I’m glad I took notes. Looking at the roster of nominees for this year’s too-long-delayed Tony Awards is all the reminder anyone could need of just how interminable Broadway’s Covid pandemic shutdown has seemed. Productions and performances from the 2019-20 season, many reviewed nearly two years ago, are calling out – some more forcefully than others – to be remembered and honored. As I said, I’m glad I took notes.
This Sunday, the Tony Awards ceremony will be livestreamed on Paramount+, then immediately followed by the two-hour CBS concert special Broadway’s Back!, a celebration of Broadway’s recent reopening after the shutdown of 16-months (or 17 or 18 depending on which shows you decide were the official comebacks). Pre-pandemic, the Tonys originally were scheduled for June 2020, but March of that year brought the sickness and an abrupt shutdown of the industry that would leave a mere 18 productions eligible for the awards, down from 34 the previous year. The awards were postponed twice, most recently – thought it certainly doesn’t feel recent – a year ago when the nominations were announced.
As many as 16 shows scheduled for spring 2020 fell out of the Broadway schedule (and Tony competition). Some – including Six, which was supposed to open the very night of the shutdown, and Girl From The North Country, which like the revival of West Side Story had opened but had not yet fulfilled its Tony voter requirements – would certainly have made at least the Best Musical race a healthier contest.
So the Tony organizers – the Broadway League, the American Theatre Wing, CBS – had some big decisions to make, even after the year-long postponement that seems, in retrospect and at least to me, wrong-headed. First up was how to get the network to continue its broadcast tradition for an annually low-rated event that this year would, quite literally, be a mere fraction of its former self.
The answer – and we’ll know Sunday whether it was a good one or not – was to essentially split the difference. A few big awards – Best Play, Best Musical and Best Revival of a Musical – will be announced live during the CBS special (and also streamed on Paramount+) but the bulk of awards are set for livestream only, a move that seems at odds with Broadway’s recent endeavors to position itself as something not just for wealthy New Yorkers and spend-happy tourists. Paramount+ does, in fact, offer a free trial period, so Broadway fans who don’t want to pay for a streaming service can watch the show without spending a penny – just make sure to cancel before the trial ends – but still. The visuals, as they say, aren’t great.
Certainly in some ways, this split decision – the livestream-broadcast hybrid – makes sense. The abbreviated roster of nominees and the year-long delay was always going to be a tough sell to CBS, and just as certainly Broadway fans want to see how even some of the less ballyhooed competitions play out. What will Moulin Rouge‘s Aaron Tveit – the sole nominee in the Lead Actor/Musical category – say when he takes the stage? And which of the nominees for Best Original Score will prove literally memorable? That category includes no musicals – repeat, no musicals – since each of the Best Musical nominees were of the golden-oldie jukebox variety. That left the plays to handle the Original Score burden – and left Tony voters trying very, very hard to mentally summon just what, exactly, the incidental music of The Rose Tattoo actually sounded like.
As a commercial move to promote the reopening of Broadway (and boost much-needed ticket sales for Broadway’s current line-up, even if it includes only a few of this year’s Tony nominees), both the postponement of the ceremony and the expansive concert special seems justifiable. The Tonys have always been as much an advertisement for sales as a recognition of achievement. But as a way to celebrate the productions and performers who hit the stages prior to the March 2020 shutdown, the decision feels less defendable. Even without CBS, a livestream or digital Tonys last fall would certainly have felt more immediate (and, in a way, hopeful), with nominees still fresh in minds and everyone – including, I suspect, more than a few in competition – still feeling fully invested.
So. After racking my brain, checking my gut and deciphering scribbles in old notebooks, my picks and predictions in selected Tony categories are as follows. Of course, the only sure bet is Tveit – though even that one-nominee category could, theoretically, see an upset: Tony voters could choose not to give that award at all. Won’t happen, but after the last year and a half, is anyone still capable of being surprised?
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Grand Horizons, Bess Wohl
The Inheritance, Matthew López
Sea Wall/A Life, Simon Stephens & Nick Payne
Slave Play, Jeremy O. Harris
The Sound Inside, Adam Rapp
Will Win: Slave Play
Should Win: Slave Play
Jeremy O. Harris’ challenging – and, don’t forget, very funny – play about race relations as depicted via the bizarre setting of a support group in which interracial couples attempt to expunge their demons by enacting hackneyed sexual tropes of the antebellum South was, deservedly, the talk of Broadway (and beyond) during the 2019-20 season. I’d be surprised if it’s power hasn’t endured. Possible spoiler: Sea Wall/A Life. This is one of the year’s strongest categories, with Rapp’s haunting The Sound Inside and, especially, the combined solo one-acts Sea Wall/A Life making for very sturdy competition. Wohl’s Grand Horizons was enjoyable enough, but ultimately too slight for a win, and López’s The Inheritance didn’t live up to its pre-opening hype.
Jagged Little Pill
Moulin Rouge! The Musical
Tina – The Tina Turner Musical
Will Win: Moulin Rouge! The Musical
Should Win: Moulin Rouge! The Musical
One of the categories most skewed by the pandemic, the Best Musical contest would at the very least have been a wider competition if the season had lasted long enough to include Girl From The North Country (which would have been my pick) or even Sing Street. The overwrought Jagged Little Pill certainly has its devotees (and the recent controversy about trans erasure didn’t really take hold until after Tony voting ended last spring), and Tina isn’t short on excitement (though most of that comes courtesy of star Adrienne Warren, the closest thing to a shoo-in next to Aaron Tveit). So the crowd-pleaser Moulin Rouge!, by default.
BEST REVIVAL OF A PLAY
Betrayal, Harold Pinter
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, Terrence McNally
A Soldier’s Play, Charles Fuller
Will Win: A Soldier’s Play
Should Win: Betrayal
The beautifully performed and directed Betrayal was a revelation – a Pinter play as downright entertaining as it was thought-provoking, but Fuller’s long-in-coming arrival on Broadway with his modern classic A Soldier’s Play all but demands a win. Of course, Broadway could choose to honor McNally, the beloved stage icon who passed away from Covid last year, and whose Frankie and Johnny remains an essential part of the American canon. Still, for me, Betrayal is the production that stands out.
BEST PERFORMANCE, LEAD ACTOR/PLAY
Ian Barford, Linda Vista
Andrew Burnap, The Inheritance
Jake Gyllenhaal, Sea Wall/A Life
Tom Hiddleston, Betrayal
Tom Sturridge, Sea Wall/A Life
Blair Underwood, A Soldier’s Play
Will Win: Hiddleston
Should Win: Sturridge
Hiddleston was terrific in Betrayal, and has every right to the trophy, but for me Sturridge in A Life gave the most powerful performance in the category as the grieving father whose family was destroyed by a single instance of atrocious happenstance. Other devotees of Sea Wall/A Life might choose first-time nominee Gyllenhaal (and I’d have no serious complaint there), and Underwood is certainly a popular and enjoyable actor (though saddled with the least interesting plot-device character in A Soldier’s Play). Barford and Burnap are extreme long-shots, leaving a four-man race with Hiddleston the likely winner if only by a slight edge.
Will Win: Kalukango
Should Win: Kalukango
Three of the theater’s most beloved, talented actresses – Linney, McDonald and Parker – will likely cede this year to relative newcomer Kalukango, whose astonishing portrayal of Kaneisha, a Black woman enrolled in the antebellum sexual role play group with her white husband, brings Slave Play to its powerful, discomfiting end. The entire play would crumble without its ultimate scene of rage and tentative grace, and it was up to Kalukango each night to bring it home. She did, and on Sunday she will.
BEST PERFORMANCE, LEAD ACTOR/MUSICAL
Aaron Tveit, Moulin Rouge! The Musical
Will Win, Should Win, Gotta Win: Tveit
Broadway’s abbreviated season – and some strategic placement of other shows’ actors into the supporting category – has left Tveit as the sole entrant here. That’s a shame for at least two reasons. First, Chris McCarrell, who starred in the critically lambasted commercial failure The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical, deserved a nomination, and the snub not only punishes him for the production’s shortcomings but leaves the eminently award-worthy Tveit without so much as a shadowboxer. Had the wildly underrated West Side Story revival been around long enough to invite Tony voters, Isaac Powell (who played Tony) would likely be going toe to toe with Tveit, but that’s just one of the many what-ifs we can blame on Covid.
BEST PERFORMANCE, LEAD ACTRESS/MUSICAL
Karen Olivo, Moulin Rouge! The Musical
Elizabeth Stanley, Jagged Little Pill
Adrienne Warren, Tina – The Tina Turner Musical
Will Win: Warren
Should Win: Warren
Nothing and no one can upstage Adrienne Warren’s electrifying performance as Tina Turner this year, not Karen Olivo’s dramatic resignation from Broadway over, among other things, the industry silence surrounding Scott Rudin nor Elizabeth Stanley’s strong, central performance as the mom who pops all those jagged little pills.
BEST PERFORMANCE, FEATURED ACTOR/PLAY
Ato Blankson-Wood, Slave Play
James Cusati-Moyer, Slave Play
David Alan Grier, A Soldier’s Play
John Benjamin Hickey, The Inheritance
Paul Hilton, The Inheritance
Will Win: Grier
Should Win: Cusati-Moyer
Grier’s casting in A Soldier’s Play as the abusive master sergeant whose murder provides the tale’s central mystery allowed for a satisfying symmetry – the actor had played a young corporal in the 1984 film adaptation A Soldier’s Story. But it was much more than that: Grier gave immense depth to the crucial character of a broken man who turns his self-hatred outward, with tragic results. Still, either Blankson-Wood or Cusati-Moyer would be my choice in this category, with the latter, as the racially confused white partner of a Black man in Slave Play, taking a slight lead. Cusati-Moyer got a hefty share of the play’s laughs while at the same time demonstrating how being woke doesn’t mean you’re not privileged.
BEST PERFORMANCE, FEATURED ACTRESS/PLAY
Jane Alexander, Grand Horizons
Chalia La Tour, Slave Play
Annie McNamara, Slave Play
Lois Smith, The Inheritance
Cora Vander Broek, Linda Vista
Will Win: Alexander
Should Win: Alexander
Unless Annie McNamara – so hilariously offensive as Slave Play‘s sexually frustrated and passive-aggressive Southern belle – pulls a surprise win, this category likely goes to one of two stage icons: Lois Smith or Jane Alexander. Smith’s warm and understated presence in the overheated The Inheritance provided one of the most welcome appearances of the Broadway season, and a Tony win would be her long-overdue first, but I’d give a small preference for Alexander here. As the female half of a long-married, aging couple, Alexander takes a fairly familiar stock character – think Lou Grant’s wife on The Mary Tyler Moore Show – and turns it into a devastating portrait of thwarted desire. “I think I would like a divorce,” she tells her surprised husband (played by James Cromwell) in an announcement that kicks off a family crisis. Alexander delivers the line with a surface serenity that can’t disguise decades of sadness. An impeccable performance.
BEST PERFORMANCE, FEATURED ACTOR/MUSICAL
Danny Burstein, Moulin Rouge! The Musical
Derek Klena, Jagged Little Pill
Sean Allan Krill, Jagged Little Pill
Sahr Ngaujah, Moulin Rouge! The Musical
Daniel J. Watts, Tina – The Tina Turner Musical
Will Win: Burstein
Should Win: Burstein
Here’s where category over-strategizing could backfire. Both Daniel J. Watts of Tina and Sean Allan Krill of Jagged Little Pill were, by most stretches of the imagination, the lead actors in their respective shows. Both were excellent – Watts as the horrific Ike Turner, Krill as a clueless suburban patriarch. But this is Danny Burstein’s time for the featured actor category. A beloved figure in the Broadway community, Burstein has endured a dreadful year, hospitalized with Covid and, unthinkably, suffering the loss of his wife, Broadway legend Rebecca Luker, to ALS. All that aside – if it’s remotely possible to put all that aside – Burstein, who has been nominated before but never won, was the epitome of an award-worthy featured actor in a musical, commanding the stage as the Moulin Rouge! emcee in the grand tradition of Cabaret‘s Joel Grey. Both Derek Klena and Sahr Ngaujah were, as always, formidable talents, making this category without a doubt one of the year’s strongest.
BEST PERFORMANCE, FEATURED ACTRESS/MUSICAL
Kathryn Gallagher, Jagged Little Pill
Celia Rose Gooding, Jagged Little Pill
Robyn Hurder, Moulin Rouge! The Musical
Lauren Patten, Jagged Little Pill
Myra Lucretia Taylor, Tina – The Tina Turner Musical
Will Win: Patten
Should Win: Patten
The controversy surrounding Patten’s portrayal of a character that previously had been written as binary didn’t really explode until well after Tony voting ended, so its impact one way or the other on tonight’s outcome should be negligible. Patten’s big musical number – the Morissette hit “You Oughta Know” – is one of the showiest, most overblown moments in a showy, overblown musical, making it one of the more memory-sticking performances from those long-ago pre-shutdown days.
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
A Christmas Carol, music by Christopher Nightingale
The Inheritance, music by Paul Englishby
The Rose Tattoo, music by Fitz Patton and Jason Michael Webb
Slave Play, music by Lindsay Jones
The Sound Inside, music by Daniel Kluger
Will Win: Anybody’s guess
Should Win: Anybody’s choice
Perhaps the strangest development in this unusual year – and that includes Tveit – this year’s Original Score competition features no musicals since all three of the Best Musical nominees reworked old tunes, jukebox-style. Instead, the category is made up of the scores that accompanied various plays. I’d be lying if I said I had strong memories of any music from these productions with the exception of the silver-bell chestnuts performed by the cast of A Christmas Carol at the show’s end (which I supposed doesn’t even count as original music). No disrespect intended to any of the nominees – none of whom recorded cast albums – but this entire category is yet another victim of the shutdown.
The 74th Annual Tony Awards, hosted by Audra McDonald, will be livestreamed Sunday, Sept. 26, at 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT, on Paramount+. The Tony Awards Present: Broadway’s Back!, hosted by Leslie Odom, Jr., airs at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CBS and will be available to stream live and on demand on Paramount+.
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