They seized the microphone like victorious sportscasters with rapid-fire thank-yous – and had much to be grateful for when their show Dear Evan Hansen won best musical of 2017.
Earlier, songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul won their first joint Tony Award for best score in Dear Evan Hansen – a show that Philadelphians have a special investment in: Lyricist Pasek grew up in Ardmore, and the show’s basic plot was suggested by the death of a high school student Pasek knew from his alma mater, Friends’ Central School.
“We give you the weirdest idea for a musical and you followed us on an eight-year journey,” Pasek said, lauding the show’s producers in a development process that began at Washington’s Arena Stage. When their names were announced, the songwriters ran a gauntlet of hugs and kisses before even getting to the Radio City Music Hall stage, where the awards presentation was held (and televised on CBS).
The win was only the latest in a banner season for the songwriters, who met at the University of Michigan, have written several scores both on and off Broadway, and won an Oscar for their contributions to the score of the hit film La La Land. They’re now working on the high-profile film musical The Greatest Showman, starring Hugh Jackman. And with Dear Evan Hansen doing good business at the Music Box Theater, the show was destined to be a dominant presence at the 71st annual Tony Awards – despite considerable competition from Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, which got 12 nominations, and the popular Come From Away and Groundhog Day.
The first image on the show was 57-year-old host Kevin Spacey dressed as the show’s title character, played by 23-year-old Ben Platt. Platt himself had a huge response for his performance of the Dear Evan Hansen song, “Waving Through a Window,” a study in teenage alienation, and won best actor in a musical. At the end of his speech, Platt proclaimed, “The things that make you strange are the things that make you powerful.”
Among its nine nominations, the show also won for best book for Steven Levenson and best orchestration for Alex Lacamoire. Most poignant of all was Rachel Bay Jones, who won best featured actress in a musical as the often-absent mother in Dear Evan Hansen. Among others, she thanked “my nana, who sold her engagement ring so I could move to New York and become an actor.”
The other Philadelphia-connected play, J.T. Rogers’ Oslo (developed in Philadelphia at PlayPenn in 2015), won best play. And author Rogers, in his many thank yous, didn’t forget PlayPenn as he ran through “everyone in the Oslo family.”
Earlier in the show, Rogers summed up the dramatization of the 1993 Israel/Palestinian Oslo Accords as follows: “Oslo was a real life thriller born out of my desire to ask this question: What would it be to have the courage to sit across from you enemy and see them as a fellow human being?”
With such theatrical ambitions, it was no surprise when Andre Bishop, artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater, cited Rogers as evidence that “we’re in a golden age of American play writing.”
PlayPenn’s artistic director, Paul Meshejian, said, “At PlayPenn, we have embraced J.T’s last three plays, the latest being Oslo, each one surpassing its predecessor toward his mastery of entertaining us, moving us and making us laugh while making us think. I could not be more thrilled to have played a small role in supporting the work of one of this country’s finest dramatists.”
“It’s impossible to imagine my writing life without PlayPenn’s support,” Rogers added after his win. “Over the last 11 years, my collaborators at PlayPenn have become part of my theatrical family. As a playwright, I’ve never experienced any place like it. Here is an organization that gives you space, time, and resources to hone your voice. All that’s asked in return is that you write the greatest possible work you can. My God. What a gift.”
Oslo also had a major win early on for Michael Aronov as a flamboyant negotiator.
Many of the Tony nominees were up for awards for the first time – evidence of the young talent now working on Broadway. And some of them were names and faces familiar to Philadelphia theatergoers. Mimi Lien from Pig Iron won best scenic design for a musical for Natasha, Pierre. Rebecca Taichman, who won the best play director Tony for Paula Vogel’s Indecent, also directed the Opera Philadelphia production of the Nico Muhly opera Dark Sisters in 2012.
In general, the telecast was lively, with Spacey doing impressions of people from Johnny Carson to ex-President Bill Clinton. Bette Midler simply refused to curtail her speech despite intervention from the pit orchestra. “This is the cherry on the cake,” she said. And much else that was blipped out from the live telecast.
Stephen Colbert had any number of barbs aimed at President Trump, talking about how the show hasn’t received good reviews and may not last four years. “Could close early,” he said. “We don’t know.”