NEW YORK — The Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Strange Loop” was named best musical at the 75th Tony Awards on Sunday night, while “The Lehman Trilogy,” an epic-length account by Stefano Massini and Ben Power of the rise and fall of the Lehman Brothers investment house, won the Tony for best play.
In other notable victories: Newcomer Myles Frost won as best actor in a musical for his star turn as a work-obsessed Michael Jackson in “MJ.” And Joaquina Kalukango was voted best actress in a musical for her portrayal of a tough-minded 19th-century tavern owner in “Paradise Square.”
Frost, 22, who grew up in the D.C. suburbs, graduated from Thomas S. Wootton High School and made his Broadway debut in “M.J.,” addressed his mother, Charmayne Strayhorn, who was at Radio City Music Hall to witness her son’s triumph. “Mom, I made it,” said Frost, his sunglasses perched on his head. “You taught me and showed me what a strong Black woman can be.” As a result, he added, he learned to be a strong Black man.
Simon Russell Beale and Deirdre O’Connell won as best actor and actress in a play for their performances, respectively, in “The Lehman Trilogy” and “Dana H.” — the latter a performance in which O’Connell lip-synced to the recording of a woman who recounted her real-life kidnapping by a man she had counseled as a therapist. The character’s voice belonged to the mother of the play’s writer, Lucas Hnath.
Beale noted in his acceptance speech that his “Lehman” co-stars, Adam Godley and Adrian Lester, were among his competitors for best actor. “It’s your award, too,” Beale told them. “I just have the luck of taking it home.”
The evening lacked the kind of juggernaut winner that makes for buzz-driving headlines. It was a revival, with London roots, of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s 1970 “Company” that nabbed the most Tonys, five, along with “Lehman.” Last year’s best musical, “Moulin Rouge!” vacuumed up 10 awards (in a thin field). A few years ago, “Hamilton” scored 11 Tonys, and in 2019, “Hadestown” won eight.
Ultimately, though, composer-lyricist Michael R. Jackson’s “A Strange Loop” — about a Black queer theater usher writing a musical about a Black queer theater usher writing a musical — hit it big at the last possible minute. The award for best musical was only its second of the night, along with a win for best book of a musical. The show was birthed off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons three years ago, and in a revised version made a crucial pre-Broadway stop in December at D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth Theatre. (For a full list of winners, visit tonyawards.com.)
“The Lehman Trilogy,” meanwhile, defied Tonys convention, winning five awards despite closing on Broadway in January. (The awards tend to go to productions still running). It also won for set, lighting and direction by Sam Mendes.
“The play was written as a hymn to the city of New York,” Power said, adding that he applauded the show’s producers for sticking with the show after the fourth performance — because the covid shutdown delayed the fifth performance for 577 more days.
In the best-revival categories, the 650 Tony voters chose “Company,” and “Take Me Out,” Richard Greenberg’s early 2000s comedy-drama, about the tribulations of a Major League Baseball star who comes out of the closet.
Honoring work in the just completed 2021-2022 Broadway season, many Tony races were exceptionally competitive this year, with 29 productions receiving nominations in 26 categories. The statistics betokened a return to artistic health for the 41 theaters of Broadway, forced to shut down for 15 months starting in March 2020 because of the pandemic. On Sunday night, it celebrated its first full season back since 2018-2019. The Tonys were so eager to acknowledge excellence that the 29-member nominating panel overpacked some categories: Six shows got nods for best musical, and seven men for best actor in a play, including all three in “The Lehman Trilogy.” Normally a category is capped at five nominees, tops.
Ariana DeBose, who won best supporting actress in “West Side Story” at this year’s Academy Awards, radiated elegance and star power as host of the three hours of festivities on CBS. Her rapport with both the live audience and the camera bestowed on the event a dazzle it otherwise didn’t quite achieve. Her live-wire presence gave a needed jolt to a mid-show comedy number about theater’s grating propensity to send actors into the auditorium during performances to interact with playgoers.
“There’s no escaping us in the audience!” DeBose sang, as she planted herself in the lap of giggling audience member Andrew Garfield.
The telecast followed an hour-long preliminary event emceed by Darren Criss and Julianne Hough, during which almost half of the awards were handed out, including all of the prizes for sets, lighting, costumes, sound and music.
A bevy of celebrities, among them, Jennifer Hudson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Bryan Cranston, RuPaul Charles and Bernadette Peters, doled out the prizes and introduced numbers from eight musicals in the traditional manner.
Room has to be preserved on the CBS telecast for what probably keeps the Tonys on network TV: the production numbers from nominated (and other) musicals. Theatergoers across the country like it that way, and Broadway producers do, too, for the Tonys are the year’s pivotal marketing event for Broadway. This year, eight shows in Tony contention staged numbers on the broadcast. Displayed perhaps to best effect was the title song from the rollicking “Six,” which is staged in concert fashion and so looked tailor made for the small screen. Shown to what felt like less sterling advantage was a mild version of the finale of “The Music Man.”
After an exuberant opening number that anthologized more than 20 well-known musicals, DeBose reminded viewers of the efforts being made to create a more diverse Broadway. This past season, she noted, plays by Black dramatists debuted in seven of Broadway’s 41 theaters.
“I feel like the phrase ‘Great White Way’ is becoming more of a nickname as opposed to a how-to guide,” DeBose said, to loud applause.
The evening, directed by Tony Awards veteran (and Emmy winner) Glenn Weiss, had as its executive producers Weiss and Ricky Kirshner, another awards vet who directed the digital 2020 Democratic National Convention. It was a congenial, slickly staged proceeding, devoid of the kind of turmoil that rocked the Oscars in March, when nominee Will Smith burst onto the stage and slapped comedian Chris Rock over a joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.
The jokes on this evening were of a placid variety, but there were a few sentimental highs: In the streaming initial hour, the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus saluted 96-year-old, five-time Tony winner Angela Lansbury — recipient of a lifetime achievement award — with the title song from “Mame.” (Lansbury, who originated the title role in the 1966 original production, did not make an appearance.) And a tribute to Sondheim, who died in November at the age of 91, featured clips of the composer-lyricist, and a heart-melting performance by a ravishing Peters of “Children Will Listen” from “Into the Woods.”
Miranda introduced the interlude with his own tribute to Sondheim. “I stand here on behalf of generations of artists he took the time to encourage,” he said.
Other notable moments in the three-hour main event: Patti LuPone receiving her third Tony Award, as best supporting actress in the revival of “Company”; Michael Jackson’s children, Paris and Prince, introducing Frost in “Smooth Criminal,” a dance number from “MJ”; presenter Marcia Gay Harden giving a shout-out to 150 Broadway “covid safety officers” invited to Radio City for the ceremony. Two stage actors who burnished reputations on television, Phylicia Rashad and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, won as best supporting actress and actor in a play for Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew” and Richard Greenberg’s “Take Me Out.” Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow, the songwriter-creators of “Six,” a rocking account of the six wives of King Henry VIII, took away the prize for best score. Marlow is the Tonys’ first nonbinary winner. And several presenters pointed out the contributions of Broadway’s understudies and standbys, who jumped in on countless occasions in a protracted period of coronavirus-prompted absences.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was the low award count for “A Strange Loop.” As the evening wore on, a curious trend seemed to be repeating itself: At the last Tony Awards, the show with the most nominations, “Slave Play,” was shut out.
At last, though, Jackson was called up to accept the award for best book of a musical, and then came the top prize of the evening. “I started writing the musical when I was 23,” Jackson said, wrapped in a huge fuchsia cape as he accepted for best book. He described the task as creating “a life raft for myself … to get myself through the day.”
Thomas Floyd contributed to this report.