The Tony Awards 2021

The Tony Awards was a night of extremely mixed messages about Broadway

The Daily Beast

September 27, 2021

The much-delayed Tony Awards featured song-and-dance, and much talk of diversity alongside a surprising total shutout of “Slave Play,” the most nominated play in Tonys history.

There were three major messages transmitted from Sunday night’s much-delayed 74th Tony Awards.

First: “Hello, the rest of America and international tourists, come to New York, and buy Broadway tickets because the hometown population cannot keep The Lion King and Wicked going. Sitting in a theater wearing masks is meh. But, right now at least, there’s hardly any coughing, and mercifully less mastication of crunchy foods.”

Second: The Tonys believes in diversity. There must be more of it, on stage and off. This discussion and activism—ongoing since the murder of George Floyd—were referenced in speeches and performances.

If the proof of change might be expected to be reflected in the awards, Tony voters could have missed the memo, because Slave Play—which examined racism, identity, and history and was the most-nominated play in Tonys history—was completely shut out of the awards, losing Best Play to the gay-themed era-spanning play, The Inheritance, a snub that set social media ablaze. Early Monday, after the end of the awards, it was announced that Slave Play would return to Broadway for an eight-week run, starting November 23.

These Tony Awards should have been held in June 2020. Then came the pandemic, although the Tonys veered away from going into great detail about the effects of COVID on the theatrical industry and its workers.

Moulin Rouge! The Musical was the big winner of the evening: 10 Tonys, including for best musical, best actor in a musical for shoo-in Aaron Tveit, and direction for Alex Timbers. A Christmas Carol on Broadway won five Tonys making it the most awarded play, although The Inheritance won four headline Tonys—as well as Best Play, Stephen Daldry won for play directing, Andrew Burnap won the top male play-acting award (a surprise, beating out Tom Hiddleston and Jake Gyllenhaal).

Lois Smith—the most impressive performer in the play—won a deserved featured actress award, her first Tony after making her Broadway debut in 1952. Asked what the big difference between Broadway productions then and now, Smith responded that tickets cost more, and so did the productions to mount.

Arguments raged online about Slave Play’s shutout, and The Inheritance’s much-disputed qualities, including representation of its LGBTQ and people of color characters. Its author Matthew López proudly noted that he was the first Latinx playwright to win a Tony Award for Best Play, and called for greater Latinx representation in theater.

The impact of the Special Tony Award given to Broadway Advocacy Coalition, which has been focused on productively confronting racism and racial inequity, was further echoed in powerful speeches by winners including Kenny Leon, director of best revival of a play for A Soldier’s Play and Adrienne Warren, who won best actress in a musical for her brilliantly rousing role in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.

After invoking Breonna Taylor and George Floyd’s names, Leon said “a bigger table” was needed for writers of color: “We need to hear all of the stories,” Leon said. “When we hear all of the stories we are better. Let’s do better.” In her introduction to the evening, host Audra McDonald said, “Broadway is back, and it must and will be better,” in its mission to be “inclusive and equitable” for all.

Mary-Louise Parker won best actress in a play for The Sound Inside. David Alan Grier won best featured actor in a play for A Soldier’s Play; Danny Burstein won the corresponding award for musicals for his Moulin Rouge role, and paid tribute to all those who had been so kind after the death of his wife from complications arising from ALS.

In her acceptance speech, winning best featured actress in a musical, Jagged Little Pill’s Lauren Patten said she welcomed the debate—producers are now promising a rewrite—around her gender non-conforming character Jo. The musical is mired in this and other controversies, and when Jagged Little Pill writer Diablo Cody won the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical she did not mention anything about any of it.

The third question raised by the Tony Awards was the weirdest to confront on a night that is supposed to celebrate theater, after over 18 months of Broadway and other theaters being dark: Does CBS care about the Tony Awards?

The network didn’t show the majority of them. Between 9 and 11 p.m., in a show hosted with smooth charm by Leslie Odom Jr., producers curated a show brazenly aimed at selling tickets to Broadway shows, with three big awards left to give out: best revival of a play, best play, and best musical. The other awards were all given out on a show that was on Paramount+ between 7 and 9 p.m. The only grit in the gloss of the 9pm show, apart from pointed speeches, was the Broadway Advocacy Coalition-conceived performance led by Daniel J. Watts and Jared Grimes questioning the meaning of representation and silence.

The closing of the show was not a celebration of Broadway now. It featured duets aimed to elicit unabashed nostalgia (the delicious standout being Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell singing “Wheels of a Dream” from Ragtime), with a Lin-Manuel Miranda-led finale centered around Freestyle Love Supreme.

If I was in a Broadway cast right now, and not a famous name—doing PCR tests, working to get shows back on eight times a week in front of vaccinated and masked audiences—I would have thought, “Gee, thanks a lot. We’re here, working. Can we do a bit maybe?”

Fair enough. The primetime network show was a purely commercial exercise based on telling people who kind of like theater that Broadway was back, and needs their financial support. Hopefully this set off the synapse in their brains to make a new set of credit card bookings. But the mission to fill theaters is nationwide. This should encompass Broadway, off Broadway, off-off Broadway, and hundreds of miles away from Broadway. But the Tonys and Broadway take up so much of the oxygen. Yes, Broadway needs the money, but it already commands a lot of the money people spend on going to the theater. One hopes all theaters can be filled.

A Tonys-themed song and dance show may suit ratings-counters at the network, and those viewers with understandable awards show exhaustion. But if you’re going to show an awards show, show an awards show—especially in the year in which the artistic industry you are supposed to be celebrating and promoting has been far more grievously impacted than the TV and film industries, both of which have been lavished with full-length awards ceremonies on our screens. Why couldn’t the Tony Awards and theater itself be accorded the same?

The message of the scheduling and format of this year’s Tony Awards reflected that mainstream television doesn’t know how to celebrate, promote, and speak about the performing arts beyond simply singing at us, and shooting for as many viral moments as possible. There is tangible nervousness about making everything accessible and easy to digest in a show like this.

How strange after years of showing the Tony Awards at their full length, this year—the year that theater needs to be celebrated most, in all its diversity, variety, and difficulty—that CBS reprograms this banner night into the tamest night of tunefulness, with the artists themselves and their achievement shunted to the side, and the performers and artists of now sidelined in favor of famous names.

Theater needs to change, it needs to challenge, said the speakers on stage, while the actual TV show was a glossy exercise in old familiars.

The night before the Tonys this critic went to see Is This A Room, a tense, taut piece about whistleblower Reality Winner—first seen by me off Broadway, and now installed on a big Broadway stage. Why couldn’t the Tonys have spent at least one segment on Sunday night—beyond the sight of audiences applauding these shows—promoting the kinds of shows audiences will see if they return to Broadway now; more than that, something that reflected the variety of theater on Broadway, not just the songs and shows everyone knows?

Why not show a segment from Pass Over, about two Black men confronting demons, both real and perhaps imagined? Why not give over just a few minutes in the year’s big TV broadcast focused on theater, expanding an audience’s vision of what theater means, and challenging hearts and minds into the bargain? One hopes that if viewers do as the TV broadcast was intent on hammering home—BUY SOME DAMN TICKETS!—they do so with the intention of not being so simplistically spoon-fed as the Tony Awards TV spectacular promised they would be.