Though Broadway shows are returning, opening and starting previews, audiences — and companies — will never be the same.
The community has lost members like the actor Nick Cordero and the Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally to the coronavirus. At least seven plays written by Black artists are set to open on Broadway stages this season. And the industry is uncertain if audiences are comfortable enough to sit shoulder to shoulder in a theater, even vaccinated and masked.
The Broadway League and American Theater Wing are looking to the 74th Tony Awards, taking place at the Winter Garden Theater on Sunday, to help with that. Originally scheduled for June 7, 2020, the awards have been delayed — and delayed again, after nominations were announced last October — in an attempt to bolster a pandemic-hobbled industry. Here’s a look at how we got here after so much uncertainty.
It’s been more than a year and a half since that fateful day — March 12, 2020 — when the curtain came down on all 31 plays and musicals running on Broadway. Initially supposed to last just 32 days, the suspension knocked out 16 planned spring 2020 openings, from March 12 (“Six,” which was just hours from its opening night) to April 23 (when “Take Me Out” was scheduled to open).
As it became clear the coronavirus was going to be with us for a while, the Tonys were postponed indefinitely, until Broadway reopened. (Our chief critics gave out their own awards anyway, finding plenty to celebrate.)
Nearly a month into the shutdown, the reopening date for Broadway was pushed to June. Then, in August, came the announcement that the Tony Awards would go ahead, albeit online. The awards administrators debated combining the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons for one televised ceremony in 2021, but decided against that over concern that it would not be fair to shows that opened in 2019. (Of course, they didn’t yet know there wouldn’t be a 2020-21 season.)
The nominations were announced in October 2020, with “Jagged Little Pill,” the Alanis Morissette jukebox musical that the New York Times chief critic, Jesse Green, called “sincere without syrup, rousing and real,” and “Slave Play,” Jeremy O. Harris’s portrait of race and sex in America that Green called “one of the best and most provocative new works to show up on Broadway in years,” receiving the most nominations. “Slave Play,” which has 12, became the most-nominated play in Tonys history.
But then came November. And then December. And then a new year — and still, no ceremony.
Tonys voting plans were announced in January, though organizers wouldn’t commit to an event until Broadway’s return was set. In March, 778 voters made their selections — more than a year after they’d seen many of the shows. Then, on May 26, the actual, this-is-really-happening plan was announced. And here we are.
Who Is Eligible for a Tony?
This year’s ceremony will recognize shows that opened in one of the 41 Broadway theaters from April 26, 2019, to Feb. 19, 2020. A few, like Ivo van Hove’s revival of “West Side Story,” which is not returning to Broadway, and “Girl From the North Country,” which is returning on Oct. 13 and was the last Broadway show to open before the shutdown, aren’t eligible because the League determined that not enough of its voters had the chance to see them before the shutdown.
The reduced number of eligible productions — 18, down from 34 at the 2019 ceremony — also led to some quirks in the categories this year. Best revival of a musical was dropped because no shows had opened by the Feb. 19 cutoff date (“West Side Story” opened on Feb. 20), all the nominees for best score are plays and Aaron Tveit of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” is in a one-man race in the leading actor in a musical category, though he could still lose if he fails to convince 60 percent of voters that he deserves a statuette.
How to Watch the Awards
Despite the fewer nominees and categories, this year’s Tony Awards will last four hours and be split into two parts, which will air back to back on Paramount+, CBS’s digital streaming platform, and then on CBS, which has broadcast the ceremony since 1978. (If you don’t have a Paramount+ subscription, which you’ll need to watch the first 22 awards, the service offers a one-week free trial.)
Beginning at 7 p.m., the Tony, Grammy and Emmy Award-winning actress Audra McDonald, who’s up for her seventh Tony for her work in the revival of the McNally play “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” will host the live presentation of the Tony Awards on Paramount+, during which all the awards except the top three will be presented.
At 9 p.m., the Tony and Grammy Award-winning actor Leslie Odom Jr. will host a two-hour concert special, “The Tony Awards Present: Broadway’s Back!,” which will air on CBS and be available to stream live and on demand on Paramount+.
What Can We Expect to See?
It will include performances from the three shows nominated for best musical (“Jagged Little Pill,” “Tina — The Tina Turner Musical” and “Moulin Rouge! The Musical”) and two shows receiving special Tonys, “Freestyle Love Supreme” and “American Utopia”; appearances by Lin Manuel-Miranda, André De Shields (a Tony winner for “Hadestown”) and the “Dear Evan Hansen” star Ben Platt; and the presentation of the top three awards: best play, best revival of a play and best musical.
Among the notable contenders to keep an eye out for: Harris of “Slave Play”; Adrienne Warren, who just might win her first Tony for her mighty turn in the title role of “Tina”; Lois Smith, 90, could receive the first Tony of her career for “The Inheritance”; and Danny Burstein, a seven-time nominee, could win his first statuette for “Moulin Rouge! The Musical.”
These Nominees Could Make History
McDonald could break her own record for the most Tonys won by a performer for her work in a revival of McNally’s play “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.” And if Harris wins for “Slave Play,” he would become the first Black playwright to take home the honor since August Wilson in 1987 for “Fences.”
“Slave Play” is also up for best director, Robert O’Hara; leading actress, Joaquina Kalukango; featured actors, Ato Blankson-Wood and James Cusati-Moyer; and featured actresses, Chalia La Tour and Annie McNamara.
Possible First-Time Tony Winners?
David Alan Grier now has four Tony nominations under his belt, the latest for his featured role as a tyrannical sergeant in the revival of Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “A Soldier’s Play.” Grier’s castmate, Blair Underwood, who plays a military lawyer investigating a murder, could pick up a statuette of his own for leading actor in a play.
The other nominees in that category include the first-time nominee Jake Gyllenhaal, who’s up for his role as a young husband and father in Nick Payne’s “A Life,” a one-man tragicomedy of love and loss that played as part of a double bill with Simon Stephens’s “Sea Wall,” featuring Tom Sturridge, who is also a nominee.
Lauren Patten was nominated in the best featured actress in a musical category for her breakout performance in “Jagged Little Pill.” She plays a high school student whose heart gets broken, leading to an electric rendition of “You Oughta Know” in the show’s second act.
And the Special Tony Goes to …
Three special Tony Awards, which recognize work outside the traditional categories, will be handed out Sunday night, including one for the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, an organization started five years ago by a group of actors and others as a tool to work toward dismantling racism through theater and storytelling. The other recipients are David Byrne’s “American Utopia,” an intricately choreographed concert by the Talking Heads singer that Ben Brantley called a “cloud-sweeping upper of a touring show,” and “Freestyle Love Supreme,” a mostly improvised hip-hop show that was created, in part, by Lin-Manuel Miranda.