‘f–k Trump.” The moment provoked an eruption of cheers. It was a more explicit expression of the political vibe in the room. When “The Band’s Visit” won Best Musical the team received the award promoting a message of tolerance and championing the arts for being inclusive.

Amid all the color and festivities, the Tony Awards this year became primarily a meditation on the arts as a vehicle for diversity. The message was clear, even amid the dropping of De Niro’s f bombs.

The 72nd Tony Awards took place June 10 at Radio City Music Hall in New York City and aired on CBS.