tony awards 2021

The Highs and Lows of the 2021 But Actually 2019–2020 Tony Awards

Jennifer Holliday! Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

Broadway’s back, as was literally emblazoned above the stage during the CBS broadcast of the Tonys on Sunday, and it’s as messy as ever. Split between streaming and live TV, with an awkward gap of about 12 minutes in the middle so we could all catch up on a little Big Brother, the two halves of the Tony awards went all out on big gestures — reunions of performers from hit Broadway shows, speeches about change, all that pizzazz — but stumbled over some of the fundamentals. For some viewers, it was confusing to navigate through Paramount+ for the first time to see the awards being handed out; in the actual handing out, the voters went for some very white, very stodgy work. Still, the ceremony every year thrives on that exuberant theater-kid live-performance energy, and there it could deliver. Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth, Adrienne Warren as Tina Turner, Jennifer Holliday re-creating her lightning-in-a-bottle Dreamgirls Tony night nearly four decades ago, Audra hosting and singing. A big, expensive mess with scattered brilliance: Broadway really is back.

LOW: The task of figuring out how to see the awards, in two parts. You thought it would be enough to get Paramount+ to watch the awards? Not quite: After two hours, watchers needed to hop over to CBS (on their televisions) or to a different tier of Paramount+ service to watch the two-hour “Broadway’s Back” special live. It wasn’t exactly seamless at the beginning of the process, and … it would get worse.

HIGH: Audra McDonald entering as host, bringing with her the calming fact of being Audra. Whether it was because she’s on CBS’s The Good Fight or something else, Paramount+ made the superb choice of having Audra McDonald, beloved ultraprofessional, as emcee. She cares, she has authority, she knows everyone, she’s gracious and enthusiastic, and they’re definitely going to listen to her. She even makes thanking the accounting firm seem genuine.

HIGH: The peak earnestness, as usual, of the speeches. As soon as the awards began to be handed out, things turned very emotional, which — as it was easy to forget over the past year — is just what happens when a lot of theater people get in a room together. David Alan Grier, winning for Supporting Actor in a Play, shouted out, “Audra, I got one of these, too!” (He also told his competition, “tough bananas.”) Danny Burstein, winning Supporting Actor in a Musical, paid tribute to his late wife, Rebecca Luker. Lois Smith, winning Supporting Actress in a Play, implored everyone to “only connect.” You’re making everyone misty under their masks.

LOW: Lauren Patten’s win for Jagged Little Pill in the midst of the production’s apologies for its handling of that role. In the musical, Patten plays Jo, a character who was depicted as nonbinary during Boston previews but whose gender became ambiguous on Broadway, a decision that been the subject of controversy, and led the production to apologize, as its trans cast members have called it out. In her speech, Patten nodded to the “difficult conversations” that have come up, which really does seem like putting it lightly.

HIGH: Audra McDonald cracking herself up by accidentally reading her name cue from the teleprompter. We agree: Audra McDonald.

LOW: Where do you save time? You do it by jamming awards together. In order to hustle through the awards categories that “no one” cares about, the show’s creators rearranged them to be listed by production instead of sorted by specialty: a quick run through all the technical awards that (for example) Moulin Rouge! was nominated for, then all the ones that Tina was up for, and so forth. They didn’t have the presenters read off the nominees; the announcer rattled those names off like a list of pharmaceutical side effects. (Ask your doctor about Jagged Little Pill.) The set, costume, and lighting-design awards were all handed out this way, as were the book, orchestration, and choreography awards. The show’s new format was brisk, and once in a while it felt as though the show was trying to catch a bus. The arrangement also made it particularly obvious that voters were block-voting “slates” — A Christmas Carol scooped up every design award in the straight play category, and Moulin Rouge! took every design trophy in the musicals department.

HIGH: The sheer Broadway theater-y-ness of it. The Tony Awards have not been broadcast from a Broadway theater since 1999. Since then, they’ve usually been held in the immensity of Radio City Music Hall. The return to a hall with one-quarter as many seats, purpose built for emotional contact between audience and stage, gave the broadcast a palpable intimacy.

EXTREME HIGH: Jennifer Holliday doing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” Holy moly. Reprising her 1982 Tony performance, making every single one of our hairs stand up and pay attention, Holliday delivered an entire show’s worth of emotion, complete with a man prop who came out from the wings just to be sung at (an honor!).

HIGH WITHIN THE HIGH: Sheryl Lee Ralph’s way-over-the-top introduction of Jennifer Holliday. She struck the classic Dreamgirls pose and amped an already primed audience for the astonishment to come.

HIGH THAT SURROUNDED THE HIGH: The mid-song standing ovation for Holliday. It’s hard to convey how totally devastating her performance was, but the sight of the whole room surging to its feet and Cyndi Lauper reduced to shattered tears certainly provided a hint.

LOW: Aaron Tveit’s low-suspense win against no one. No knock on Aaron, of course, and congratulations to him. But it would have been pretty entertaining (if wildly awkward) if he hadn’t won, and presenters Bebe Neuwirth and Courtney B. Vance — our new favorite comedy team — had to Fosse sashay offstage with the trophy themselves.

LOW: The clumsy 12-minute break between the Paramount+ telecast and the “Broadway’s Back!” CBS one. Maybe because the (absent) British people who won awards for A Christmas Carol didn’t give acceptance speeches, the awards-giving half of the show zipped by and ended well ahead of schedule, producing an accidental (though perhaps theater-referential) intermission. You’d think with a room full of supreme performers, the producers could’ve just had a few people come up and sing together for a few minutes to kill time. Leading thousands of theatergoers to ask … why am I watching Big Brother?

LOW: The several minutes’ delay of the concert section of the show when it aired on WCBS in New York. Apparently an earlier NFL game ran long, bumping the start of the broadcast in New York City for an extra few minutes, meaning that New York viewers following Twitter saw a lot of tweets referencing the future. Good thing New Yorkers aren’t the demographic of people who would most care about theater awards! People in time zones farther West also had to wait, sometimes hours, for the “Broadway’s Back” part of the program to air in their CBS market.

HIGH: Leslie Odom Jr. managing to carry off the impossible: follow Audra McDonald. The original Aaron Burr, sir, hosted the concert broadcast with spirit and humor, handling odd bits of live broadcasting (Tituss Burgess sneaking into his seat late; a lightly bungled return from commercial break) and turning them into lively little grace notes. He wore a series of extremely dapper jackets (one of which looked like it had beamed down from outer space), wrangled a pretend-mischievous Josh Groban, and sang several songs with his customary brilliance. We should be having another Tony ceremony in, what, a few months? He should host that too.

HIGH: Getting to see performances from the nominated musicals in their theaters. A few musical numbers were actually played out at the Winter Garden — “Burning Down the House” from the specially awarded American Utopia, and an Ain’t Too Proud segment with guest heavy hitter John Legend — but (seemingly as a COVID accommodation), we got pretaped performances from Moulin Rouge!, Jagged Little Pill, and Tina that were recorded in their regular houses. Whatever audiences lost in the way of live thrills, they regained with practiced performances owed to familiar spaces against familiar staging and lighting. (High within this high: Adrienne Warren doing that Tina megamix! Whew.) If only we could’ve gotten similar clips from the plays in competition.

LOW: Slave Play’s shocking full shutout. Jeremy O. Harris’s daring play received 12 nominations — a record — and won zero, amid a sweep from A Christmas Carol in the design categories and The Inheritance taking Best Play. There might’ve been a lot of talk recently and tonight about Broadway’s move into the future, but as it turns out, Tony voters as a group are still pretty conservative.

HIGH: Bringing out Brian Stokes Mitchell, Kelli O’Hara, and Norm Lewis for the “In Memoriam” segment. If you need gravitas, you give Stokes “The Impossible Dream,” and you pull out “Somewhere.” It’s an easy way to get tears, and man does it work.

LOW: Pulling the focus from the names of those lost. CBS was committed to some overactive camerawork full of close-ups of the singers that made it hard to focus on the tributes, especially as the names were paired up to speed through the extra-long two-year list. The final gesture — a beautiful one in which the curtain came down covered in names of the lost — also needed a slow, steady pan, not fancy angles that meant we couldn’t take it all in (or read it).

HIGH: An epic series of duets after all the award giving was done. After Best Musical went to Moulin Rouge! the broadcast could have been over. Ho-ho: no. The show had kept its powder dry for a series of duets between iconic (we can say it!) performers. Odom and his wife Nicolette Robinson launched the rocket with “You Matter to Me” from Waitress; Tituss Burgess and Andrew Rannells sang “It Takes Two”; Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenowith sang Wicked’s “For Good,” reducing all feeling people everywhere to tears; Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp did “What You Own” from Rent; and then the absolutely devastating (and visibly mutually delighted) Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald took it home with “Wheels of a Dream.”

LOW: Somehow, after “Wheels of Dream,” the show actually ended with a “Freestyle Love Supreme” improv. Fun, but nothing should have to follow “Wheels of a Dream.”

The Highs and Lows of the 2021 Tony Awards