THEATER’S BIG NIGHT

‘F*ck Trump’: Robert De Niro and the Loud Message of the Tony Awards

‘The Band’s Visit,’ standing alone in a sea of vintage or mass-market competitors, won big Sunday. The winners echoed Robert De Niro’s anti-Trump sentiments—if less profanely.

Theo Wargo/Getty

The message of the 72nd Tony Awards was crystallized by Robert De Niro, whose repeated “Fuck Trump” message may have been bleeped out by CBS but will have almost certainly been loud enough for the president to hear in Singapore.

There may even be a presidential tweet-storm about De Niro. Whatever, it will likely become the predictable Monday morning controversy around the awards. It would be a shame if it totally overshadowed the evening’s array of accomplishments.

In the most rousing victory of the evening—the 10 Tony Awards won by The Band’s Visit, standing alone as a Tony-nominated musical on the Great White Way not hooked to a vintage, or known mass-market brand—Tony voters delivered their own message to Broadway theater owners and producers.

Quite beside the De Niro headlines, the whole evening amounted to a “fuck you” to the politics of division and hatred that many involved in Broadway productions see the president as embodying.

The evening was also a British rout. From the West End of London, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two, a stunningly mounted original play based on the popular boy-wizard now all grown up, was the big winner in the play category, winning six awards, including Best Play.

Brits Andrew Garfield and Glenda Jackson won lead actor and lead actress gongs, respectively, for the London transfer of Angels in America, and the revival of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, directed by Joe Mantello.

Locked out of the awards was Mean Girls (and its book writer, Tina Fey), with Carousel, My Fair Lady, and SpongeBob Squarepants all not performing as well as some had expected.

Throughout the evening there were messages, direct and indirect, aimed at supporting LGBTQ people, and at those feeling attacked, alone, or just creative and yearning. They weren’t hokey messages either. This year’s Tony Awards were a corrective to the Kevin Spacey Tonys of 2017; you know, where he joked about being in the closet, just before he was accused of abuse by Anthony Rapp, then decided to out himself as gay as some weird, useless outrage defuser in the ensuing controversy.

That was only a year ago; it feels like 50.

Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles were very deliberately chosen hosts for this year’s awards, for what is there to object to here? They were sweetly funny, and sang ditties about being Tony losers at the beginning, and then encouraged theater nerds to send in pictures of themselves in their first productions. The evening had a sweetness to it; not a cloying sweetness but actually the kind of sweetness a good awards show should have—a true joy and pleasure in sharing one’s craft, even if, as Groban and Bareilles sang, one is losing while celebrating.

The Band’s Visit is the archetypal little musical that could. A beautiful, original piece of work—based on Eran Kolirin’s 2007 film—about an Egyptian band in an Israeli town, it speaks powerfully about cultural understanding and meeting. The show not only won Best Musical but also Lead Actor and Lead Actress and Supporting Actor in a Musical (for Tony Shalhoub, Katrina Lenk, and Ari’el Stachel, respectively).

Stachel spoke movingly about the importance of the show, a story about Arabs and Israelis getting along. He also spoke about how difficult it was to be an actor of Middle Eastern descent like him after 9/11, and then to young people watching, he said to remember that what seems like an obstacle now may become, at its best, a purpose in life later. 

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When Andrew Garfield accepted his lead actor award for a play for his role in Angels in America, an acclaimed transfer of Tony Kushner’s epic play about AIDS, survival, and gay life and love, from London’s National Theatre, he gave an impassioned speech in tribute to the LGBTQ activists of past and present who had fought against bigotry.

The first surprise of the evening was Laurie Metcalf’s victory in the featured actress in a play category for her role in Three Tall Women, opposite Glenda Jackson, who won the lead actress in a play category. (Denise Gough was highly regarded in the featured category for her role in Angels in America.)

Lindsay Mendez won the equivalent musical award for her role in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel and gave an emotional speech about diversity, revealing she had been recommended to change her name to Matthews at the beginning of her career. “Be your true self, and the world will take note,” she said.

When Nathan Lane won for featured actor in a play for Angels in America—where he threatens, rails, and falls apart as the evil Roy Cohn—he choked up as he paid tribute to his husband. He also spoke to Angels’ relevance today at a time of “such political insanity.” Kushner’s emails were Pulitzer-worthy, he added. (The play won prestigious awards, though its director, Marianne Elliott, lost out to fellow Brit John Tiffany for Harry Potter.)

Glenda Jackson also took aim at President Trump. Winning the lead actress in a play award for Three Tall Women, the British actress said, noting how welcome she had always felt here. “America has never needed that more," Jackson said of the kindness and generosity she had discovered here, "but then America is always great.”

When David Cromer won the best musical directing Tony for The Band’s Visit, he asked—perhaps with the apparent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain in mind—that anyone suffering call out for help.

John Tiffany, who won the play directing Tony for Harry Potter, took the opportunity to lead the audience in a rendition of “Happy Birthday” to his boyfriend, David, who may have been overcome, or mortified. Or both, it was hard to tell.

Sadly, TV audiences were denied the opportunity to hear the lifetime achievement speeches of Chita Rivera and Andrew Lloyd Webber—which, considering their massed achievements and contributions to theater, seemed like a poor editorial decision on CBS’ part. They have more than earned their prime-time moment.

The best revival of a play was won by Angels in America, giving Kushner himself the opportunity to encourage voters to hit the polls at the midterm elections “to save our democracy,” and also: “What kind of homosexual would I be if I didn’t say, June 10th, ‘Happy birthday, Judy Garland.’”

Another surprise came when Once on This Island won for best musical revival, beating out My Fair Lady and Carousel.

Tony Shalhoub, winner of lead actor in a musical for The Band’s Visit, also spoke of his immigrant past, and his forebears’ resourcefulness, creativity, and selflessness. “May we their descendants never lose sight of what they taught us,” he said.

His co-star Katrina Lenk beat out competition from My Fair Lady’s Lauren Ambrose for best actress in a musical, before The Band’s Visit capped its extraordinary evening, winning Best Musical. Its producer Orin Wolf again emphasized music and art’s power to bring together.

It was the last, politest, but still emphatic “fuck Donald Trump” at the 72nd Tony Awards.

Full list of 2018 Tony winners

Best Play: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two

Best Musical: The Band’s Visit

Best Revival of a Play: Angels in America

Best Revival of a Musical: Once on This Island

Lead Actor, Play: Andrew Garfield, Angels in America

Lead Actress, Play: Glenda Jackson, Three Tall Women

Lead Actor, Musical: Tony Shalhoub, The Band’s Visit

Lead Actress, Musical: Katrina Lenk, The Band’s Visit

Actor Featured Role, Play: Nathan Lane, Angels in America

Actress Featured Role, Play: Laurie Metcalf, Three Tall Women

Actor, Featured Role, Musical: Ari’el Stachel, The Band’s Visit

Actress, Featured Role, Musical: Lindsay Mendez, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel

Book of a Musical: Itamar Moses, The Band’s Visit

Original Score: David Yazbek, The Band’s Visit

Scenic Design, Play: Christine Jones, Harry Potter

Scenic Design, Musical: David Zinn, SpongeBob Squarepants, The Musical

Costume Design, Play: Katrina Lindsay, Harry Potter

Costume Design, Musical: Catherine Zuber, My Fair Lady

Lighting Design, Play: Neil Austin, Harry Potter

Lighting Design, Musical: Tyler Micoleau, The Band’s Visit

Sound Design, Play: Gareth Fry, Harry Potter

Sound Design, Musical: Kai Harada, The Band’s Visit

Direction, Play: John Tiffany, Harry Potter

Direction, Musical: David Cromer, The Band’s Visit

Choreography: Justin Peck, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel

Orchestrations: Jamshied Sharifi, The Band’s Visit

Lifetime Achievement: Chita Rivera, Andrew Lloyd Webber

Regional Theatre: La Mama E.T.C.

Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award: Nick Scandalios

Special Tony Awards: John Leguizamo, Bruce Springsteen

For Excellence in Theatre: Sara Krulwich, Bessie Nelson, Ernest Winzer Cleaners