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Well, for those who were able to watch it in its entirety, it was apparently a thoroughly enjoyable event, highlighted by wins for popular veterans like Danny Burstein, Adrienne Warren, David Alan Grier and Lois Smith, and musical performances by the likes of Jennifer Holliday, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth.
Alas, I was not among them — though not for lack of trying.
All but the three biggest awards were presented over the course of two hours on Paramount+ — something that offended many in the Broadway community, since the presentation of almost all Tonys has historically aired on CBS, not on a streaming service that requires a subscription sign-up, or at least a trial for one — and then the other three were handed out during a two-hour concert special that did air on CBS. Sadly, Paramount’s streaming app, at least for iPhones, was a total bust, failing to actually offer a link to view the ceremony or, at times, to load at all. And the CBS app offered only the option of watching football. So it was a frustrating evening for me and a lot of other theater lovers (see: Twitter), and a hot mess of the sort that is particularly inexcusable given that CBS and the forces behind the Tonys — The Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing — had 16 months longer than usual to get their act together.
Every other notable New York theater awards-dispensing group —the New York Drama Critics Circle, the Lucille Lortel Awards, the Outer Circle Critics Awards, the Drama Desk Awards and the Drama League Awards — presented their honors via a press release or virtual ceremony in April, May or June of 2020, whereas the Tonys abandoned their originally announced date of June 7, 2020. There was then an announcement in August 2020 suggesting that the Tonys would be held as a virtual presentation (like the 2020 Emmys were a month later), but nothing further was heard about that. Nominees were announced in October. Then, five months later, in March, winners were chosen. And then it was another six months until the results were revealed on Sunday.
True, Broadway was shuttered for almost that entire period. But it seems to me that an earlier Tonys ceremony could have offered a lifeline to shows that desperately needed one during Broadway’s 560-day shutdown — a reason for investors and theater owners to bet on a show’s return, rather than cut their losses.
When Broadway went dark on March 12, 2020, 31 shows were in one stage of production or another. Only 18 had been seen by enough members of the Tonys nominating committee to be deemed eligible. 15 ended up receiving at least one nomination. But as of Sunday night, only three are still running — the best musical nominees, Jagged Little Pill, Moulin Rouge! and Tina — making recognition for the others rather bittersweet. (Best play nominee Slave Play is reportedly going to return to Broadway in November.)
As I’ve been writing for over a year, I’m sure that the people behind the Tonys meant well and figured that they could best help Broadway by highlighting it upon its return from the brink. But it was a miscalculation to produce an evening that effectively preached to the choir of the Broadway faithful by highlighting work from beloved shows that are gone (e.g. Hairspray!) or most likely to come back strong (e.g. Wicked), rather than the host of new shows that could really use some exposure right now to have a fighting chance of survival.
What many came away from Sunday night talking about was the shutout of Slave Play, an acclaimed production from a Black playwright, Jeremy O. Harris, which looks at the lingering effects of slavery in America. It came in to the Tonys with 12 nominations (Tony nominations are determined by a small nominating committee) — more than any other play in history — but left with zero statuettes (wins are determined by a large group of theater insiders), leading some to imply that the people who choose Tony winners might be lacking in woke-ness.
I, for one, think there are far more likely explanations for the outcome, particularly given that the Broadway community is about as diverse and inclusive as any in the arts or beyond. To begin with, Slave Play lost in each instance to competitors who were similarly highly-regarded, several of whom were also people of color (e.g. The Inheritance‘s Matthew Lopez became the first Latino winner of the best play Tony) and/or shows that centered on people of color (see: A Soldier’s Play, which was the recipient of numerous awards).
Additionally, one has to remember that Slave Play’s nomination tally, like that of other shows, was almost certainly inflated by the fact that nominators did not have nearly as many shows to pick from as they usually do, given that the Broadway season was cut short by the pandemic with 42 days remaining in the period of eligibility. Many highly-anticipated contenders were being held until the last few weeks of a season, aiming to be as fresh as possible in the minds of voters — among them American Buffalo, Birthday Candles, Diana, Hangmen, How I Learned to Drive, The Lehman Trilogy, Sing Street, Take Me Out and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — but they ended up missing the boat altogether.
At the end of the day, I suppose that just about any conversation or debate about Broadway probably redounds to the benefit of the roughly 87,000 people who work in the Broadway community when it is operating at full force. I just wish that such conversation or debate had occurred earlier so that its impact could have been felt even sooner and potentially helped more of those 87,000 people through a very difficult time.
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