Why I'd Love to be Wrong About Hamilton and the Tonys

Tom Briggs

OnStage North Carolina Columnist

In my previous column [TONY BALONEY] I opined that the presence of the blockbuster musical Hamilton on the Tony Awards telecast may not spike the show’s ratings as many anticipate it will.  I admitted that mine was a minority opinion but I didn’t realize just how much in the minority I am.  No one is buying it.  My pal, D. Michael Dvorchak, an extremely savvy man of the theater, pointed out that it’s the only place to see Hamilton for less than $1,000 (their appearance on the Grammy Awards presumably notwithstanding); that teachers across the country have been using the recording in history classes; that the recording has remained firmly lodged in the Billboard Top 20 (it was released in the fall of last year).  I would add that being only the ninth musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, since the Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing in 1932, has helped bring it to the attention of a certain echelon of the citizenry.  

Just about everyone involved in Hamilton, short of the ushers, have been making appearances on day and late night talk shows.  When was the last time a musical became part of the national discourse?  But amongst whom?  Who discussed it yesterday at their respective water coolers?  Theater geeks and aficionados, that’s who, and they would tune into the telecast to hear me sing a medley from Bittersweet.  They have announced that Barbra Streisand will be on the show.  Now there’s a ratings booster.  Without the excitement generated by Hamilton, she may have passed.  Or perhaps she signed on to plug her upcoming tour, or to announce the latest news regarding her on-again-off-again film of Gypsy.  Who knows?

What's really extraordinary about Hamilton is how it is the last word in diversity on Broadway, which has been miles ahead of Hollywood forever.  Audra McDonald won her first Tony for Carousel in a role traditionally played by a Caucasian actor, and was nominated for 110 In the Shade, again playing against her ethnicity.  James Earl Jones starred in traditionally white roles in revivals of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man and You Can’t Take It with You.  There have been many such examples throughout the years, not including all-black revivals, but nothing, ever, like Hamilton’s casting of actors of African, Asian, Hispanic and who-knows-what descent to play the founding fathers of America.  

Might that translate to a more diverse viewing audience for the Tonys?  I’d love to think so but I’m skeptical.  Will curious viewers tune out after they’ve seen the number from Hamilton?  Will their number open the show and get it off to a flying start, or will they save it for last in hopes of retaining the audience?  Of course there will be a lot of entertainment value on the show, it having been a wonderful season for musicals.  (Alas, plays are not often featured on the show.)  Numbers from Shuffle Long, Waitress, Bright Star, School of Rock, The Color Purple, Fiddler On the Roof, Spring Awakening and She Loves Me are bound to captivate.  As are numbers featuring host James Corden, and inspired choice IMHO, including an inevitable carpool karaoke.  

In any event, I hope that my smart friend, Mike, is correct and that this year’s Tony Awards will be the most viewed annual commercial for Broadway ever.  If not, trust me – I’ll mourn, not gloat.