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This year’s special Tony Award winners celebrated Broadway’s comeback and changes due to COVID, as well as its new commitment to diversity on stage and off during the 74th Tony Awards held Sunday night.
David Byrne was the first to accept for American Utopia, with a brief and pointed speech noting the show’s evolution from screen to stage. “I want to thank the producers who saw the concert version of this show and realized that this maybe could be translated into something that would work on Broadway, which is a big risk, but it proved to be a good risk.”
After thanking the show’s producers and creators Tommy Kail, Jill Furman, Lin Manuel Miranda and Jon Steingart, producer Jenny Steingart expressed how unlikely the Tony honor was for the team. “We’ve been on this journey together for 18 years. Getting a Tony was not on the list of things to dream about when we started.”
Freestyle Love Supreme co-creator and actor Anthony Veneziale then paid tribute to the art and impact of improv. “Improv is a skill that is life-changing and it roots you in the present, and it builds empathy, and now it’s a viable road to the biggest stage in the world,” he said.
Britton Smith, president of the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, addressed the industry’s shifting commitments to diversity and inclusion over the last year, following a summer of racial justice protests around the country tied to the murder of George Floyd and killing of other Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement.
“This is an incredible honor. Our team and our founders who vision to make an industry better that wasn’t even built for us, we all owe them a huge round of applause and thank you,” he said. “My biggest worry is that when we come back to the machine, when Broadway comes back, that opening will close and push out empathy and push out challenge, but this award is evidence that moving forward requires calling out.”
This year’s special Tony honorees — American Utopia, Freestyle Love Supreme and the Broadway Advocacy Coalition — were originally supposed to receive their honors last year before the pandemic closed the curtain on New York’s theater industry for a year and a half.
“It makes it doubly special,” Mauro Refosco, American Utopia musical director and percussionist told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of Sunday’s ceremony. “The theme of the show, it’s something that makes people really reflect on who they are and how we all can be better, in a very energetic, funny way. It has this positive message — that we can be better than what we are. To experience that again after such a doubtful moment, which was the pandemic, is incredible.”
For the nonprofit Broadway Advocacy Coalition, which was created to address in part the nation’s pandemic of racism and police brutality through the work of artists and community advocates, the award follows half a decade of racial justice and equity work on Broadway and throughout New York City.
BAC’s Director of Industry Initiatives and Chicken & Biscuits director Zhailon Levingston says the surprise of the honor lies not just in the fact that “there wasn’t really a precedent for our industry honoring the kind of work we do,” but that it recognizes both the people who make the stories happen and those “who give stories impact in the world.”
“It says to the industry that we have multiple responsibilities if we so choose, one of which is to reflect the world and one of which is to correct the world,” Levingston said. “The honor is probably the most public way that folks who look to follow us and want to be a part of what we’re trying to do can hold us to our own integrity.”
Presented to outstanding productions, artists and organizations that don’t fall into the competitive categories, this year’s honorees have managed to straddle the image of Broadway pre- and post-shutdown. Each defines and defies historical and traditional perceptions of what and who can find a home on Broadway.
“This is not a dream that many improvisers and hip-hop freestyle heads really could have ever had in the past,” Veneziale told THR. “It feels a bit like it is a trailblazing new mold that improvisers and freestyle artists can actually look to this and say, ‘Oh, actually, there is space for me there,’ and that’s so incredibly important.”
American Utopia, which Refosco says Bryne added a small storyline to for its Broadway run as a fete to the industry’s traditions, has asked audiences, producers and critics to re-examine how it categorizes its global group of performers, and rethink what a musical or concert can be.
“When you see the show you’re like there’s so much more than just playing the music,” Refosco said. “When we went to Broadway, there was a little bit of new territory on how to classify not David but the musicians or the cast. Are they musicians or are they dancers? It’s a challenge for the broader community of producers and critics on how to read what we are doing there.”
“I think it opens up this whole new world of opportunities for other areas to use the venue which is Broadway to express themselves in a different way,” he added.
For BAC, which centers the voices of Black storytellers, artists, experts, students and community leaders, part of their work is about breaking down the “big industrial capitalistic machine,” Levingston says, and help get those with actual and perceived power in the industry to understand their responsibility to the city, from its stages to its neighborhoods.
“The kind of work that we do, I think, on a certain level allows for Broadway not to just be an industry, quote-unquote, but really challenges that to be a community more broadly, and I think it reminds us that we could be a community of artists who have a responsibility to the region that they serve,” Levingston said. “We want Broadway not to just represent four walls, a stage, but really think about what it means for theater to, at its heart, be people in the dark watching people in a light, and what does it mean to challenge who gets to be in the light.”
In their own ways, the honorees all address not just the image of Broadway but accessibility to its narratives and stages, an issue that became increasingly pressing as the pandemic shut down performances for over a year. Each can buck notions about which voices are centered and how they influence what tales are told.
“It’s not just the responsibility of the actor, it’s not just the responsibility of the designer. It is the responsibility of everyone working to make this machine happen to think about the stories they tell themselves about themselves, the stories the company tells them about who they are and their role. The stories that are imposed from a broader national narrative, and then finally, the new stories that are emerging from leaving past narratives behind,” Levingston said.
Following a year of creative production and socialization driven by tech, several honorees also illustrate a shifting approach to the physical accessibility of Broadway and whether theater can or should merely exist on stage.
Veneziale’s Freestyle Supreme Academy is teaming with Speechless Inc. to deliver improv to people anywhere in the world, inviting performances and audiences globally into the improv community while allowing them to also join Freestyle Love Supreme at the show’s various tour stops. Meanwhile, the Spike Lee-directed American Utopia offers a complementary experience to the Broadway show without replacing its in-person experience.
“That movie with Spike Lee captured the essence of it in a very special way and has the potential of reaching people all over the world and has done so to help spread this message which American Utopia is,” Refosco said.
While the honorees might be upending “traditional” Broadway, their innovative and mold-breaking work also embodies the heart of what New York’s theater district is and should always be about.
“We want to hear new voices in new ways,” Veneziale said. “We can make incredibly creative and beautiful and empathetic work. And it’s only together that we can do that.”
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