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Were the Tony Awards a strike for unity or division?

The Tony Awards returned this month, recognising the incredible achievements on Broadway over the past year, and it was a night that was very keen on stressing unity and inclusivity. Did it succeed, or were the Tonys just another stuffy award show, far away from the real world?

The night started off with a fantastic self-parodying number dedicated to the losers out there – sung by co-hosts Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles (who have neither a Grammy nor a Tony between them). The entertaining ballad started the show off on a high note (no pun intended). The Band’s Visit and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child were the night’s big winners, and headline-dominated shows like Frozen, Mean Girls and Spongebob Squarepants went home empty-handed.

Were the Tonys just another stuffy award show, far away from the real world?

The crux of the night was its highlighting of inclusion and positivity – theatre, it suggested, was a tool to bring the community together. Victors’ speeches were full of laudations for the virtues of respect and dignity, and the votes backed them up. The Tonys wanted to make a statement, and they succeeded. This was best exemplified when some Parkland drama students performed Rent’s ‘Seasons of Love’ to honour their theatre teacher, who helped saved dozens of lives during the shooting – a powerful moment that spoke for the best of the theatre.

That said, the majority of the event coverage was taken over by Robert De Niro. Taking to the stage to present an award to Bruce Springsteen, the actor angrily spat out, “F- Trump.” The audience laughed and cheered. “It’s no longer down with Trump,” he continued, “but f- Trump.” He shook his fists in the air, and the crowd leapt to their feet to give him a standing ovation. In one moment, according to some commentators, De Niro had helped Trump regain the presidency in 2020. If Trump’s biggest success was standing against a supposed elite class that hates anyone below them in society, De Niro’s outburst reinforced that idea to a tee. It was a wonderful summary of Democratic response in the age of Trump: rather than a message of positivity, De Niro used his platform to express clear unbridled hatred for the other side. Nothing screams speaking truth to power like hurling obscenities about a guy you don’t like in front of rich, privileged people who agree with you.

Rather than a message of positivity, De Niro used his platform to express clear unbridled hatred for the other side

Less angry, but no less intolerant, was Andrew Garfield’s Tony acceptance speech. Garfield took the Tony for Best Leading Actor for Angels in America, playing a young gay man living with AIDS in the 1980s. He dedicated his win to the LGBTQ community, and said that the play is a rejection of bigotry, shame and oppression. All good sentiments, but he then went on to say that we should “just bake a cake for everyone who wants a cake to be baked,” making reference to a recent US Supreme Court decision which ruled in favour of a baker’s right to deny a gay couple a wedding cake based on his beliefs. The implication is that people should be forced to do stuff they have a fundamental objection to in the name of tolerance, and that strikes me as fundamentally intolerant. No-one’s telling Andrew Garfield what roles he should take – why is he using his platform to tell a small business owner who to serve?

The heart of the evening had been undercut by these two names. Although the point of the night is to stress inclusivity and the value of diversity,  the main takeaway is that Broadway hates the views of half the country. For a lot of people, theatre is a luxury that doesn’t interest them, and so the theatre caters for a niche audience to minimise the economic risk. Stray footfall is simply a cherry on top, but it’s not an end goal in and of itself. The theatre is simply not a world that really crosses over with the general public in the way that TV and film do. It’s a shame that, now, when people think of Broadway, the first thing to come to mind will be a frothing and furious Robert De Niro, rather than the magical The Band’s Visit. A night that ought to have promoted tolerance has now reinforced division.

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