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What Ever Happened to the Tonys?

The shuttered Al Hirschfeld Theatre near Times Square in January.
The shuttered Al Hirschfeld Theatre near Times Square in January. Photo: Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Pour out a tiny glass of Champagne for the fate of the glitzy awards show in the coronavirus pandemic. We’re right in the middle of the year’s delayed awards season, and seemingly no aspect of the entertainment industry has figured out how to do their show right. The Grammys, usually held in January, were delayed until this weekend. The Oscars won’t happen till April. The Emmys were one big video call and the Golden Globes were an especially glitchy one. But in terms of sheer confusion, the Tony Awards have everyone beat. It took until March 1 — 354 days after Broadway shut down — for the theater industry to start voting on the best of the 2019–20 season that COVID cut short, and there’s still no planned ceremony in sight.

It’s a farcical situation, one that speaks to the way the theater industry has been upended by the pandemic. This Tonys was supposed to happen last June. Voters are being asked to remember work they saw as much as a year and a half ago. Winners will be kept under wraps until the awards ceremony, an event that won’t happen until months in the future, at a date not even the nominees know. Luckily there isn’t a Godot revival in contention; that would be too on the nose.

The Broadway theater season begins and ends at the end of April, with big shows typically opening in late fall, to catch the holiday sales rush, and early spring, to seize the attention of Tony voters. This year, the Tonys cutoff date was set in mid-February 2020, cutting out the spring shows and making the list of nominees especially short: One category, Best Musical Revival, isn’t included at all. Another, Best Actor in a Musical, has a single nominee. (Congrats in advance to Aaron Tveit.)

Tonys voting ends March 15. And then — who knows? In a typical year, that ceremony would air on CBS, with a theater-adjacent, TV-famous host to introduce Broadway to the general public. The Broadway League and American Theatre Wing, which administer the annual ceremony through Tony Award Productions, told Vulture that the Tonys will happen “in coordination with Broadway’s reopening.” Some people in the industry don’t expect Broadway performances to return in full until October — a prediction that can seem hopeful or conservative, depending on the latest vaccination news. There have been no official announcements about whether the event will be televised either.

As they braced for the weirdest Tonys vote ever, Vulture spoke to producers, nominees, and others involved in Tonys campaigns about the state of the awards. Some mentioned rumors that in-fighting at the League was holding up scheduling (which Tony Award Productions flatly denied). Others described the ways in which productions have had to campaign for the awards without traditional events or gatherings. Nominees like playwright Jeremy O. Harris — whose show, Slave Play, is nominated for a record 12 Tonys — aren’t sure when they might be able to celebrate, or even how they’d do it. “The lack of communication has reminded me what it felt like to never hear back from my dad,” Harris joked ruefully. “The close of the show on Broadway meant that our family, and even our group chat, had to stay together until the inevitable catharsis of the Tonys. We got to move an inch further to ending that group chat when the nominations came out. I wish they’d give us a date so we can all prepare to close the book.”

On its face, the idea of holding a celebratory event around a tiny, commercialized silver of this larger world seems especially frivolous right now. Most of the theater industry has evaporated, despite various stabs at remote productions; some smaller New York venues may be able to reopen soon, but the financial impacts will continue to resonate. The fact that these awards are being positioned the way they are says a lot about Broadway’s priorities.

The Tonys have always been the event of the Broadway season. Because they’re nationally televised, they also act as a bridge to the general population, a big advertisement for the concept of Broadway. Winning one has a lot of impact — especially financially. In 2011, the Times did a study estimating that Best Musical winners earned a 48 percent increase in weekly grosses in the eight weeks after the ceremony. Even Best Musical nominees got a 21 percent increase. The awards are career boons for actors: A Tony win or nomination can be a crucial stepping stone on the way to other opportunities, in the theater or onscreen. See Cynthia Erivo’s breakout to stardom after her win for The Color Purple. After Lauren Ridloff was nominated for Children of a Lesser God, she went from relatively unknown to The Walking Dead and a role in Marvel’s The Eternals.

“It’s called an EGOT, and that T means something, to artists, the industry, and consumers,” said Eva Price, a lead producer of the musical Jagged Little Pill, which is nominated for 15 Tonys this year. “Having a Tony Awards each year, having Broadway’s best on network television, having ink and noise dedicated through newspaper coverage and radio coverage and television coverage is vital to this art form.” She would know: She was also a producer on the unsettling, experimental Oklahoma!, which won Best Revival of a Musical in 2019, and ran through the end of that year on the boost that critical and awards attention can bring.

Beyond the actual awards, there could also be emotional value in an event that would offer the community as a whole the opportunity to reflect on a lost year, and show respect to those who have now mostly been out of work since last spring. Broadway is generally a show-must-go-on, eight-shows-a-week operation. There were reports of an usher diagnosed with COVID by early March 2020, but productions were running at full steam right up until Governor Cuomo, in coordination with the Broadway League, shut down the industry in the middle of the day on March 12. Casts and crews made a hasty exit from New York’s musty, poorly ventilated theaters, expecting a monthlong break. Rob McClure, star of the yet-to-open Mrs. Doubtfire, told me he left his wig and false teeth sitting in his dressing room.

Marquee for a Broadway show that never opened, April 2020. Photo: David S. Allee/The New York Times/Redux

At that moment, an awards show was nobody’s first priority. Any planning about when the Tonys might happen lagged behind figuring out what might happen to theater as a whole, and at first the awards were just postponed until “Broadway opens again” — with the implication then being that it could happen within months. In August, the League and Wing teased a possible digital-only Tonys event, then reappeared in October to announce a list of nominees via livestream without committing to anything else. That was enough to jolt a few shows back into campaign mode — though those campaigning were only guessing at when voting might happen. The cast of Moulin Rouge! did a virtual Q&A with Variety in October; Harris talked Slave Play on Seth Meyers’s show in December; Jagged Little Pill did a virtual concert in December. The end of the year came and went. Only in late January did the Tonys announce voting would take place in March.

Now, with Tony voters all logging into their accounts to pick their favorites, the question of who will win hinges mostly on who voters remember — and which shows they actually got the chance to see. The voting body is made up of nearly 800 theater professionals, including out-of-town producers who typically descend on New York for the spring road conference, when shows market themselves for national tours. Voters are only supposed to weigh in on categories where they’ve seen all the nominees, and they get free tickets to help them do it. This time around, anyone who was planning to catch up on shows in spring 2020 will likely have to skip some categories altogether.

Instead of the usual carnival of in-person campaign events, promo has to hinge on remote events, glossy mailers sent out to voters directly, or digital video clips from performances. One Tonys voter — who preferred to remain anonymous, given the sensitivities around campaigning this year — worried that the most subtle work would be overlooked, and that shows with more name recognition could sweep the awards. “People can send video or albums or other supporting material,” they said, “but it’s not a replacement for walking out of a theater and unpacking what elements evoked the experience you just had and how.”

However, Adam Feldman, Time Out NY’s theater critic and a committed Tonys watcher, said the fact that voters are required to see everything in a category may actually benefit less-seen shows. “A lot of people didn’t see Jagged Little Pill yet,” Feldman said. “If they can’t vote, does that help Jagged Little Pill? If only the people who were motivated to see it are allowed to vote, that’s not a random selection.”

You would need a No Fear Shakespeare–style guide to make sense of the list of nominees. In recent years, 30 to 40 new shows have opened on Broadway. This time around, only 18 were eligible. That includes zero musical revivals because none of those productions — a gender-flipped Company; Roundabout’s Caroline, or Change; and Ivo Van Hove’s contentious and literally splashy West Side Story — opened before the mid-February cutoff date. There are a few standout performances so good they might’ve been the go-to winners anyway, like Adrienne Warren’s triathlon-level athletic feat as Tina Turner in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical. (She’s nominated for Best Actress in a Musical.)

But there are also many categories that feel outright odd. Aaron Tveit from Moulin Rouge! is the only nominee for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical because the awards committee decided to skip over The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical and its lead, Chris McCarrell. The Lightning Thief was the only non-jukebox musical that opened before last February, but the nominating committee ignored it entirely; this was interpreted as meaning that they didn’t think its young adult–targeted material was up to snuff. (No comment, said Tony Award Productions.) Even in an off year, the awards remain snobby.

Whenever the ceremony does happen, those watching the awards should keep an eye out for how voters split in two major races. For Best Musical, the frontrunners include Moulin Rouge!, a movie-to-stage spectacular that was a commercial hit but split critics (the New York Times raved; in a Vulture review, Sara Holdren noted its “shapelessness”) and Jagged Little Pill, which grafted Alanis Morrisette songs onto an issue-driven story. (Again, the Times liked it; Vulture critic Helen Shaw compared some scenes to an SNL sketch about a drama-club showcase.)

Elizabeth Stanley in Jagged Little Pill. Photo: Matthew Murphy

For Best Play, industry chatter has it that the race is between The Inheritance, a much-hyped gay drama that melds the AIDS epidemic and Howards End, and Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play. The latter, which asks how Black people’s self-worth is distorted while literally fucking white supremacy, may have shocked more conservative Tonys voters with explicit sex and violence onstage; Broadway serves a largely white, largely wealthy audience and has lagged in attempts to reckon with structural racism. But the show had remarkable staying power, making Harris into a star in his own right. While Broadway has been shut down, the playwright made a deal with HBO, with a fund that allows him to produce theater on his own. The Inheritance, on the other hand, fizzled with New York audiences; it was about to close early just before the pandemic hit.

“A lot of what Slave Play was discussing ended up being in the national consciousness a few months later,” said Feldman, referring to the protests following the police killing of George Floyd last May. “It has that advantage of being of its time.”

Considering all the asterisks on this much-delayed ceremony, it’s hard to get too much Eliza Doolittle–style energy built up around the actual horse race. “The world isn’t paying attention to the Tonys these two weeks because several hundred people are voting on an online portal,” said Eva Price. “It’s going to be about when a telecast happens and what that telecast looks like, how it’s received, and who’s part of it.” Producers who spoke to Vulture emphasized the value that having an event on TV has for the industry, especially as a way to show that theater will return. But planning that kind of event means negotiating around what the network wants. CBS is still in negotiations with the Tonys about airing some sort of special, but nothing definite has been set.

This all might suggest that the awards are about everything but the people who could win them. Heather A. Hitchens, the Wing’s president and chief executive, told the New York Times that the organizers’ goal “is to be most helpful to the industry.” An entertainment industry insider familiar with the CBS side of the discussions told Vulture that the network is looking at airing an event sometime between when Broadway shows start to rehearse in theaters and when they reopen, and that the show would celebrate the history of Broadway instead of just the most recent season. That would mean using the Tonys as an advertising vehicle for Broadway as a whole, especially if the awards show is held after tickets go back on sale; it could even be a boost to tourist-reliant standbys like Wicked or The Lion King that may struggle as the theater returns. As for the nominees themselves? The musicals in contention are all expected to return, but all of the plays were either wrapping up or finished their runs by the time the pandemic hit. A show designed to be most helpful to the industry isn’t really about prioritizing them.

If nothing else, though, an actual Tonys ceremony would allow nominees to close out their group chats. Harris suggested that what he and others might want is to simply a set date for announcing the winners that they can plan around, even if there’s no big televised event. He hoped for “a really chic dinner,” with everyone tested negative for COVID, that could be more focused on celebrating the artists. “Will it suck for me because I’d already thought about my outfit months in advance and wanted everyone to see me on CBS wearing it?” Harris said. “Absolutely. But if that’s not how it shakes out, I’m fine with that.”

This article has been updated to reflect the possible timing and focus of an upcoming Tonys broadcast on CBS.

What Ever Happened to the Tonys?