The Tonys deserve to win multiple Emmys next year. A night married with celebration, inclusivity and in what can only be described as the realization that Jesus Christ returned to save us all in the form of Jennifer Holliday — it was a sensational awards ceremony that may have offered all the critical clues to constructing a new age of honoring top achievements in entertainment.
Eighteen months and a global pandemic later, the American Theatre Wing’s 74th Annual Tony Awards were presented in two parts – the first half, hosted by Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, who has the record for the most performance wins with six, revealed winners in all but three categories exclusively on Paramount Plus in a two-hour ceremony. The following two hours were helmed by Tony Award winner Leslie Odom Jr for “The Tony Awards Present: Broadway’s Back!,” which featured performances and the live presentation of the final three awards – best play, best revival of a play and best musical.
“You can’t stop the beat (of Broadway),” said McDonald following a joyful rendition of one of the marquee numbers from “Hairspray” with members of the original cast, including Marissa Jaret Winokur, Matthew Morrison, Kerry Butler, Chester Gregory and Darlene Love (no Harvey Fierstein was probably the only disappointment from the evening). “We’re a little late, but we are here. Tonight feels like a homecoming.”
Indeed, it was. It took a near extinction of our beloved Broadway not only to have us appreciate the value of live theater but to provide its other three prestigious counterparts in the entertainment space – Oscars, Emmys and Grammys – a near flawless and detailed blueprint on how they should assemble their future ceremonies to bring forth an inviting place for people of all backgrounds, and an impeccable pace to keep your attention. Of course, film and television might most of the headlines. Still, the soul of acting and the arts were in the corridors of the famous theater that’s housed notable productions such as “42nd Street,” “Mamma Mia!” and the upcoming revival of “The Music Man” in 2022.
The show’s producers ensured the evening was playful and yet always sincere and optimistic. “Masks” and “inclusivity” were the theme of the evening as McDonald spoke passionately in her opening monologue, referencing the 560 dark nights that Broadway endured since the beginning of the pandemic, leading to its long-awaited reopening of many shows that began early last week.
Odom Jr. kicked off his portion with an original number, highlighting how this large group was able to gather – masks and vaccinations, even with lyrics in the song like, “We gotta ask that you wear that mask until everything feels right. ‘Cause, it’s no great labor to care about your neighbor when Broadway’s back tonight.”
He kept assuring any naysayers watching from home, “Everyone here is masked, vaxxed and tested and this is what theaters will look like for a while.”
From joyous moments and musical renditions that included performances from Josh Groban, Lin-Manuel Miranda, John Legend, Anika Noni Rose, Norm Lewis, Kelli O’Hara, among the others, the producers and creative artisans captured all the magic of the nominated musicals: “Jagged Little Pill,” “Moulin Rouge” and “Tina.”
The respect and brevity taken by the show’s producers during the “In Memoriam” segment reminded us of the countless losses this past year that included Nick Cordero, Olympia Dukakis, Cicely Tyson, Rip Torn and more, was almost too emotional to bear at times. So the decision to linger on the additional names projected on the curtain was appropriate and respectful.
The winners’ speeches were particularly thoughtful. Suppose you’re someone who feels the arts are criminally lacking and underfunded in our world, especially in communities of color. In that case, many of those moments may have struck an emotional chord. For example, after seeing “The Inheritance” pick up the award for best play, playwright Matthew Lopez called on Broadway to tell more Latino stories. “We have so many stories to tell. They are inside us aching to come out,” he said during his speech. A new Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study showing Latinos are still not represented will hopefully shine a light on this absence.
Bringing the house down was the penultimate performances and reuniting of “For Good” from “Wicked” stars Kristen Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, “What You Own” from “Rent” stars Adam Pascal and Andrew Rapp and “Wheels of a Dream” from “Ragtime” stars McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell. My heart was too full to handle it all.
Minor technical glitches popped up throughout, such as Odom Jr. coming back from break for the final performance of the evening. The Tonys were pure, not shy about the times we were in — and they sent a signal of hope for our futures. The world is not so dark, and when you have the people you love by your side, an excellent show tune can make the day a little brighter.