The Tony Awards tell you Broadway is wrong


The Tony Awards always have two jobs in one. They are a selling point to the world, the night Broadway takes control of a major television network. And they’re a chance for insiders, whether they’re theater makers or theatergoers, to come together in a weird little community and hand out prizes. In recent years, these two things have been battling for space, with less star-studded categories headed for the pre-show. This year they’ve split into two, the first two hours airing on Paramount + and the last two hours airing on CBS. If you could figure out how to navigate the channel change, it made sense. The seventy-fourth annual Tony Awards took place under the most unusual circumstances in the series’ 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 to February 2020. Since then, the scenes have been grim, with the cast and crew largely out of work and the workforce. he devastated industry faces racial judgment. Now that the theaters are reigniting – less a triumphant return than an ambivalent return, thanks to the Delta variant – Broadway has a pressing need to hawk its wares. But the theater world also needed the opportunity to come together, deal with the trauma of the past eighteen months, and remember what was playing on Broadway in the old year 2019.

“We’re a little late, but here we are,” Audra McDonald, the host of the streaming segment, which covered all but three of the awards, told the crowd at the Winter Garden Theater. 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 his courageous Energizer Bunny spirit. More appropriate to the hurt survivalism of the evening was Jennifer Holliday’s heartbreaking rendition of the “Dreamgirls” show “And I Tell You I’m Not Going,” which she first performed. 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 voracious growl. The number was thrilling for Broadway fans, but it also provided the catharsis the show demanded. Singing like a woman who had been through hell and wasn’t stopping now, Holliday roared the final lyrics, which could have been Broadway’s new slogan: “I stay, I stay, and you, and you, and you, you will love me.

Jennifer Holliday’s rendition of “And I Tell You I’m Not Going” sounded like an anthem for the post-pandemic theater world.Photograph by Mary Kouw / CBS / Getty

Then there were the awards, which had a weirdness similar to that of Rip Van Winkle. I have no recollection that “A Christmas Carol” has been on Broadway lately, but apparently it was, as the production wiped out non-musical design awards. What a christmas was that, anyway? Like a ghost from Broadway’s pre-pandemic past, the show also won the award for Best Original Score, a category filled with stage music from plays, as the cut season only had one musical with all original songs (“The Lightning Thief”), and it failed to be nominated. There were no qualifying covers of musicals, so this category was simply ignored. And Aaron Tveit, the star of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical ”, was the only nominee in its category. Technically, he needed sixty percent of the vote to win, and he did it. Phew! It would have been embarrassing.

“Red Mill!” won ten awards, including Best Musical. It also won the award for Best Orchestrations (or, as Cyndi Lauper called them, “Awchesstrations”), which went to a group of four. Due to safety rules, only two have been allowed on stage at a time – a shocking reminder of how Broadway’s grand reopening isn’t quite normal. That aside, there were plenty of charming award moments, like when David Alan Grier, who won a Featured Actor Award for “A Soldier’s Game,” said, “To the other nominees: hard bananas! I won! ”(Aaron Tveit should have tried this line.) The most endearing was when McDonald, reading the teleprompter with his trademark gravity, accidentally recited his own name before his line: proof, finally, that Audra McDonald’s is not perfect.

But there was also a current of losses, whether or not COVID-19 was to blame. Danny Burstein, who won a star actor award for “Moulin Rouge!”, Spoke about his wife, Broadway star Rebecca Luker, who died last December, of ALS Alex Timbers, who won a starring award on stage for “Moulin Rouge!” dedicated his award to composer Michael Friedman, his frequent collaborator, who died in 2017, of complications of AIDS. Adrienne Warren, who won a lead actress award for her titanic performance in “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical”, said: “I lost three members of my family playing Tina” – two uncles and a grandmother. mother. And Stephen Daldry, who won for directing the seven o’clock gay melodrama “The Inheritance”, wore a red AIDS ribbon on its lapel – a grim reminder of Tony’s ceremonies of decades past. Later, when “The Inheritance” won the award for best play, producer Tom Kirdahy dedicated the award to the lives lost of AIDS and COVID-19; the latter group included her husband, playwright Terrence McNally, one of the first prominent artists to die during the pandemic.

At nine o’clock, the second part of the show began, under the bullish title “Broadway’s Back!” Aside from the “In Memoriam” streak – which was eerily long, covering two songs and a dance sequence, and ended with a black wall of names that looked like the Vietnam War Memorial – it was a steal. chipper, with one bursting musical number after another. The opening sequence was one of those Broadway theme park jamborees, with a “Lion King” lion dancing in front of Elphaba from “Wicked.” It was the most generic version of Broadway, putting its playful face on tourists while gently reminding them that they will need to be masked and vaccinated to see a show. The three nominees for Best Musical, who are all coming back this fall, were able to show their thing: the shady spectacle of “Moulin Rouge!” “, The fiery songs of Alanis Morissette from” Jagged Little Pill “(” Ironic “is now a tune, which may or may not be ironic), supernova Adrienne Warren from” Tina “. Leslie Odom, Jr., taking over as host, gestured to Carnegie Mellon classmate Josh Groban to sing a song from “Godspell”. David Byrne, whose joyful and sui-generis “American Utopia” received a special award, won over everyone, including Bernadette Peters, for “Burning Down the House”. The boosterism reached its peak with an appearance by Senator Chuck Schumer, who showed his “SAVE OUR STEPSMasks but, fortunately, did not attempt a tune. The evening ended with a series of reunion duets, including a number of “Wicked” sung by Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel. Maybe that’s what the Tonys have always wanted to be: an awards show for the die-hard, plus a mind-blowing concert for everyone.

But who is “everyone”? Throughout the night, stakeholders demanded a more inclusive Broadway. Kenny Leon, the director of “A Soldier’s Play,” which won the best cover of a play, invoked the names of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and called for artists of color to be ranked alongside Shakespeare and Ibsen in the theatrical canon. (“No fuss for Shakespeare.”) Still, the ambitious speech couldn’t cover up the thorny things. Lauren Patten, who won a Featured Actress Award for her stunning performance of “Jagged Little Pill,” recognized transgender and non-binary people who engaged in “difficult conversations” about her character, Jo, whose gender identity has been at the center of several controversies surrounding the show’s relationship with the queer community. Judging from Twitter, the speech only made the problem worse. And, when “The Inheritance” won the award for best play, its writer, 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 undermined by the fact that “The Inheritance” itself was criticized for having all of the white protagonists.

Tom Kirdahy, Hunter Arnold and Matthew Lopez have accepted the 2021 Tony for Best Game, for “The Inheritance”.Photograph by Theo Wargo / Getty

The victory of “The Inheritance”, whose final week of performance was cut short by the pandemic, was the latest disappointment of “Slave Play,” the satire of race and the sexual fetishism of Jeremy O. Harris, which closed in January 2020 He was nominated for twelve Tony Awards, breaking the record for a non-musical piece, then losing them all. The smaller pool of eligible productions surely helped the show rack up nominations, but it’s hard to believe the nominating committee was so at odds with the larger voting body. Or maybe it’s not that hard. “Slave Play” is far from crowd-pleasing, with its spiky edges and metatheatrical flourishes. It was a risky job to bring to Broadway in the first place, and his shutout last night was like a warning from the Ghost of Broadway Future: inclusiveness isn’t always heartwarming, and change doesn’t always feel like an infomercial. If this year’s Tony Awards were to serve as a gathering of encouragement, elegy, and time machine, next year’s ceremony might seem more normal, but also closer to the world we live in today. The upcoming Broadway season features seven plays by black playwrights. Actually do that eight: moments after his erasure from Tony, “Slave Play” announcement his return to Broadway this fall.

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