In the tradition of the show must go on, the Tony Awards aired Sunday night on CBS despite the massacre of nearly 50 people at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida earlier that morning. Host James Corden appeared visibly emotional as he announced at the outset that the awards were dedicated to the Orlando victims and then went on to discuss how the theater is a place of inclusion and not hate. [He spoke of this moment quite movingly on Monday’s edition of his late-night talker (watch above).]
Cordon then launched into his opening number and stuck to an upbeat tone for the rest of the evening, succeeding in bring a few hours of light to an otherwise grim day. The tragedy was not forgotten though as winners Jessica Lange, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Frank Langella all took time in their speeches to acknowledge the day’s events.
The live nature of awards shows have often called for tough decisions to be made by television executives. Local CBS Orlando affiliate WKMG-TV had been airing coverage since about two hours after the first shots were fired (as were all Orlando local stations). After what I assume was a great debate, the affiliate aired the Tonys live on their main channel but continued news coverage on their digital channel while frequently updating the situation during commercial breaks from the awards.
The tension behind the scenes at the show recalls two other occasions where national tragedies and events called into question what should be done with the planned live telecasts. In 1981, hours before the Oscars were set to air, President Ronald Reagan and two others were shot by John Hinckley, an obsessed fan of actress Jodie Foster. As law enforcement officials scrambled to make sense of what had happened the academy and ABC decided to postpone the ceremony. The next day when officials felt sure the incident had been committed by a lone gunmen and wasn’t part of an international conspiracy or plot and doctors had been able to save the President’s life, the decision was made to air the awards.
Reagan (a former President of the Screen Actors Guild) and his wife were both former actors and connected to the Hollywood community; indeed he had taped an intro to the ceremony. Word was sent to the academy to that the Reagans wanted the show to air as a way of showing the country that things would continue as normal. As with Corden on Sunday, the host of the show Johnny Carson addressed the events in his opening monologue but then the show continued as normal. Little mention was made for the rest of the show but Best Actor winner Robert DeNiro (“Raging Bull”) faced a tough and at times interrogating press room backstage since the gunmen had cited DeNiro and director Martin Scorsese‘s previous collaboration “Taxi Driver” as an inspiration for his actions and the originating point of his obsession with Foster.
Similar problems faced the producers of the 2001 Emmy awards which were scheduled to air five days after the attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11. This time the awards were rescheduled for a few weeks later but were once again cancelled due to the beginning of the war in Afghanistan. The awards did eventually air nearly two months after they were originally scheduled. Again it fell to the host, Ellen DeGeneres, to set a proper tone for the event. DeGeneres received nearly universal praise for her tact and composure in the telecast which closed with an unannounced Barbra Streisand taking to the stage to sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” in honor of the victims.
The debate over whether live performances should continue or not can be traced back as far as the WWII bombings in London which played havoc with British theater. While CBS and the Tony producers faced a tough decision, they can rest assured that their show and the affable Corden did their best to set a proper tone on an otherwise dark day.