The heavy curtain rose to reveal the storied stage of Radio City Music Hall in New York City and 16 figures backlit by spotlights. The applause from the audience was deafening. Many people jumped to their feet, cheering and clapping with fervor.
Then, the iconic piano melody marking the beginning of “Seasons of Love” filled the cavernous space.
“Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes,” a chorus of voices began to sing, the stage lights illuminating the faces of students from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School drama department.
In a surprise appearance at the Tony Awards, the students performed an emotional rendition of the song from the musical “Rent,” leaving some attendees and people watching at home in tears. Almost four months ago, on Feb. 14, the high school in Parkland, Fla., became the scene of a mass shooting that left 17 dead and 17 others injured.
“The most beautiful and important thing that has ever happened at an awards show,” tweeted Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC’s “The Last Word.”
The students were introduced by former “Glee” star Matthew Morrison, who recalled performing with some of them at a benefit concert two months ago.
“For us, it was a life-changing experience to see these inspiring young people channeling their intense feelings of hurt and rage and sorrow into art,” Morrison said
One of the students, Tanzil Philip, then reached out to the awards show and asked to be on the telecast to thank the Broadway community, Morrison said, quoting a letter Philip had written.
“The Broadway community showed up in our time of need and brought some much needed light into the dark,” Philip wrote.
But Morrison said it was “our Broadway family” who wanted to “say thanks” to the Parkland students.
Video of the audience during the performance showed glistening eyes and smiles as the students belted out the lyrics about resilience and strength. When soloist Kali Clougherty hit the song’s high note, the crowd roared its approval.
“That soloist from Parkland just outsang half of tonight’s performers,” one Twitter user wrote. “Step up your game literally everyone else.”
In addition, the school’s drama department director, Melody Herzfeld, who was honored with the excellence in theater education award, gave a speech that also elicited raucous applause.
Herzfeld is credited with saving 65 lives when she barricaded students into a small classroom closet during the Valentine’s Day shooting, according to the Associated Press.
“All the goodness and tragedy that has brought me to this point will always be embraced,” Herzfeld said as she accepted the award. She described telling her students in the days before the shooting “to be good to each other when times are trying and to keep the family together, accept everyone and make a difference.”
“I remember only a week later, on February 14, a perfect day, where all these lessons in my life and in their short lives would be called upon to set into action,” she said.
At the conclusion of her speech, Herzfeld stressed the importance of theater education.
“We have all known that the future of the world was about collaborative creativity, and here we are, the future, changed for good,” she said.
One Twitter user described the scene, writing, “The entire room is shaking and moved.”