When effervescent actress Ali Stroker came onstage to accept her historic trophy as the first actor in a wheelchair to win a Tony, it wasn’t just the feel-good moment of the night. It may have been one of the most joyous Tony moments in years.
The crowd jumped to its feet in unison as Stroker, who won best featured actress in a musical for a sexy, saucy performance as Ado Annie in Oklahoma! arrived onstage.
“This award is for every kid who is watching tonight who has a disability, who has a limitation or a challenge, who has been waiting to see themselves represented in this arena,” she said. “You are.”
The buoyant moment was emblematic of a feel-good evening at the Tonys that featured crowd-pleasing performances, a Broadway-loving host in the form of James Corden and a theme of inclusivity. The big winner: Hadestown, the soulful musical by Anais Mitchell based on an ancient Greek myth, which triumphed over much more traditionally commercial fare.
The victory of Hadestown was also notable for the number of women it brought to the podium; it was not only written by a woman but also directed by one, and producer Mara Isaacs accepted the award. Director Rachel Chavkin won her own Tony, as did Mitchell for best score. In all, Hadestown won eight Tonys.
But despite a great night for a show that began its long, improbable journey to Broadway as a community theatre project in rural Vermont, Chavkin echoed a note of frustration about the persistent lack of diversity on creative teams.
“I wish I wasn’t the only woman directing a musical on Broadway this season,” she said. “There are so many women who are ready to go. There are so many artists of colour who are ready to go. ... This is not a pipeline issue. It is a failure of imagination by a field whose job is to imagine the way the world could be.”
The acting awards brought a slew of satisfying victories for beloved veterans. Comic legend Elaine May, 87, won her first Tony for playing an Alzheimer’s-afflicted grandmother in Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery, charming the crowd with a witty acceptance speech.
And Broadway favourites Santino Fontana and Stephanie J. Block took the top musical acting prizes. Fontana won his first Tony as the cross-dressing lead in Tootsie, an adaptation of the 1982 Dustin Hoffman comedy about a struggling actor who impersonates a woman to get cast in a show.
The actor paid tribute to his late grandmother, a “fiery, red-headed woman” who, he revealed, was an inspiration for his performance: “Every day I get to bring her into the room, and it has been the best experience of my life.”
Block earned her own first Tony for playing a real-life legend – Cher. In an ebullient speech, she told her young daughter: “Mommy won a trophy but like I always tell you, it’s not about winning; it’s about showing up, doing your best, loving all people and finding joy along the way.”
Yet another veteran winning his first Tony – at 73 – was Andre De Shields, best featured actor in a musical for his silky smooth narrator in Hadestown. He thanked his hometown of Baltimore and offered “three cardinal rules of my sustainability and longevity.”
“One, surround yourself with people whose eyes light up when they see you coming,” he said. “Two, slowly is the fastest way to get to where you want to be. And three, the top of one mountain is the bottom of the next, so keep climbing.”
Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, a sweeping Irish family drama, was crowned best play. Butterworth asked the crowd to give his partner, actress Laura Donnelly, a round of applause for giving birth to their two children while appearing in the drama. Her own family tragedy inspired him to write the play.
And in one of the most poignant moments of the night, Sergio Trujillo won the choreography prize for Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of the Temptations, thanking his Colombian family.
He said in his speech that he arrived in New York over three decades ago without legal permission.
“I stand here as proof that the American dream is alive,” he said.
Speaking later at the Plaza Hotel after-party, Trujillo was so moved that he was reduced to tears.
“I have to be able to use my success as a way to inspire and affect change,” he said. “This is what happens,” he said, pointing to the Tony in his hands, “when we get the love and support that we so richly deserve.”
Bryan Cranston won his second Tony for best actor in a play as newscaster Howard Beale in the inventive stage adaptation of the 1976 film Network.
“Finally, a straight old white man gets a break!” he joked, riffing on the evening’s theme of inclusivity. He dedicated his award to real-life journalists: “The media is not the enemy of the people,” he said, in what amounted to the evening’s most obvious jab at the Trump administration.
Corden, in his second stint as host, scored audience points with his obvious affection for Broadway. Among his amusing bits was a tongue-in-cheek attempt to raise ratings by trying to provoke a Nicki Minaj-Cardi B-style beef between Broadway figures.
But his most successful bit may have been one the television audience never saw. During commercial breaks, Corden implored celebrities to sing karaoke.
The huge hit was Billy Porter. After first protesting that he “wasn’t here to work tonight,” Porter, a former Tony winner for Kinky Boots, belted his way through Everything’s Coming Up Roses from Gypsy, earning the crowd’s adoration.
Best featured actress in a play went to Celia Keenan-Bolger for her role as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, and Bertie Carvel won best featured actor in a play for Ink, about Rupert Murdoch.
Legendary designer Bob Mackie won best costume design for a musical for The Cher Show, getting laughs for saying “This is very encouraging for an 80-year-old.”
The dark retelling of Oklahoma! beat the crowd-pleasing, dance-heavy revival of Kiss Me, Kate for best musical revival. The Boys in the Band won best play revival.
The awards cap a strong season for Broadway, with a reported record $1.8 billion in sales, up 7.8 per cent from last season. Attendance was 14.8 million – up 7.1 per cent – and has risen steadily for decades.