tony awards 2021

The Tonys That Had to Do Everything

Adrienne Warren won for Best Actress in a Musical. Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

After four hours on Sunday night — or some weird combination of noncontiguous hours if you were watching via tape delay on the West Coast — the Tony Awards came to a close. The final number was a Freestyle Love Supreme recap rap (re-rap?), in which the cheery group resang snippets of songs we had just heard, retold jokes we had just politely laughed at. The energy after so much gravitas was wrong, and as a ceremony-culminating gesture, it was a dud. But at least it was an instructive dud. The Tonys, even more than other awards shows, are always recapping: a year, an industry, an imagined golden age. The Broadway apparatus itself, so much of which is built around revivals, is deeply nostalgic. No wonder this year’s biggest winners were Moulin Rouge! — a time machine set both to the American ’00s and the French fin de siècle — and a super-sentimental The Christmas Carol. Remember that Dickens tale? The only specter having any fun at all is the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Looking back while looking forward was the impossible job of this year’s Tony Awards. Instead of razzle-dazzling us, the host Audra McDonald (and, in the second half, Leslie Odom Jr.) had the job of surveying the pandemic wreckage, all of it still piling up. How could a celebration honor Broadway’s 560-day shutdown? How could it acknowledge the sheer scale of our grief? Well, actually that part the show did pretty well. Theater-makers are very good at channeling the voices of the dead — every theater is haunted, including the charmless Winter Garden — and they are past masters at conveying empathy. Even masked and separated and unable to get more than two awardees onstage at once, the assembled artists seemed to be in an intensely sustained group embrace. Danny Burstein thanked everyone in the room for showing up for him last year when his wife Rebecca Luker died — “You sent love, you sent prayers, you sent bagels!” The In Memoriam section was also beautiful, particularly the final gesture: The house scrim coming down with the names of hundreds of the lost. The CBS cameras did not exactly focus on those names, but even that increased the sense that it was meant only for the people in the room. We television watchers were strangers at a wake, meant to keep quiet, to let the family grieve.

Speaking of the CBS cameras — man. There has been quite a bit of conversation about how technology can increase access to an art form that can be exclusive. These Tony Awards were an object lesson in how digital tactics can cut both ways. On the one hand, the excellent A Soldier’s Play sent out a video of the Roundabout production to voters, giving them a chance to see something they couldn’t experience in person, and it won Best Revival. If that sort of digital record is available to voters going forward, it could change the game. But streaming theater can also restrict reach, given a bad enough rollout. In the case of the CBS clustermuddle, the dueling platforms were confusing: Switching from one premium-price service to another (in many cases from one kind of Paramount+ to another kind of Paramount+ halfway through the night) provided the sort of irritation that actually prevents people from tuning in at all. The tiers of access were quite revealing. Some awards, like the honor given to Woodie King Jr., appeared nowhere. The first two streaming-only hours contained such small-fry awards as Lead Actor and Actress. Then the prime-time “Broadway’s Back” special barely nodded to the Tonys, giving out only three in two hours. What?

If you’re going to pull those sorts of shenanigans, you have to let the people know. In an unscientific poll of about two dozen 20-somethings interested in performance, I found an almost total lack of awareness about the Tonys the week before they finally happened. Little had been done to capture these young folks’ attention or interest, and most of them seemed content to wait for social media to parcel out the important bits. But even that was difficult! Given the way the Paramount+ and digital CBS live setups worked, it was impossible to rewind, tricky to screen capture or post a video. Isn’t this thing supposed to be an advertisement to bring nervous audiences back to the theater? A lot of the programming was quite wonderful, including beautifully produced musical numbers from the nominated musicals, a bring-the-house-down performance by Jennifer Holliday of “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going”, and several killer duets. So I’m annoyed that so much of it was buried by procedural bungling and anemic marketing.

And this is where the practical point of the Tonys comes into play. As much as they are “Broadway’s prom” (or homecoming, as McDonald said), they do have a pragmatic thrust. When I was talking to a member of the Broadway League last year, he (affectionately) called the group a “bunch of bodegas that give each other an award.” And that’s right. The American Theater Wing is, in part, a trade organization. The Broadway League is a chamber of highly specific commerce. We should all know by now that the Tonys are not disinterested pronouncements about quality! Still, any theater nut will drag out their list of shows that should have won and didn’t. Many of the musical numbers on the broadcast came from those shows, in fact. (Ragtime? Didn’t win in 1999, but it did a nice job of carving your heart into slivers last night when Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald sang it into each other’s eyes. Ditto most of the stuff you heard by Stephen Sondheim.) The Beetlejuice performance in 2019 was important to the show’s fortunes, for instance, and I am willing to bet last night’s blistering number from Tina: The Tina Turner Musical sold seats.

The choice, therefore, to pay such scant attention to the straight plays was one of the show’s worst. There was no flavor of the plays, scarcely any footage, and no presentation by the nominated playwrights. Talk about leaving cachet on the table! Tom Hiddleston and Zawe Ashton from Betrayal were in the Winter Garden looking like a goddamn Valentine’s Day card and you would never have known it. Slave Play went into the night as the most nominated Broadway play ever. Its author, Jeremy O. Harris, was sitting in the audience wearing a golden Eyes Wide Shut mask, ready and willing to make a stir, to be visible, to inspire. Yet, in what seemed to be a pointed rebuke to the controversial piece, Slave Play won no awards. Garnering zero wins out of 12 nominations sent a shock wave through the Tony-watching community. Voters certainly chose against it again and again. But the telecast had chosen against it from the beginning: Viewers at home never even got a peek at it. What’s it about? Why is it important? The show just announced a return engagement this November — the broadcast should have at least answered those questions, right?

Closing their eyes to plays meant that the Tony awards didn’t do a full job of looking back. But what about the “looking forward” part of their remit? On some subjects, like Karen Olivo’s statements about the impossibility of remaining healthy while in Moulin Rouge! and the controversies about trans representation and work conditions at Jagged Little Pill, there was little comment. When it came to the industry’s racial reckoning, though, there were certainly numerous calls to action, from presenters and winners alike. Adrienne Warren said that “the world has been screaming for us to change” when she accepted her trophy; Kenny Leon gave a rallying cry (“We’ve got to make the table bigger!”) when he accepted his. Broadway Inspirational Voices and Daniel J. Watts performed an impassioned number that included pointed lyrics like “What does your silence sound like?” as the rattling sound of tap dancing sounded through the Winter Garden like gunfire. The Broadway Advocacy Coalition even got an award for demanding diversity onstage and behind the scenes. Yet, for the most part, when people got Tony awards, they looked like the people who have always gotten Tony awards. When folks who didn’t fit the white male mold won, they remarked on how alone they felt. Sonya Tayeh reminded us that she was the first woman in ten years to take the trophy for choreography; Matthew Lopez noted that The Inheritance’s win for Best Play was the first such win for a Latin American writer. There is clearly a great division between the progressive 40-odd nominators and the conservative 800-odd voters. When will it change? Our next Tony Awards are just around the corner in June 2022. I want to be hopeful, but I also know it’s the biggest ships that are slowest to turn.

The Tonys That Had to Do Everything