Tragedy is the root source of Western theater, and the mood of the Broadway community -- Tony winners, presenters and audience members alike -- was understandably sobered by the terror attack earlier Sunday in Orlando.
The awards ceremony, which was dedicated to the victims, their families and their friends, should have been strictly a celebration of talent, imagination and hard work, and gaiety in all its definitions. It should have been a lovefest for "Hamilton," the phenomenal musical that garnered a record-breaking 16 nominations. It was all those things, in part -- the 11 prizes won by "Hamilton," and the ones that went to the competition, were applauded with gusto and good cheer, as were all the nominees in all the categories.
But what this Tony ceremony was, more than anything, was a testament to the gallantry and spirit of the theater community. This weekend's news from Orlando grieved all Americans. But for Americans who work in the theater, the killing of patrons at a gay nightclub
as well as the killing Friday of entertainer Christina Grimmie
, struck extraordinarily close to home.
Whether gay or straight, participants took note of what Frank Langella, accepting his Tony for best actor in a play with a moving speech, called "a hideous dose of reality." Barbra Streisand, presenting the best musical award to "Hamilton," said, "Our joy is tinged with sorrow." Jessica Lange, having won the best actress Tony for her performance in "Long Day's Journey Into Night," sounded almost apologetic for being filled with happiness "on such a sad day as this."
She was among the many wearing loops of silver ribbon to honor the dead in an eerie echo of the red ribbons that appeared on the ball gowns and tuxes of Tonygoers during the AIDS crisis.
Despite its unprecedented 16 nominations, booming box-office and Grammy, Pulitzer and other prizes already in hand, "Hamilton" didn't quite make Tony history Sunday night -- its 11 prizes were one shy of the 12 won by "The Producers." But Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical has become a Broadway milestone anyway.
Further evidence is probably unnecessary, but I don't recall a Tony broadcast that featured an American president and first lady introducing one of the excerpts from a nominated show. Yet there they were on tape, President and Mrs. Obama, before the "Hamilton" cast performed "Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)" -- in another sign of respect for the Orlando victims, without the prop muskets that usually appear in this bustling, brilliantly choreographed battle sequence.
Even longtime observers who have seen this kind of acclaim for a show before -- the ones who remember the hype, the ticket frenzies and the deluge of awards that accompanied "Hair" in 1968, "A Chorus Line" in 1975, "Rent" in 1996, "The Producers" in 2001 and "The Book of Mormon" in 2011 -- have been awed by the way "Hamilton" has become a blockbuster cultural touchstone.
The blockbuster aspect is tied to the fact that theater, the ultimate live entertainment, is now irreversibly tied to the computer screen. It's how audiences and ticket brokers get tickets -- the scarcity has been attributed to mass buying by resellers -- and it's how Miranda's performance at the White House lands on YouTube, and how shows publicize their offerings.
But besides its presidential imprimatur, "Hamilton" also has a pop following, and the admiration of critics, scholars and people across the country who know it only from its multiple television spots. The reasons are many -- most embedded within this remarkable, unlikely musical.
The nub of the show's originality, and its appeal, is probably Miranda's daring, foundational insight -- that Alexander Hamilton and his co-revolutionaries were proto-hip-hoppers, that Hamilton's almost obsessive writing was akin to the word-floods of rappers.
Rap scores have been on Broadway before, not least in Miranda's first Tony shot, "In the Heights," which won best musical in 2008. But in "Hamilton," the exuberant spontaneity of rap is wedded to Miranda's extensive knowledge of traditional Broadway craftsmanship. He has Aaron Burr quoting Oscar Hammerstein, King George III quoting the Beatles, and scattered references to the entire history of the Broadway musical.
The history the show is most concerned with, is, of course, American history, and the ways in which it is informed not just by the visionary men who forged a nation out of 13 Colonies, but by their women and its other overlooked groups (it's no accident that the cast is multiracial and multi-ethnic). My personal favorite moment comes when Hamilton and Lafayette give a shout-out to the country's immigrants (I'm one).
Miranda has an acute, wry eye, and the script's parallels with current political struggles are both frighteningly apt and funny. At the same time, there's an earnestness that reflects Miranda's deepest feelings for his hometown -- "the greatest city in the world," sing the Schuyler sisters -- and for his nation: "Raise a glass to freedom, something they can never take away."
So in a way, "Hamilton," a paean to the ongoing social experiment that is the United States, became a fitting theme for the 2016 Tonys. The theater, with its openness and diversity, stands in stark contrast to the closed minds and hatreds exemplified by the Orlando shootings.
The show recognizes the "chaos and bloodshed" that characterized the American Revolution. But in honoring it, the Tonys provide a counter-narrative to Orlando, as Miranda himself pointed out after winning the best score Tony: "When senseless acts of tragedy remind us that nothing is promised, not one day, this show is proof that history remembers." He concluded, "Love cannot be killed or swept aside."