The three nominated musicals closed on March 12, 2020, with the rest of Broadway’s 41 theaters in what turned into the longest shutdown in Broadway history. All three shows are coming back this season along with a slew of others — a fact the Tony Awards stressed in a pair of broadcasts Sunday from Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre.
The festivities — which also spotlighted a variety of performers speaking of the need for more diversity and inclusivity on Broadway — began with a nearly two-hour awards ceremony streamed live on Paramount Plus. That portion was hosted by six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald (who was nominated again but didn’t win, for her performance in the revival of “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune”).
After most of the awards were announced, CBS joined Paramount Plus at 9 p.m. to broadcast “The Tony Awards Present: Broadway’s Back!,” a two-hour concert emceed by “Hamilton” star Leslie Odom Jr. Among the celebrity actors appearing were Bernadette Peters, Josh Groban, John Legend, Anika Noni Rose, Ben Platt, Brian Stokes Mitchell and many others.
“We’re a little late but we are here!” McDonald declared, in welcoming the masked and vaccinated audience at the top of the 7 p.m. awards show.
This was by many measures an extreme oddity in awards programming, given that the theater season the 74th Tonys covered ran from May 2019 to February 2020. The season, which was cut short by two months, meant that only 18 shows were eligible for awards. Ordinarily, a Broadway season extends until the end of April, with the awards ceremony in early June.
The shortened season led to all kinds of anomalies, including that all five nominees for best score were nonmusical plays; categories such as best revival of a musical were eliminated; and only one actor, Aaron Tveit, was nominated for best actor in a musical. With only three eligible musicals, in fact, it did seem at times as if the Tonys were handing out participation trophies.
Tveit delivered a heartfelt and long round of thank-yous, after his category was announced by Courtney B. Vance with the historically unusual phrase, “The nominee is . . .”
In such unique circumstances, it was hard to count any result as surprising or an upset — although the shutout for “Slave Play” — which entered the evening with 12 nominations, a record for a nonmusical — certainly raised eyebrows. In happier outcomes, the notable winners included Adrienne Warren, a runaway favorite as best actress in a musical for her knockout portrayal of Tina Turner in “Tina”; Andrew Burnap as best actor in a play for “The Inheritance”; and Mary-Louise Parker, named best actress in a play for “The Sound Inside.”
At 90, Lois Smith took away her first Tony ever for her supporting performance in “The Inheritance.” And the win by Danny Burstein meant his first Tony after seven nominations, this one for supporting actor in a musical for his portrayal of the impresario in “Moulin Rouge!” His victory arrived after a year of loss: His wife, actress Rebecca Luker, died in December of ALS. And Burstein himself survived a life-threatening bout of covid-19.
“You all showed up for us. You were all there for us,” Burstein said in his acceptance speech. “It meant the world for us. And I love being an actor on Broadway.”
“Jagged Little Pill’s” Diablo Cody became the first recipient of a Tony for the book of a musical after also winning a screenwriting Oscar (for “Juno”). And in the three-way race for best revival of a play, the award went to Charles Fuller’s “A Soldier’s Play.”
“Breonna Taylor!” the director of “A Soldier’s Play,” Kenny Leon, shouted three times in an acceptance speech as he invoked the name of a Black woman killed by Louisville police. Mentioning George Floyd, too, Leon added: “All lives are precious. I’m a graduate of a historically Black college . . . and I want to say to all the students past, present and yet to come, yes, you can!”
The hyperactive, exuberantly theatrical “Moulin Rouge!” — which had its official Broadway opening more than two years ago, in the summer of 2019 — was the anticipated winner in a truncated and underwhelming category. It would have held more drama with some of the new musicals that didn’t make the covid-curtailed deadline: “Six,” “Girl From the North Country” and “Mrs. Doubtfire.” They’ll all officially open or reopen this fall and presumably are eligible for the June 2022 Tonys.
But the water-cooler conversation in theater circles will certainly be dominated by the cold shoulder the voters gave to “Slave Play” and its voluble author, Jeremy O. Harris. The scathingly satirical play presented three interracial couples who participate in a retreat that practices “antebellum sexual performance therapy.” It required each troubled couple to role-play a scenario involving domination and submission and to deconstruct the dynamics of their own relationship.
A victory by “Slave Play” was anticipated as the capstone of efforts to recognize Black artistry in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. But it lost in the end to Lopez’s “The Inheritance,” an epic heave of a piece that looks in elegiac terms at a generation of gay men who come of age after the height of the AIDS crisis.
Broadway’s magic effect on audiences and performers alike was a theme all night. The awards opened with members of the original cast of “Hairspray” singing “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” and Ali Stroker, a Tony winner for a revival two years ago of “Oklahoma!,” belted out a moving “What I Did for Love” from “A Chorus Line.” A rhapsodic high point of the ceremony was reached when Jennifer Holliday, the original Effie in the 1981 “Dreamgirls,” materialized to sing a smashing rendition of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.”
The live concert that followed the awards included taped numbers and performances from the three nominated musicals. Legend joined the cast of a past winner for best musical revival, “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations.” Platt and Rose met onstage to sing “Move On” from Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Sunday in the Park With George.” And Norm Lewis and Kelli O’Hara sang “Somewhere” from “West Side Story.”
Odom had kicked off the CBS proceedings with the sort of jazzy opening that typically begins the awards broadcast: With a dancing ensemble, he sang an original piece, “Broadway’s Back Tonight,” that began on the street outside the Winter Garden — and, naturally, name-checked those ubiquitous new Broadway accessories: vaccines and masks.