To celebrate both the 75th year of the awards show and the full-blown return of theater, the Tonys got Ariana DeBose to host the event. This makes perfect sense on paper: DeBose had been working as a Broadway actor for years when she was cast as Anita in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, which earned her an Oscar earlier this year. One of their own being shot in the stratosphere, coming back to her home turf to host theater’s biggest night — sounds pretty good, right? Let’s see how she opened the show.
Conceptually, this was meant to be an homage to shows past, a mash-up of Evita and Chicago and Wicked and Rent and, of course, Hamilton. In practice, this was an opening number about how talented Ariana DeBose is. She sang and danced her way through Broadway history without a hitch or a mention of any of the shows nominated that night. There was a nice moment where we saw acceptance speeches from the past (Michael Bennett!), but other than that it was the Ariana DeBose Show — and it’s a painfully serious show.
Compare that to Julianne Hough and Darren Criss’s opening number, who hosted “Act One” of the Tonys on Paramount Plus.
Would you look at that, an homage to all the people who make Broadway shows happen performed by two people currently on Broadway who just look happy to be there. The name of the game when hosting the Tonys is reverence, and when you’re as talented as Ariana DeBose clearly is, that becomes a little harder. Why wouldn’t she just put on a flawless number that showcased the fact that she can sing, dance, and then deliver a monologue without losing her breath?
But that’s not really what the Tonys are for. It’s too shiny, too perfect, and most importantly it’s too much about the host. People love to say that Anne Hathaway has “theater kid energy,” but that’s never been quite right. She just tries really hard all the time. This is theater kid energy, and it’s the worst kind too: elite theater sleepaway camp energy. This is the girl who went to Stagedoor Manor and got the title role in Hello, Dolly, so yeah, she thinks she has a pretty good shot at playing Sister Sarah Brown in your public high school’s production of Guys and Dolls.
The ideal Tonys host is — and I’m sorry to say it — Neil Patrick Harris. He’s famous enough, he does Broadway but not in the same way Norbert Leo Butz or Aaron Tveit does Broadway, and he understands that his job as host is mostly to be a fan. In 2013 he set the high watermark for Tonys opening with an eight-minute number that paid homage not only to the nominated shows, but to the collaborative nature of theater writ large.
This is what you want from a Tonys host. He’s not the greatest singer you’ve ever heard, but he’s good and he knows how to tell a joke. He knows how to do razzle dazzle, which is a talent separate from being able to sing or dance. Chicago, a show referenced twice in DeBose’s opening number, taught us that razzle dazzle and skill are not the same thing at all. The Tonys demand the former, but unfortunately that is not part of DeBose’s toolbox. It was a great audition for a 54 Below residency, though.