How do you measure a year?
Well, at last year’s Tony Awards, Kevin Spacey was the host, making jokes about being in the closet. At this year’s Tony Awards, students from the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School drama department in Parkland, Florida, survivors of the school’s Valentine’s Day massacre, performed the emotional Rent classic “Seasons of Love,” to remember their slain classmates and also celebrate their strength, resilience, and hope for the future.
How do you measure that year? In hate, in injustice, in bullets, shitty men, and darkness. But also, as those students proved, in compassion, grace, in education, fortitude, and so much love.
The segment began with actress Ming-Na Wen honoring Marjorie Stoneman Douglas drama department director Melody Herzfeld, who received a special Excellence in Theatre Education Award, which goes to a K-12 theatre education in recognition of their impact on the lives of their students and includes a $10,000 grant towards the school's theatre program.
Herzfeld is a 15-year teaching veteran who has directed more than 50 productions. On the day of the Parkland shooting, she sheltered 65 of her students in a small office for two hours until help arrived and she could lead all of them to safety. Since the Valentine’s Day massacre she has encouraged her students to use theatre and music to work through their feelings, trauma, and resilience.
“For your dedication to the arts and for your tremendous love for the young people in your care, we, all of us, thank you,” Wen said.
Actor Matthew Morrison then came out to recount a benefit concert that he and several other Broadway stars had performed at along with some of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas students. One of those students, Tanzil Philip, asked to appear on the telecast and give thanks in person to the Broadway community that “showed up in our time of need and brought some much needed light into the dark.”
Instead, the producers invited students from the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas drama department to perform on the stage. And they sounded great! It goes without saying that there was not a dry eye at Radio City, nor likely was there on any couch where theatre fans were watching the moment from home.
That’s the thing about the theatre community: Whether you’re teenagers from Florida rattled by an unspeakable tragedy, Amy Schumer making her Broadway debut, a legend like Patti LuPone, or any of the millions of theatre-loving viewers who have likely taken the stage at some point in their lives, you are united in the same community, by the same values, under the same seasons of love.
All of us leaped to our feet in support when the lights came up on the Parkland students on stage, all of us held our breath waiting to see if the school’s talented young teen girl could hit that infamous Rent high note, all of us let a congratulatory cheer when she did, and all of us wept through their quick curtain call.
The moment was heavy-handed and heartfelt, just like the best theatre moments are. It reminded us of our humanity and capacity for goodness and compassion, just like the best theatre moments do. It was a reminder that pain and love exist in equal parts in life, but we can rally together, sing some songs and hit some high notes, and do what we can to ensure that it’s the latter that prevails.