Tony Awards Review – Broadway 2019: So Brave, So Bold, So Boring!
By Pat Reeder
(“Huckabee” writer and resident pop culture guru)
Friends have called me the only straight man in Texas who watches the Tony Awards, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the overnight ratings reflect that. In fact, I am a fan of live theater, my wife has appeared in a number of musicals, and I’m considered something of a history/trivia expert on Broadway and vaudeville. Laura and I were even voters in the top Dallas theater awards for a while. All this preface is just to confirm that I’m not a stereotypical “Flyover Country” redneck carping about the freaky world of Broadway when I say to the NYC theater community represented by the Tony Awards: “For the love of Mike, will you tone down the wokeness, already?! It’s like you’re virtue-signaling from a lighthouse!”
I’d say that the endless pounding of the inclusion/diversity bell is starting to feel like the Chinese water torture, except I’d probably get complaints that it was offensive to the Chinese. The Broadway theater community must be like that old New Yorker cover showing nothing to the west of the Hudson River, because if anyone there ever visited the rest of America, they’d realize that they’re still giving themselves medals for fighting a battle they won a long time ago. On some level, they must know this: in one sketch, host James Corden expressed surprise at bumping into last year’s host Sara Bareilles in the men’s bathroom, and she scoffed, “It’s 2019, get over it.” If only she’d said that to everyone else in the joint.
In Tony world, it is perpetually pre-civil rights/pre-Stonewall Riots AmeriKKKa, and they are incredibly brave for hiring a woman or casting a black or disabled actor against type, or mounting a play about gays or transsexuals. News flash: these days, you suffer worse recriminations for declining to cater a gay wedding than for having one.
One of this year’s musicals, “The Prom,” is actually about four Broadway actors heading to the Midwest to save the day after intolerant school officials cancel the prom rather than let a girl bring her lesbian date. In real-life 2019 America, complaining about a lesbian couple at the prom would get you thrown out of school and doxed on Twitter. You’d also be expelled for complaining if the lesbian couple came into the boy’s bathroom while you were standing at the urinal.
The crowd at the Tony Awards erupted in approving cheers at the end of a musical number from “The Prom” when the lesbian high school couple kissed on national TV. Take that, homophobic Middle American viewing audience! Except the “intolerant” Americans they thought they were enlightening replied with a collective yawn. FYI: “Glee,” a show filled with gay high schoolers doing musical numbers, debuted on TV ten years ago and ran for six years.
We also get lots of shows meant to open our eyes to the fact that drag queens are here, they’re queer, so get used to it! Well, we are used to it. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is in its 11th season on TV. One of this year’s nominated musicals about a guy in a dress, “Tootsie,” is based on a hit movie from 1982. We’ve had 37 years to get used to that.
A little research reveals that the famous wisecrack about homosexuality, “The love that dares not speak its name has become the love that will not shut up,” is attributed to several people, all of whom have been dead since the mid-1990s. Maybe living in a world of perpetual drama induces you like to think of yourself as part of a brave band of heroes standing up to some huge, powerful enemy when the truth is most of those people don’t even think of you at all except to get annoyed when you constantly shove your sexual proclivities in their faces as they’re just trying to go about their own lives.
By the same token, a “diversity”-cast retooling of “Oklahoma” won for Best Revival and was hailed as revolutionary. I saw a racially-diverse production of “Oklahoma” by a suburban Dallas theater company at least ten years ago. Tip for future producers: casting a black Jud Fry and a white Curly and Laurie gives the show a really uncomfortable undertone.
The stale, smug group-think is so oppressive that the people involved don’t even recognize their own prejudices. For instance, one Tony winner got big applause for declaring that we must make Broadway “less male, less cis, and less white!” Congratulations on using your big moment on national TV to promote sexism, racism and heterophobia (I seem to recall him being white and male, but I didn’t notice him passing his award on to a Haitian lesbian.) “Inclusion” would be calling for hiring more women, minorities or LGBTQ+ people, not calling for hiring fewer people just because they’re straight, white or male. That’s called “bigotry.” If he did that out in unenlightened Flyover Country, he’d be slapped with an EEOC lawsuit.
There were countless examples of this kind of reverse bigotry dressed up as tolerance and inclusion. Personally, I don’t care what the color, sexual orientation, disability status, etc. is of anyone in a show. All I expect is some entertainment for my ticket dollar. One way to do that would be to engage us with fresh, timely stories. Instead, we get the same tired self-empowerment tropes rehashed over and over, because to them, “diversity” is skin-deep.
The real diversity that gives rise to interesting stories is intellectual diversity: the clash of opposing ideas. But they have no interest in learning about or honestly presenting the ideas or life situations of anyone outside their insular world. I know a great writer for TV and theater with whom I won’t even discuss politics because he’s made it clear that he will cut out anyone who might defend Trump – a weird stance for someone whose job is creating believable characters of various viewpoints. William F. Buckley put it best when he said, “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.” (Again, to illustrate how long that’s been true, Buckley has been dead since 2008.)
You really want to shock us with some radical diversity? Try presenting a play that has even one character who is an intelligent, sympathetic, non-monstrous Trump voter. Or how about a story about a kind, decent Christian who’s targeted for his beliefs by a leftist Twitter mob? That would show me that you value real diversity of thought and that you actually know what year it is.
On a side note: there was surprisingly little Trump-bashing (aside from Bryan Cranston’s speech – he defended the media against “demagoguery” as he picked up a prize for playing Howard Beale in “Network,” a TV news man who at first rants his own crazy opinions, then spouts the beliefs of his corporate masters. Sound like any real news anchors you know?)
Still, there was an overall theme that we are living through dark, scary times that only the healing power of diversity-embracing theater can help us to survive. Yet they also mentioned that in the past year, Broadway has set records for both ticket sales and box office receipts. Sounds as if things must be going pretty well if that many Americans have money again and feel upbeat enough to spend it on expensive entertainment. Mighty peaceful and prosperous apocalypse we’re suffering through. Wonder who might be to thank for that?
There’s an old truism: The first thing to get dull is the cutting edge. Sorry, Broadway, you’re not “shocking” or enlightening us with this strident, predictable, repetitive and self-righteous wokeness passing as cutting-edge theater. You’re just boring us.
I like to end on a positive note, so I’ll just say that I’m glad Elaine May won and that the play that bashes the Constitution lost.
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