The 2018 Tony Awards, broadcast on June 10, brought surprises in many forms and still held true to celebrating the very best of the Broadway stage. The theater students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School drama club in Parkland, FL, had plenty to celebrate on their own. The group’s teacher, Melody Herzfeld, was recognized with a Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre Education, which is given in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University.

Besides the honor of being chosen from among thousands of teachers in theatre, Herzfeld was incredibly articulate and exuberant in simply celebrating the lives of her students.

They, in turn, honored her and the entire world audience on the theatre’s biggest night with a stunning performance of “Seasons of Love,” that brought both ovation and emotion.

Sacrifice and beautiful simplicity

Herzfeld’s passion and professionalism are reflected in her roster of over 50 productions, but it was her selfless sacrifice in the face of the Valentine's Day massacre that took the lives of 17 fellow students that separated her in her field. The noble teacher herded dozens of students behind her classroom door, shielding them with her body until the signal came that they were safe.

Melody Herzfeld put life into perspective in her opening words of acceptance for her recognition, noting that the honor was a “defining moment” for her, but not ahead of the passing of parents and in-laws, reuniting with her students on February 26, marrying the love of her life, and giving birth to her sons.

Her words echoed the mantras of the theatre, to work hard, tell the truth, “hit your mark” give loyal acceptance and respect, and realize that collaboration in theatre creates a family. Her family of students leaned on all that learning and leadership on that tragic day, and they were about to offer a performance in gratitude for providing safety, validation, and transformation.

The teacher sat somewhat demurely with her trophy in the audience, and then the spotlights focused on the youths taking the stage. Dressed in many hues, but with many wearing the garnet tones of their school colors and purple blends, the ensemble opened with the countdown from the signature theme of “Rent,” counting down the “five-hundred twenty-five thousand six-hundred minutes” of a year.

Stirred to stand

The song’s call and the question of “What about love?” stirred immediate emotion from the audience of acclaimed stars. Some were tearful, others clenched their chests, all caught by spotlights. Nathan Lane was one of the night’s winners, and he looked spellbound. There were no Broadway frills to this performance, only flawless and committed singing.

As a soloist soared to the high note, and the number closed, no one was cheering as joyously as Melody Herzfeld, who couldn’t stop clapping. Rousing cheers, applause, and a rapid standing ovation followed. This was a surprise for a teacher that became a welcome surprise for Tony audiences for all time.

Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban were surprisingly refreshing as first-time hosts.

As reported by CBS News, Robert DeNiro would have his own surprise in store as well. The surprise of these courageous students is one that will not be erased or forgotten in the annals of Tony award history.

Sadly, composer Jonathan Larson didn’t live to see the lasting impact of his musical, “Rent,” which proclaimed the humanity of those in poverty, those with AIDS, those living on the fringes of urban life, and pleaded for inclusion, becoming valued, and gaining a voice.

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas drama club used their unified voice to proclaim inclusion, strength, courage, and thriving beyond surviving. Jonathan Larson is listening now, knowing his life and work still breathes with life.