It’s been, literally, years since we’ve heard anything resembling “Tony buzz.” The theater season currently under consideration began April 25, 2019, and ended prematurely with pandemic bluntness March 12, 2020, sparing Anne Boleyn her official Broadway beheading in Six.
Nominations were optimistically posted Oct. 15, 2020, and The Powers That Be had five months to deliberate before voting. Variant after variant pushed the 74th annual Tony Awards ceremony up to this Sunday, Sept. 26, when a critical assessment on the past 30 months of theater will be announced in a real live legit house, the Winter Garden.
But by the time we masked mortals were allowed to gather again in the light, there was not a single nominated drama left standing. The half-dozen up for Best Play—Bess Wohl’s Grand Horizons, Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance, Simon Stephens’ Sea Wall and Nick Payne’s A Life, Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play and Adam Rapp’s The Sound Inside—have left their respective buildings without a Tony, or the profits it brings. The same goes for the Best Revival nominees: Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune and Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play.
And because nothing can be simple in 2021, the entirety of the awards will stream live on Paramount+, beginning at 7:00 PM, live ET/4:00 PM, live PT, but for the masses who don’t want four hours of all that the Tonys have to offer, the evening will be capped by a two-hour telecast on CBS with performances from the Best Musical contenders, “Jagged Little Pill,” “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” and “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” and the presentation of the awards for Best Play, Best Revival of a Play and Best Musical.
Traditionally, Broadway saves the best for last, so prize-seeking plays will be fresh in the minds of prospective voters. Thus a spring awakening was just starting when the pandemic took hold. Hangmen, Martin McDonagh’s powerhouse black comedy about the UK’s second-best executioner, drew stunning reviews when it opened Off-Broadway at the Atlantic in 2018 and was about to bow on Broadway on a special (and expensive) two-tiered set at the Golden when it was struck down in previews. It never returned. Nor did a starry revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which might have given Laurie Metcalf, a Tony-winning two-timer, a shot at a third.
Few Musicals, Many Nominees
Original musicals during the allotted period were so extinct that incidental music for dramas has instead been nominated for Best Original Score. Only one original musical made it to the Main Stem—The Lightning Thief, a cheesy, ill-advised transfer from Off-Broadway—but it didn’t strike twice with the Tony nominators. Instead, their candidates for Best Musical were all jukebox musicals: Jagged Little Pill, Moulin Rouge! and Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.
The original musicals that were around in 2019 and were flagged down before they could debut have since found homes in the current 2021-2022 season and are about to re-premiere: Flying Over Sunset at the Vivian Beaumont, Diana at the Longacre, Mrs. Doubtfire at the Stephen Sondheim, Sing Street at the Lyceum and the aforementioned Six at the Brooks Atkinson.
The three jukebox musicals are duking it out in eight other musical categories: book, director, choreography, orchestrations and the four design categories (scenic, costume, lighting and sound). When you factor in actors up for musicals, they’re the year’s most nominated shows.
Missing in action is Conor McPherson’s Girl of the North Country, which stocked its jukebox with 19 Bob Dylan songs and eked out a full week at the Belasco before the Covid curtain fell on Broadway. The Tony reasoning was that it should be eliminated because not enough voters got to see it. Also dropped from the roll is West Side Story, along with the whole Best Musical Revival category. Here the eligibility cutoff date was Feb. 19, and West Side Story opened one day after that.
Both of these shows—and The Lightning Thief, for that matter—would have come in handy to keep Aaron Tveit of Moulin Rouge! The Musical company in the Best Actor in a Musical category. He’s the lone nominee. If there’s a more obvious slam-dunk winner than Tveit, it’s Danny Burstein in the Best Featured Actor in a Musical category, for his bravado work as the Moulin Rouge’s imperious ringmaster, Harold Zidler.
Adrienne Warren’s terrific title performance of Tina Turner is such an obvious win for Best Actress in a Musical that she has already booked a victory walk for Oct. 8-31 at the Lunt-Fontanne before her understudy assumes the role. And the standout among the Best Featured Actresses in a Musical is Lauren Patten, who has the showstopping “You Oughta Know” number in Jagged Little Pill.
Moulin Rouge! The Musical is such a flashy, splashy stage reincarnation of Baz Luhrmann’s eccentric film musical that it will likely make good on most of its nominations (particularly the four design awards). Any upsets would arrive courtesy of the director, writer and choreographer of Jagged Little Pill—namely, Diane Paulus, Diablo Cody and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.
Slave Play is the favorite for Best Play
Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play, a combustible combination of race, sex, power, trauma and interracial relationships, has the most nominations of the 2019-2021 plays (12 in all, breaking the record set by the 2018 revival of Angels in America). Harris wrote it while a freshman at Yale School of Drama and got it produced Off-Broadway at New York Theater Workshop in 2018, where it created enough noise to land on Broadway at the Golden in 2019. Five of its actors and director Robert O’Hara are in Tony contention. It’s the odds-on favorite.
A worthy rival, however, is a finely wrought Adam Rapp play called The Sound Inside, with a superb Mary-Louise Parker performance that should win her a second Tony Award. She plays a creative-writing teacher coping with a stage 2 cancer diagnosis and a misfit Yalie she mentors.
Her closest competition would be Laura Linney in My Name is Lucy Barton. Linney’s particular hat-trick is presenting two different characters at once—without ever leaving the stage.
The most moving theater experience I had during this period—it’s with me still—came midway through Matthew Lopez’s two-part, seven-hour, early AIDS-era epic The Inheritance. Directed beautifully by Stephen Daldry, it debuted in London and won the Best Play Olivier. Lopez’s gimmick is to attempt to retell E.M. Forster’s novel, Howards End, in Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
His play is populated with young gay men (one of whom—Andrew Burnap, playing a trouble maker—will likely take home the Tony), but it’s the older nominated actors who are the emotional movers of the piece: John Benjamin Hickey as a wealthy Republican real estate developer and Paul Hilton as his partner. The latter, the one recruit from the London cast to come to Broadway, from time to time puts on glasses and a fragile façade and turns into Forster himself. He’s the heart and soul of the play and, as such, rates a supporting Tony, as does Lois Smith who shows up in the sixth act to run an AIDS hospice out of Hickey’s home in Upstate New York. At age 90, with a career that goes back to James Dean in “East of Eden” and beyond, Smith would be winning her first Tony.
Basically, this 74th edition of the Tonys is one for the record books—though some of those records may carry an asterisk.