When people in New York City and around the country woke up to the news that a reportedly homophobic gunman had killed 49 gay people and allies in what amounts to a LGBT mass murder, there was speculation over whether Sunday night’s Tony Awards would be—or should be—postponed.
The ruling, in one of the more poignant iterations of the classic phrase, was that the show must go on. And after watching Sunday night’s telecast, it couldn’t have been a more poignant, inspiring, and, ultimately, necessary decision that it did.
The scared, heartbroken, angry ruminating in the wake of the Orlando attack reminded us that we all have a right to life and right to love, and of the cruelty of taking that away from those 49 people—not to mention the rest of the LGBT community who is reminded that we must continue to live in fear and discomfort because of who we are.
But the Tony Awards Sunday night reminded us of something equally important: We also have a right to joy.
“You are not on your own right now,” host James Corden said in a pretaped opening statement, Broadway’s biggest stars seated in the audience behind him. “Your tragedy is our tragedy. Theater is a place where every race, creed, sexuality, and gender is equal, is embraced, and is loved. Hate will never win. Together we have to make sure of that. Tonight's show stands as a symbol and a celebration of that principle.”
How brave, how bold, how essential to celebrate. How attuned to that intrinsic truth of the theater that its stars led the party.
When a gunman entered that gay club in Orlando, he infiltrated a safe space. It’s a safe space where a group of people cultivate their community and identity, gather in solidarity to be themselves freely, empower, make change, and, yes, have fun. That safe space is threatened.
Without reducing a diverse, ranging community to an arguably stereotypical interest, it’s still worth noting that, historically, the theater has been a safe space for many of those same people. To postpone the Tony Awards on Sunday night would’ve been to symbolically close yet another sanctuary. That instead the telecast played with such heart and empathy meant that the safe space is still open for business. And will always be.
“To the theater kids from any place with stardust in their eyes,” Corden sang in his opening number, reminding us on a day riddled with mortality and sadness that there is still a future—and an inclusive one. He addressed those kids, “Of every color class and race and face and shape and size. To the boys and girls and transgenders, too. To every Broadway would-be.”
The performances on Sunday night were reinvigorating. It was three hours of joy on the night after men and women reveling in the joy of who they are had that taken away from them. The dancing seemed sharper, the singing crisper, the jokes funnier, the energy and the applause louder. It was grief through glee.
Prior to Sunday’s ceremony, Tony Awards Productions announced that it would dedicate Sunday’s ceremony to the victims in Orlando. Statements and dedications like this happen often in the entertainment industry—whether it’s an awards telecast, a sporting event, or what have you—and can seem, though uniformly well-intentioned, mandatory and hollow.
But when it’s the Tony Awards and the Broadway community responding to a mass murder of LGBT people in the throes of Pride Month, it transcends the usual dutifulness of those dedications. It resonates with real meaning, and deep intention.
There’s an inextricable link between the theater community and the LGBT community. I don’t need to tell anyone that. It’s a cliché that I would ordinarily make fun of, were the link not so powerful and extraordinary.
The Tony Awards and Broadway aren’t just for the gays, of course, and that’s what makes the event and the theater community even more significant. For many, it’s either the first (and certainly one of the biggest) places to feel not just welcome, but among—among gay peers and straight people who embrace you, share your interests, and offer an alliance.
Being drawn to theater, Broadway, show tunes, kick lines, jazz hands, and Patti LuPone is, in a way, an instinct; some sort of natural born survival technique you’re compelled to—even before, for many of us, we know why. Or that it’s even a “gay thing” that brings us there.
It manifests itself in the theater kid, who knows he’s home when he’s learning that “Farmer and the Cowman” choreography for the big Oklahoma! dance break during that high school production—and then, on opening night, be applauded for doing something that, maybe for the first time, feels like you.
It’s present in the small-town adolescent who treats the Tony Awards as must-see TV each and every year, even though they’ve never been to Broadway and it would be years before they get to see one of those glossy productions live. It’s not just the LGBT community—Corden’s unpredictably apt opening number about growing up dreaming of being on stage is a testament to that—but it also very much is.
Writer and former Broadway performer Tim Federle has written about this rite of passage in clever tweets both before and after Saturday night’s massacre that remind us why something as simple as an awards show honoring theater is actually almost indescribably profound.
“An entire generation of theater kids who’ll never have to hide their VHS of the Tony Awards so dad doesn’t tape it over with the Super Bowl,” he joked earlier this weekend. Then on Sunday afternoon: “As a kid who grew up watching the Tonys in semi-secret, I plan on blasting the broadcast extra loud and proud tonight.”
For young kids who felt watching the Tony Awards once seemed, for whatever their reasons, a dangerous, embarrassing act—what does this say about who I am?—tuning in again on Sunday night became a forceful, political one: I am proud. I am worthy. And I am going to feel joy.
We’re brazen because of who we are. We’re brazen to feel that joy. To just feel.
To feel the thrill of watching Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast of Hamilton was not unlike watching those old Tony Awards in our suburban living rooms—the prospect of actually seeing the show is the kind of near-impossibility that makes dreaming about it all the more exciting. To feel the heat of those involuntary tears as Lin-Manuel Miranda accepts his award for Best Score with a sonnet that addressed the day’s trauma so beautifully—“Love is love is love is love is love is love is love, cannot be killed or swept aside”—and then collapse weeping into Carole King’s arm immediately after.
To feel the gut-punch of watching Cynthia Erivo sing “I’m Here” from The Color Purple, an anthem about survival, forgiveness, and owning your own existence. To feel the direct line from Jessie Mueller’s voice to our hearts as she sings “She Used to Be Mine” from Waitress, about losing and then rediscovering the elements of yourself that the simple act of living have beaten out of you. What a day for that.
Even just to feel the splendor of Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi singing gorgeously about unexpected love in She Loves Me, or the beautiful image of unsullied brightness and innocence when a chorus of young kids performs together from School of Rock.
At a time when our little community has one of the biggest spotlights on it in its history, thanks to the megawatt reach of Hamilton’s historic shine, the Tony Awards telecast put on a rousing show—and a show of support. “I encourage you to be strong, Orlando,” Frank Langella said in his Best Actor speech. “Because I’m standing in a room full of the most generous human beings on earth and we will be with you every step of the way.”
Maybe messages like this angered critics of the Big Gay Tony Awards. Maybe that’s the point. Our queen Barbra Streisand, presenting Best Musical to Hamilton, said it herself: “Art can entertain us and educate us, and, at times like this, console us.”
From our couches we cry, we smile, we are moved. We leap to our feet—even if just metaphorically—because we are watching the power of live theater. We are watching a celebration of strength, resilience, and empowerment.
On a day of hate, love. On a day of sadness, joy. Hope, at a time when such a thing is still audacious.
Yes, it’s just a silly TV show. And it’s exactly what we need.