Historically held on a Sunday in June, the annual Tony Awards have always acted as the pivot point between seasons on Broadway. The works of the past year were celebrated, summer gave time for tourists to descend on Times Square and see star-studded shows, and then, come fall, new productions would open (and close) before competing in another awards season.
But this year, it was COVID-19 and the fight for racial equity that hit the reset button on Broadway.
Theaters paused performances in March and—six months later—shows may be shuttered but the pandemic and protests continue to rage. Amid this, the Tonys will be held online, at some undisclosed date this fall, awarding shows from the previous season (or, in this case, productions whose opening nights were on or before February 19), while also, hopefully, offering something more than just pomp, circumstance, and jazz hands.
The country has embarked on a great reckoning of the racial injustices that underscore myriad workplaces and industries; Broadway is no exception. Movements from We See You White American Theatre to the Broadway Advocacy Coalition have made huge efforts to expose and act on the ways in which white people have benefited from racist inequities in the theater world. How the Tonys will address this remains unclear, but it would be a wasted opportunity to not use this grandiose platform to confront current events—particularly because the awards show finally has the potential to reach a greater audience after years of dwindling viewership, by streaming this year online instead of appearing on TV.
The Tonys will hopefully offer a time to reflect and act, but also to mourn. Giants have fallen due to COVID-19, five-time Tony recipient Terrence McNally and rising star and Tony nominee Nick Cordero among them. Anchored by its In Memoriam performance, the Tonys’ eulogy will be especially moving this year.
And then there are, of course, the award hopefuls. All shows must have had their opening night by February 19 to be eligible for the awards, which puts only 18 productions in play. (Last year, there were over two dozen eligible productions.) Heavy hitters with spring openings, like Six, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Girl from the North Country, will not be considered this awards season. Those musicals would have been frontrunners for the top prize of Best Musical, but now only four (Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, Moulin Rouge, The Lightning Thief, and Jagged Little Pill) are eligible. West Side Story did not open until February 20, so there will be no Best Musical Revival category, a first since the category’s inception in 1994.
While some shows staged pre-shutdown will not be honored, it is worth noting, especially as the theater world strives to create a more equitable ecosystem, that this could be the first time in the history of the Tonys where the majority of the eight acting winners are Black artists. Six of the eight categories could feature both buzzy actors winning their first Tony: Adrienne Warren (Tina) for Leading Actress in a Musical; Blair Underwood (A Soldier’s Play) for Leading Actor in a Play; Celia Rose Gooding (Jagged Little Pill) for Featured Actress in a Musical; David Alan Grier (A Soldier’s Play) or Ato Blankson-Wood (Slave Play) for Featured Actor in a Play; and Joaquina Kalukango (Slave Play) for Featured Actress in a Play. There’s also the opportunity for Broadway titans Audra McDonald or LaChanze to add another Tony to their shelves, with their roles in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune and A Christmas Carol respectively.
But much remains to be seen—from when the Tonys will be streamed and who the nominees will be to whether Broadway will truly reopen come January. Nonetheless, one element remains certain: the Tonys have a key platform in a moment of monumental shifts. The show, and revolution, must go on.
Editor’s note: This story initially misstated the number of Tony Awards Terence McNally received and has been corrected.