The previous time James Corden hosted the Tony Awards, the CBS late-night host was distinctly absorbed by events onstage and off. His final parts on the Tonys stage, in 2016, transpiring against the backdrop of a “Hamilton” sweep, but they were also occurring in the wake of a massacre of largely gay people of color at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando prior that morning. Corden’s presence on that broadcast was subdued and affirming. Regardless of what one thinks of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s declaration that night that “love is love is love is love,” it was Miranda’s, and not Corden’s, voice that set the evening’s tone.
Corden, though as much or more a part of the actual broadcast this year, felt likewise absent from his second Tonys hosting gig, and not because he was swamped by events — or, at least, nothing particularly new. Given so many potential uses of the least-widely-viewed and thus most potentially freewheeling of the four major American awards shows, Corden’s absence of ideas felt notable, and a bit astonishing. The Tonys don’t need to be “political” in the way that, say, the 2019 Grammys did. But, given that this show is meant to represent the collected talent of the artistic population we understand as best-equipped to put on a show, Corden’s work seemed improper even to a moment at which all seemed resolved to talk about not much of anything at all.
His first number, which began with the “Late Late Show” host sitting on a couch, was based on the idea that there is simply too much good TV on nowadays, before making a jumbled argument that theater is better than TV because it is actually live; but, TV, especially Corden’s network home of CBS, is actually amazing and doing great work; but theater is also special, too, in that it’s doing its own kind of thing. The thematic bafflement was meant to be drowned out by an increasing drumbeat of stomps from the hoofers who joined Corden onstage — and, to be fair, their emergence from out from under his couch felt something like magic. That magic faded. As the number, fueled on its journey into incoherence by more and more appearances from the various companies of nominated shows, ground on, it was deafening, enlightening. “We do it live,” Corden kept repeating, mantra-like — but the phrase’s cruel contradiction was that, for all live theater lends its charge, it requires significant work and thought beforehand. A couple more strong rehearsals early on might have refined both the message and the performance.
It really did not have to be this way. The Corden opening number seemed like a pretty explicit rip-off of “Bigger!,” the kind-hearted Neil Patrick Harris number still vaunted as the gold standard of Tonys openings, the one from 2013 in which Harris brought on “Pippin” circus performers and “Bring It On” cheerleaders in service of the idea that a Broadway infused with possibility is genuinely larger than life. Speaking to young people watching at home, Harris declared, “I promise you all of us out there tonight, we were that kid!” Corden’s assertion that theater is sometimes better than television, if the conditions are right, felt limp by comparison.
And Corden just kept coming around, with the concept of the excitement around live theater de-emphasized each time by the staleness of his material. His ubiquity emphasized by the peculiarity of the cuts. Both Elaine May (an entertainment industry legend) and André De Shields (a performer new to many viewers who later made his presence known during the performance from his show, “Hadestown”) saw their powerful, genuinely thought-through speeches cut short significantly early by an overzealous orchestra. Neither of them were reading from lists of names. Both had things to say and were saying them relatively speedily. They were, if anything, profusely cautious of their time, perhaps aware that the show was destined to run too long for the producers’ taste — a message indicated by the producers sending everyone from lifetime achievement award winners Judith Light and Terrence McNally to costume award winner Bob Mackie to the pre-show.
That time, likely in the minds of CBS or of the show’s producers, was more well-spent with Corden, re-heating material practically as old as the televised awards ceremony itself, whether asking members of the audience to show off what their face might look like if they were to lose an award or stepping into the nosebleeds to hang out with the plebes in the audience . The fact that the Oscars, a show not clearly centered around musical performances and one that might seem to need an emcee, had got ridden of a host this year and allowed the show’s highlights to shine all the more seemed like a reality lost on the Tonys, a show whose core audience will watch regardless, and in numbers enough to elevate it over a typical June night on CBS. Most telling of the absence to grasp this was the musical number in which Corden appeared with last year’s hosts Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban — those two performers, occupying platforms of less reach than Corden’s own, were required to lend him a touch, or more, of showmanship, and to consume time that might be spent in any other manner, on any capable performer.
That quality of showmanship — the simple sense of taking joy in a production having been brought across well — seemed woefully absent from a broadcast that has basically no other reason to exist. Likely most people who watch the Tonys never have seen and never will see a nominated show in Manhattan; for that audience, a production brought off well before the cameras is the ceremony’s point vastly more than is a list of winners. And, again and again, performances seemed to default to a kind of supercut style, whereby sheer enormity stood in for artistry. Was it impressive when the scrim came up during the “Ain’t Too Proud” number, revealing a massive complement of dancers and a live band, or when all the Chers ran in during the “Cher Show” number, revealing a show of mass quantity if not detectable insights about the person behind the legend, or when “The Prom’s performance” shed the character shading of its first moments to reveal a big, bold, contextually meaningless dance number? Of course. Those people were working hard; in its way, it was more impressive than TV.
But virtually nothing on the broadcast carried the charge of a cohesive performance from beginning to end, one designed to tell a story rather than simply cow the audience into submission. One of the scarce ones that tried, unfortunately, was “Tootsie,” which actually might have used a bit more pop; in an era in which “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has taken over the culture, the transformation of Michael Dorsey into Dorothy Michaels is not, aided only by a few unsteady steps into the spotlight by “Dorothy” rather than a full-fledged strut, a showstopper. Perhaps the most elegantly-executed performance was from “Oklahoma!,” carried off imperfectly — notably with all performers somewhat awkwardly placing their backs to the seated audience — but with a genuine spirit of eagerness and an attempt to try to do something other than just get through the thing. That, to me, is what “doing it live” is all about — not just aimlessly stating that something is “superior than TV,” but proving that the practitioners involved are as great as they can be. Would that Corden had been able to take a memo from them, or that CBS resolves next year to allow such authentic situations to bleed through a broadcast meant for lovers of things actually live.