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The Tonys brought back the fanfare, but Broadway still faces many challenges

Adrienne Warren accepts the award for best performance by an actress in a leading role in a musical for “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” at the 74th Annual Tony Awards at Winter Garden Theatre on Sunday. (Jenny Anderson/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK — Finally. The Tony Awards, held in abeyance since June 2020, were bestowed Sunday night, with a splashy effervescence that seemed to declare: The best of times is now.

The festivities, online and on CBS, demonstrated the power of Broadway savoir faire. The events, beamed out from the 1,500-seat Winter Garden Theatre, showcased stars of recent vintage (Ali Stroker, Ben Platt, Jon Batiste) and mature pedigree (Chita Rivera, Bernadette Peters, Jennifer Holliday) lending their wattage to the high-fiving theme of “Broadway’s Back!”

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On the morning after, though, one was compelled to wonder: With fears of a virus still out there, just how completely can showbiz know-how bring back the theater? Does the return of the fanfare guarantee a return of the fans?

The call went out from the stage of the Winter Garden: “See a show! See any Broadway show!” pleaded Leslie Odom Jr., host of the two-hour concert on CBS that followed the awards ceremony, streamed exclusively on Paramount Plus. Amid a rollout of socko duets, we were encouraged to relive unforgettable Broadway moments: Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth, reuniting for “For Good” from “Wicked”; Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal reprising “Rent’s” “What You Own” and our royal vocal couple, Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell, reconnecting for a goosebump-raising rendition of “Wheels of a Dream” from “Ragtime.”

There was rhapsody in these musical seductions — and the calculation that the way to theater lovers’ hearts was through their cast albums. But rising to the surface of the sizzle were signals that not all is contentment in theaterland.

The speeches of presenters and winners of color, especially, called for Broadway’s White establishment to align itself more forcefully with the missions of inclusivity and equity. In the most artful manifestation of that demand, actor Daniel J. Watts led an ensemble that included the Broadway Inspirational Voices choir through a stunning tap-and-musical composition conjuring a world of stifling impediments to expression and freedom from oppression.

“Tell me, what does your silence sound like?” Watts intoned, as a challenge to those who don’t speak out.

Though several artists of color were recognized with Tonys — among them, Adrienne Warren, who as Tina Turner in “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” delivered the most sensational performance of the shortened 2019-2020 season — an impatience with the pace of change was evident in a phrase that echoed all evening: “We can do better.” Matthew Lopez, author of the Tony-winning play “The Inheritance,” observed in his acceptance speech that Latino writers remain shamefully underrepresented on Broadway.

And Kenny Leon, director of “A Soldier’s Play,” which won for best revival of a play, began his remarks by proclaiming the names of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd to shine a light on police brutality and Black Lives Matter. (The Broadway Advocacy Coalition, organized to fight racism, received a special Tony for its work.)

The complete list of 2021 Tony Award winners

As if to underscore the disconnect between what industry leaders say and how they vote, Jeremy O. Harris’s “Slave Play” was nominated for 12 Tonys — a record for a nonmusical — and walked away with none. Taste is fickle, of course, and “Slave Play” divided audiences with its outrageous reenactments by modern couples of sexual acts between enslaved people and enslavers. But when the play “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” received 11 nominations in 2018, it won six. Though the contests (and the shows) may have been different, the divergent results don’t sit well. There’s often a desire by Tony voters — mostly producers and operators of venues across the country — to spread the love around. This year, it seems, they withheld it. Only five shows split the 25 awards.

(In a late-breaking development, “Slave Play’s” producers announced after the Tonys that the show would return Nov. 23 for an eight-week run at August Wilson Theatre, with 10,000 seats during the engagement to be priced at $39 each.)

Both ceremonies were slick enough, and McDonald and Odom proved to be charming major-domos. Perhaps CBS has hit on a satisfactory formula with all the awards getting time online and the prime-time event tilted in favor of pure performance, with a few big prizes sprinkled in. The agenda this year was particularly loaded, what with the push to get box offices humming again. They have been worryingly sluggish since the summer’s restart, according to insiders. Despite the implementation of mandatory safeguards such as proof of vaccination and mask-wearing in lobbies and seats, customers are only slowly venturing back.

In the before-covid times, tourists from abroad or outside the New York area accounted for two-thirds or more of Broadway’s audience. That revenue stream is so dry for now that some Broadway officials have been urging culture-loving locals to help take up the slack.

The industry jitters could be discerned in the nostalgia the evening was layering on; it was Rivera and one of Broadway’s legendary hit-minters, Andrew Lloyd Webber, who gave out the night’s biggest award, best musical, to “Moulin Rouge! The Musical.”

And the majority of the musical interludes came from the vault. During the early-evening awards ceremony, Holliday, the original Effie in 1981’s “Dreamgirls,” re-created (seismically) her all-time-great delivery of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” Andrew Rannells and Tituss Burgess teamed up for “It Takes Two” from “Into the Woods,” with Burgess jacking up his voice an octave to sing the Baker’s Wife’s part. And Platt and Anika Noni Rose came together for a velvety “Move On” from “Sunday in the Park With George.”

So, what you had all night was a temporal mash-up: Broadway’s past jockeying for space with Broadway’s future — a future that at the moment looks frightfully uncertain. As you listened to Stokes and McDonald sing their souls and lungs out, you could at least still get lost in their Broadway “Dream.”

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