Tony awards: The Band's Visit and Harry Potter triumph in politically charged ceremony

Parkland students perform as drama teacher Melody Herzfeld receives award

The Band’s Visit, an Israel-based musical adapted from a 2007 movie, was the major winner at this year’s Tony awards, winning 10 trophies at American theatre’s biggest night of the year.

Ari’el Stachel, who won the Tony for best featured actor in a musical for his role in the show, said the musical was “a small story about Arabs and Israelis getting along, at a time when we need that more than ever”.

It was also a big night for British stars and productions with the Broadway transfer of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child winning seven awards, including best play. Glenda Jackson also won best lead actress in a play for her role in Three Tall Women.

She said she would like to thank the audience, who were “from every other country in the world” which she said were welcoming of others. “And America has never needed that more. And America is always great,” she said.

Andrew Garfield was named best lead actor in a play for his role in Angels in America. The 1980s-set play by American playwright Tony Kushner was revived recently by the National Theatre in London and is now taking Broadway by storm, decades after it first smashed taboos on stage with its dramatisation of love and loss at the height of the Aids crisis.

The prize was deemed a contest between Garfield and Denzel Washington for his performance in another revival, The Iceman Cometh.

Andrew Garfield accepts his award.
Andrew Garfield accepts his Tony award for Angels in America. Photograph: Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards

Garfield dedicated his award to “the spirit of the LGBT community” and the “sanctity” of his character’s spirit in the play. “We are all made perfectly,” he said.

Nathan Lane won best featured actor in a revival for his role in the play, and tearfully thanked his husband from the stage. Angels in America, which was also named best revival, has become the play with the most Tony nominations in Broadway history.

Kushner said: “It’s 21 weeks to November and the [US] midterm elections, 21 weeks to make sure that the right of citizens to vote is protected and exercised … to save our democracy … our country … our planet.”

The speech was of a piece with an evening in which the personal was very political, with stars speaking up for gay rights, feminism, immigration and help for mental health problems, and against gun violence and conflict in the Middle East.

The politics was mostly implicitly rather than explicitly hostile to the administration of Donald Trump – right up until the veteran actor Robert De Niro got on stage, and dropped the F-bomb on the president. He found himself cut from audio by television station CBS, whose broadcast went silent for several moments.

It didn’t take long for social media to fill in the gaps, though, with Twitter users quoting him telling the crowd at New York’s Radio City Music Hall: “I’m going to say one thing: ‘Fuck Trump’.” The audience mostly erupted in cheers and laughter and gave him a standing ovation as he added: “It’s no longer ‘down with Trump’, it’s ‘fuck Trump’.”

A number of members from The Band’s Visit – which is about Egyptian members of a police orchestra, who mistakenly find themselves in a far-flung Israeli town – called for hope, unity and “making borders disappear”.

The cast and crew of The Band’s Visit.
The cast and crew of The Band’s Visit, which won 10 Tony awards. Photograph: Andrew H Walker/Rex/Shutterstock

The musical also picked up the Tony for best lead actor (Tony Shalhoub) and actress (Katrina Lenk). Shalhoub choked up as he recalled his father “arriving on a boat from Lebanon” at the age of eight, and talked of the courage of his forebears in migrating to America.

The stage star Patti Lupone struck the loudest feminist note of the night. In an awards show that did not speak up explicitly about the #MeToo movement against sexual assault and harassment, she reminded the audience that she was on stage representing the American Theatre Wing: the foundation that organises the Tonys and was founded during the first world war by the suffragette movement.

“I have a deep appreciation for outspoken women,” she said.

Nostalgia was on display in the number of revivals on Broadway, and shows that have evolved from the screen – such as Frozen, Mean Girls and Spongebob Squarepants, which were shut out from almost all the musical awards in favour of The Band’s Visit. Carousel, the revival of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic, mostly lost out, but won the Tony for best featured actress in a musical, via the favourite for the prize, Lindsay Mendez.

In her speech she said she had been told to change “Mendez” to a non-Latin name such as Matthews when she sought the big time in New York – and was proud that she had refused. .

And nostalgia was also very much alive in some of the biggest cheers of the night, which went to the musical legend Bruce Springsteen, whose performance was introduced by Billy Joel.

The special 2018 excellence in theatre education award was given to Melody Herzfeld, the drama teacher at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Florida, where 17 were killed in a mass shooting in February. Herzfeld shielded 65 students in her small office for two hours while the gunman rampaged.

Many surviving students have since started a grassroots youth movement against gun violence and for greater control of guns in America. A group of her students sang a song about love from the musical Rent at the Tonys, which brought tears to the eyes of some audience members, such as comedian Amy Schumer.

In two surprises of the night, Once on This Island, based on a Trinidadian novel, won best revival of a musical, over huge names such as Carousel and My Fair Lady; and Laurie Metcalf won the prize for best featured actress in a play – a rare double, after winning the best lead actress last year. She won for her role in Three Tall Women.


Joanna Walters

The GuardianTramp

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