With a couple of warm nods to COVID-safety professionals and a scant few masks visible in the audience, the 75th annual Tony Awards were anxious to communicate that Broadway has exited the pandemic and survived. Please come spend your money on our work. Bits of COVID gloom leaked through anyhow, of course — Anthony Edwards introducing his wife, Mare Winningham, in Girl From the North Country reminded everyone that he’d stepped in to fill a role when too many cast members were out sick. Dance captain and alternate Mallory Maedke appeared in the performance from Six after Abby Mueller tested positive earlier in the day.
Nevertheless, the four-hour (!) ceremony pulled off a convincing impression of a theater world now back on its feet with big showy musical numbers and a celebratory atmosphere. Also, Ariana DeBose was there trying very hard. As always, one of the most touching elements of the show was watching actors greet their idols, who greeted their idols in turn. DeBose and Chita Rivera embraced (in matching purple), and even the unflappable Natasha Katz took the stage to accept her lighting-design award saying, “Nathan Lane!” in a tone of astonishment and delight.
HIGH: A meta/sweet opening number, because it’s Broadway, baby. Darren Criss and Julianne Hough began the streaming-only stage-setting first hour by singing a song about setting the stage. With music and lyrics by Darren Criss! Very cute. Very classic. Very spinning-sets-of-theater-seating.
HIGH: Toby Marlow’s outfit. The dream of the early aughts rom-com was alive in a metallic spaghetti-strap gown.
LOW: Bunching together the costume-design awards for play and musical. Grump. This goes for all of the design awards, which were given out with no break between play and musical to save time. As always, the slurring of these awards, given second-class status, is infuriating to people who love and care about stagecraft.
LOW: Angela Lansbury received a Lifetime Achievement award and you didn’t get to see it unless you’re a Paramount+ subscriber. You also needed Paramount+ to see the award presented by Lansbury’s Sweeney Todd co-star Len Cariou. She couldn’t attend — an announcement that caused Patti LuPone, in her reaction shot, to look concerned. (Us too, Patti.)
WHOA: It’s a Britsweep! With wins for Marianne Elliott (Best Director for Company), Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow (Best Score for Six), Simon Russell Beale (Best Leading Actor for The Lehman Trilogy), Gareth Owen (Best Sound Design for MJ), Sam Mendes (Best Director for The Lehman Trilogy), Jon Clark (Best Lighting Design for The Lehman Trilogy), Bunny Christie (Best Scene Design for Company), Christopher Wheeldon (Best Choreography for MJ), Simon Hale (Best Orchestration for Girl From the North Country), Gabriella Slade (Best Costume Design for Six), and a Lifetime Achievement award for Angela freakin’ Lansbury, this was a night of Anglophilia. It’s an odd gift for the Platinum Jubilee, but we hope the queen appreciates it.
HIGH: Christopher Wheeldon’s acceptance speech, if not the actual win, which … This is not the place. But to that speech: Wearing a dashing red damask jacket (the unofficial texture of the Tonys), Wheeldon thanked his husband, a professional meditation counselor — a useful asset! — then gave the first of the night’s thanks to the Broadway swings and understudies, who are a big reason any of these shows have kept going during the pandemic.
LOW: The awkwardness of the Paramount+-to-CBS transition. It’s not quite as rough as last year, but hosting the first hour of the awards ceremony solely on a streaming platform, apparently ending seven minutes early, then directing the audience — Paramount+ premium only please — to switch to a different tab in the service … the seams showed much more than they should have. (People at the network grumbling about viewer numbers need to look at themselves in the mirror on this.)
LOW: That silly opening number for Ariana DeBose. After the sauciness of the Act One presentation, with lyrics by Darren Criss (!!), the chaotic opening to the main part of the awards featured DeBose wearing a white body stocking (costume designer: “Ariana, we want to wear tights and …” DeBose: “Got it”) and singing scraps of various musicals. “Can you spot ’em?” she asked, unnecessarily, since the names of the musicals were shown in lights behind her. DeBose made odd vocal choices throughout: The lyric from West Side Story is not “There’s aoiahih plaiwice for uihweius.”
HIGH: Ariana DeBose saying, regarding more diversity on Broadway, “The Great White Way is becoming more of a nickname than a how-to guide.” Crisp when she needs to be.
HIGH: Patti LuPone’s win for Company. It’s her eighth nomination and third win, but when you’re Patti LuPone, you win! You get onstage, read from your prepared speech, and thank the COVID-safety people, your New York dresser, and your London dresser.
EVEN HIGHER: Patti LuPone got deep into her prepared acceptance speech, then casually flipped to page two. If she’d had a third page, we would’ve kept listening and been happy to do it. Nobody dared play her off the stage.
LOW: So … MJ, huh. A generous helping of love for the Michael Jackson musical, MJ, in these Tony Awards — including awards for lead actor, lighting, sound design, and choreography, as well as a big showcase for the “Smooth Criminal” number. It is very uncomfortable to watch the show treat Jackson’s legacy as though it is an uncomplicated pop-star arc as it glosses over the dark, tragic, somehow still significantly controversial elements of Jackson’s life. Choices! People do make them, don’t they? [Shuffles hastily off, stage right]
HIGH: The salaries paid by Chris Harper. We love an inside joke and so does the creative team behind Company, all of whose winners found time to mention, surely for no particular reason, the name of their boss. Finally, as Company won for Best Revival of a Musical, Harper threw in the last line: “Patti, it’s an honor to be the man who pays your salary.”
HIGH, TOO DAMN HIGH: Whatever it cost to attend this awards ceremony, apparently. Maybe if the prices had been lower, there would be fewer empty seats in the balcony? 😬
HIGH: Billy Crystal leading the room in a round of Yiddish jazz scatting. Sure, it started with a sweaty round of consonants. But as Crystal accelerated through calling out some specific audience members (Samuel L. Jackson, then Lin-Manuel Miranda, who had to repeat, “I’m Alexander Rabinowitz”), the number took off. When you can include a reaction shot of Jayne Houdyshell saying, “Vey!” in a theater-wide back and forth of “Oy!” “Vey!” you know you’ve scored.
HIGH: Laurence Fishburne does a Daffy Duck voice? If you are unhinged enough, which is the personality Ariana DeBose chose for the evening, you can get Laurence Fishburne to do a Daffy Duck voice on national television. (It was nice to watch his daughter cringe in response.)
LOW: Ariana DeBose’s hosting style. It feels illegal to ding thermonuclear levels of theater-kid energy at the actual Tony Awards. Nevertheless, here we are. The opening number was one thing — who can say who wrote it? Maybe it was one very scattered performance? — then it became clear that Ariana DeBose would be bringing overwhelming, hyper-self-conscious, deliberately mannered Miranda Sings vibes all night, and at that moment, every member of the audience and everyone viewing at home sighed and said, “Fine, okay. Fine. We were just trying to have a nice time watching Phylicia Rashad accept an award but … fine.”
HIGH: Samuel L. Jackson making us clap. For him, August Wilson, and Jackson’s wife, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, who this fall will be the first Black woman to direct Wilson on Broadway.
HIGH, WITH NO SIGN THAT THEY WOULD LOWER IT: That too-tall microphone in front of petite producer Carole Rothman. As she accepted the Best Revival of a Play award, the microphone lined up more or less with the top of her head. It doesn’t seem too much to ask, surely, that she have photos from the evening that don’t have a shadow on her face.
LOW: The “entering the audience” number from Ariana DeBose. Regardless of whether you’ve seen the Saw movies, a general impression seems to be that an alarming personage with unusual expressions holds people hostage and tortures them. This seems like an observation unrelated to the Tonys, but here’s a proposal: What if it’s not?
HIGH: Bernadette Peters singing “Children Will Listen” as a Sondheim tribute. Who was crying? No one was crying. Zero people. Please move along.
LOW: A cut to the audience revealing that Ruthie Ann Miles was one of very few people wearing face masks. The Tony Awards celebrate an industry that has been so careful, so scrupulous about COVID protections by maintaining a mask mandate for its audience after the rest of the city got loose. It was distressing to see the room unmasked here, even though those in the orchestra had been asked to test negative. Show us what a modern Broadway audience looks like! It looks like masks.
HIGH: Michael R. Jackson won Best Book of a Musical for A Strange Loop. Wearing a fantastic magenta robe, Jackson accepted the award to a resounding standing ovation. His breathless, thrilling speech included a tart note to the audience to sit down, since the standing ovation was cutting into his thank-you time.
LOW: CBS’s cowardice (presumably). It necessitated the extensive rewriting of A Strange Loop’s feature song, because all that frank insouciance and jokes about sexual ambivalence made someone in the C-suite blush. On the other hand, it’s a real …
HIGH: Michael R. Jackson could rewrite a tricky, delicate song. Even when muffled by CBS, he managed to make the wildness of his innovation penetrate — that’s right, penetrate — the screen.
HIGH: The original cast of Spring Awakening reunited to perform “Touch Me.” It was nice! It was nice to see everyone back again, and the number, the choreography, and the overall mood of the song has aged pretty well. Jonathan Groff embraced the experience of performing in the middle of what functioned as a high-school reunion, occasionally nodding or smiling at fellow cast members as they moved toward one another. Lea Michele, however, seemed to be performing the dance moves from The OA in order to ascend to another plane. So pretty much what you’d want and expect.
HIGH: Whatever buddy comedy Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield were low-key pitching. While presenting the award for Best Play (which went to The Lehman Trilogy), Garfield managed to hang on to his sangfroid until Nathan Lane told him, approvingly, that he loves a man in a velvet suit. Garfield blushed, laughed, caught on fire. Let’s see them do a heist, a road movie, Shakespeare. (Let’s see them do pretty much anything, thank you!)
HIGH: Joaquina Kalukango brought down the house with “Let It Burn.” David Alan Grier announced the number from Paradise Square by warning audience members that they’d better get ready, and Kalukango lived up to the hype. By the final crescendo of “Let It Burn,” it was clear she had taken the entire theater by storm. “I’m still not over Joaquina Kalukango,” Ariana DeBose said when the show returned from commercial break.
HIGH: Deirdre O’Connell telling us to “make the weird art.” Dana H. (variously pronounced by various people as “Diana H.” and “Donna H.” during the ceremony) has to be the least likely show to ever come to Broadway — O’Connell lip-syncing (stunningly) along to a recording of playwright Lucas Hnath’s actual mother as she told a harrowing story about being abducted. “Please let me be standing here as a little sign from the universe to make the weird art,” O’Connell said, urging everyone to chase their passion and not the prize.
WHOA: Myles Frost winning for his role as Michael Jackson in MJ. An unexpected winner for Best Leading Actor in a Musical, Frost moon-sauntered his way up to the stage and broke into song during his acceptance speech. It was tender and full of humanity — and not just because Frost admitted that he needed to stop to go pee. Although it’s fine to celebrate Frost’s performance, it’s worth noting one more time: a Michael Jackson musical, huh.
HIGH: The performance of “Ex-Wives” from Six. If you want to go out on a high note, why not six high notes? Henry VIII’s cast-offs killed with the show’s opener, which tonight included Mallory Maedke stepping in as the third queen, Jane Seymour, 12 hours before broadcast. DeBose, whose fellowship with all the swings and covers was her most endearing quality all night, singled Maedke out and cried, “This is what they do!”
HIGH: A Strange Loop winning Best Musical. Talk about unlikely Broadway triumphs — a “big, Black and queer-ass American Broadway show” took the gold after a two-decade process for Michael R. Jackson. Even Ariana DeBose said, “Oh, that makes me so happy,” as she came out for her farewells, and the room erupted with delight over (the living) Michael Jackson’s win. Not to mention an EGOT for producer Jennifer Hudson. A fly in the ointment: The Tonys cut the mic just as producer Barbara Whitman finished speaking her piece and ceded it to Jackson. There were some boos and groans as the telecast decided to sacrifice his historic moment for — yes — another number from DeBose.