It was a fitting opening for the show, not just because most did actually go home empty-handed thanks to The Band’s Visit's domination in many of the major categories, but also because many winners and presenters, in lieu of endless thank-yous and shop talk, used their platforms to reference, if not outright address, current events and issues happening outside of New York City’s famed Radio City Music Hall.
In one of the evening’s biggest moments, the Tonys celebrated the resilience of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed in a mass shooting earlier this year. First, drama teacher Melody Herzfeld, who protected students in her office during the attack, accepted an award for excellence in theater education before the broadcast and received an on-camera shoutout. Then Matthew Morrison introduced the students of the drama department, who performed a rendition of “Seasons of Love” from Rent that, judging by audience cutaway shots, had most in the room in tears.
Many winners used their acceptance speeches to reference the political climate. Andrew Garfield, accepting the award for lead actor in a play for his role in Angels in America, dedicated his win to the LGBTQ community “at a moment in time when maybe the most important thing we remember right now is the sanctity of the human spirit.” His co-star Nathan Lane, winning for best featured actor in a play, said the Angels in America revival -- which later won best revival of a play -- “is speaking to us as powerfully as ever in the midst of such political insanity.” (While introducing Bruce Springsteen later in the evening, Robert DeNiro tried to put it more succinctly -- “Fuck Trump” -- but was no match for CBS censors.)
Others used their time at the microphone to highlight a range of serious topics, from mental-health support to the importance of diversity and inclusion in theater and beyond. In light of the recent deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, David Cromer, accepting win for best direction of a musical for The Band’s Visit, addressed those currently struggling with depression: “If you are suffering, please call out, and for those of us who are fortunate not to be suffering so deeply, let's make sure that we answer them.”
Lindsay Mendez, winning for best performance by a featured actress in a musical for Carousel, spoke about the pressure she faced to change her name to Matthews when she began her career and thanked the the room for embracing her anyway when she refused. Later in the evening, Ari’el Stachel, whose Broadway debut in The Band’s Visit won him the award featured actor in a musical, expressed gratitude for being part of a production that celebrated Middle Eastern culture before turning to his parents in the audience and explaining how he used to feel embarrassed to bring them to events when he was younger, worried that their presence would call negative attention to his heritage.
The show wasn’t without moments of levity, thanks to Groban’s and Bareilles’ commendable hosting duties and a number of eye-catching performances from the companies of Mean Girls and Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, among others. Between an elaborate tap-dancing number from the SpongeBob Squarepants musical’s Squidward (Gavin Lee) and an appearance from Sven the reindeer during a Frozen medley, there were also plenty of critter characters getting a chance to shine -- not to mention an actual goat that came out during a performance from the cast of Once on This Island, which won best musical revival that evening.
Throughout the night, viewers were encouraged to share pictures of their childhood theater productions on social media with the hashtag #TonyDreaming, while presenters’ own photos flashed on stage throughout the evening -- a feature that lent an endearing “just happy to be here” mood to the entire evening. The inclusivity of the theater community came up repeatedly, and it got a particular thank-you from one of Broadway’s newest but most esteemed members: Bruce Springsteen, who received a special award for his Springsteen on Broadway show and, later in the broadcast, performed a combo of spoken-word piece about his childhood and his song “My Hometown.”
The final acceptance speech of the night -- Orin Wolf, accepting the award for best musical for The Band’s Visit -- touched on the two things the evening's honorees devoted the most airtime to: the warm, welcoming, and tight-knit nature of the world of Broadway, and the chaos of everything happening outside theater doors. “Our show offers a message of unity in a world that more and more seems bent on amplifying our differences,” Wolf said. “In the end, we are more alike than different, and I’m so proud to be a part of a community that supports that message.”