The Tony Awards always have two jobs in one. They’re a sales pitch to the world, on the one night that Broadway gets to take over a major television network. And they’re a chance for insiders, whether theatre-makers or theatre lovers, to come together as an odd little community and hand out awards. In recent years, those two things have battled for space, with less starry categories shunted to the pre-show. This year, they split in twain, the first two hours streaming on Paramount+ and the later two airing on CBS. If you could figure out how to navigate the channel change, it made a kind of sense. The seventy-fourth annual Tony Awards were held under the most unusual circumstances of the show’s history, after the pandemic shut down Broadway for a year and a half. The nominations, announced a full eleven months ago, honored a truncated season that ran from late April, 2019, through February, 2020. Since then, stages have been dark, actors and crews have been largely out of work, and the devastated industry has faced a racial reckoning. Now that theatres are lighting up again—less a triumphant return than an ambivalent one, thanks to the Delta variant—Broadway has a pressing need to hawk its wares. But the theatre world also needed the occasion to regroup, to process the trauma of the past eighteen months, and to remember what was playing on Broadway in the ancient year of 2019.
“We’re a little late, but we are here,” Audra McDonald, the host of the streaming segment, which covered all but three awards, told the crowd at the Winter Garden Theatre. Seeing a Broadway house full of people—masked and vaxxed, of course—was already a jolt. The show opened with a wan rendition of “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” from “Hairspray,” which seemed chosen for its plucky Energizer Bunny spirit. More fitting to the evening’s wounded survivalism was Jennifer Holliday’s earth-shaking rendition of the “Dreamgirls” showstopper “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” which she first sang at the Tonys in 1982. Last night, when she came back to perform it again, her lips quivered and her huge voice sounded like a ravenous growl. The number was thrilling Broadway fan service, but it also provided the catharsis that the show called for. Singing like a woman who had crawled through hell and wasn’t stopping now, Holliday roared the final lyrics, which could have doubled as Broadway’s new slogan: “I’m stayin’, I’m stayin’, and you, and you, and you, you’re gonna love me.”
Then there were the awards, which had a Rip Van Winkle-like strangeness. I have no recollection of “A Christmas Carol” being on Broadway lately, but apparently it was, because the production made a clean sweep of the nonmusical design awards. Which Christmas was that, anyway? Like a ghost of Broadway’s pre-pandemic past, the show also won Best Original Score, a category that was filled with incidental music from plays, since the curtailed season had only one musical with all original songs (“The Lightning Thief”), and it didn’t manage to get nominated. There were no eligible revivals of musicals, so that category simply got skipped. And Aaron Tveit, the star of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” was the sole nominee in his category. Technically, he needed sixty per cent of the votes to win, and he succeeded. Phew! That would have been embarrassing.
“Moulin Rouge!” won ten awards, including Best Musical. It also won Best Orchestrations (or, as Cyndi Lauper called them, “Awchestrations”), which went to a group of four. Owing to safety regulations, only two were allowed on stage at a time—a jarring reminder of how not quite normal Broadway’s grand reopening is. That aside, there were plenty of charming awards-show moments, as when David Alan Grier, who won a featured-actor award for “A Soldier’s Play,” said, “To the other nominees: tough bananas! I won!” (Aaron Tveit should have tried that line.) The most endearing was when McDonald, reading the teleprompter with her trademark gravitas, accidentally recited her own name before her line: proof, at last, that Audra McDonald is not perfect.
But there was also an undercurrent of loss, whether or not COVID-19 was to blame. Danny Burstein, who won a featured-actor award for “Moulin Rouge!,” spoke of his wife, the Broadway star Rebecca Luker, who died last December, of A.L.S. Alex Timbers, who won a directing award for “Moulin Rouge!,” dedicated his prize to the composer Michael Friedman, his frequent collaborator, who died in 2017, of complications from AIDS. Adrienne Warren, who won a leading-actress prize for her titanic performance in “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” said, “I lost three family members while playing Tina”—two uncles and a grandmother. And Stephen Daldry, who won for directing the seven-hour gay melodrama “The Inheritance,” wore a red AIDS ribbon on his lapel—a sombre callback to Tony ceremonies of past decades. Later, when “The Inheritance” won Best Play, the producer Tom Kirdahy dedicated the prize to the lives lost from AIDS and COVID-19; the latter group included his husband, the playwright Terrence McNally, one of the first prominent artists to die during the pandemic.
At nine o’clock, the second half of the show began, under the bullish title “Broadway’s Back!” Aside from the “In Memoriam” sequence—which was grimly long, spanning two songs and a dance sequence, and concluded with a black wall of names that resembled the Vietnam War memorial—it was a chipper affair, with one splashy musical number after another. The opening sequence was one of those Broadway-as-theme-park jamborees, with a “Lion King” lion dancing past Elphaba from “Wicked.” This was Broadway’s most generic version of itself, putting on its game face for tourists while gently reminding them that they’ll need to be masked and vaccinated to see a show. The three nominees for Best Musical, which are all returning this fall, got to show off their stuff: the louche spectacle of “Moulin Rouge!,” the feisty Alanis Morissette songs of “Jagged Little Pill” (“Ironic” is now a show tune, which may or may not be ironic), the Adrienne Warren supernova of “Tina.” Leslie Odom, Jr., taking over as host, beckoned his Carnegie Mellon classmate Josh Groban to sing a song from “Godspell.” David Byrne, whose joyful and sui-generis “American Utopia” received a special award, got everyone—including Bernadette Peters—boogying to “Burning Down the House.” The boosterism hit its peak with an appearance by Senator Chuck Schumer, who showed off his “SAVE OUR STAGES” mask but, thankfully, did not attempt a tune. The evening closed out with a series of reunion duets, including a number from “Wicked” sung by Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel. Maybe this is what the Tonys always wanted to be: an awards show for diehards, plus a blowout concert for everyone.
But who is “everyone”? Throughout the night, speakers demanded a more inclusive Broadway. Kenny Leon, the director of “A Soldier’s Play,” which won Best Revival of a Play, invoked the names Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and called for artists of color to be ranked alongside Shakespeare and Ibsen in the theatrical canon. (“No diss to Shakespeare.”) Still, the aspirational talk couldn’t paper over the thorny stuff. Lauren Patten, who won a featured-actress award for her showstopping performance of “Jagged Little Pill,” acknowledged the transgender and nonbinary people who have engaged in “difficult conversations” about her character, Jo, whose gender identity has been at the center of multiple controversies surrounding the show’s relationship with the queer community. Judging from Twitter, the speech only inflamed the problem. And, when “The Inheritance” won Best Play, its author, Matthew Lopez, noted that he was the first Latin American playwright to win the award, pleading, “Let us tell you our stories.” The sentiment was somewhat undercut by the fact that “The Inheritance” itself came under criticism for having all white protagonists.
The victory of “The Inheritance,” whose last week of performances was cut short by the pandemic, was the final disappointment for “Slave Play,” Jeremy O. Harris’s button-pushing satire of race and sexual fetishism, which closed in January, 2020. It was nominated for twelve Tony Awards, breaking the record for a nonmusical play—and then lost them all. The smaller pool of eligible productions surely helped the show rack up nominations, but it’s hard to believe that the nominating committee was so at odds with the larger voting body. Or maybe it’s not so hard. “Slave Play” is far from crowd-pleaser, with its spiky edges and metatheatrical curlicues. It was a risky work to bring to Broadway in the first place, and its shutout last night was like a warning from the Ghost of Broadway Future: inclusivity isn’t always heartwarming, and change doesn’t always feel like an infomercial. If this year’s Tony Awards had to serve as a pep rally, an elegy, and a time machine in one, next year’s ceremony may look more normal, but also more caught up to the world we live in now. The upcoming Broadway season includes seven plays by Black playwrights. Actually, make that eight: moments after its Tony wipeout, “Slave Play” announced its return to Broadway this fall.
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