The curtain is down on the 74th annual Tony Awards, bringing an official close to the 2019–2020 Broadway season (just 15 months later than originally planned!). The September 26 ceremony offered an opportunity to reflect on lessons learned during the coronavirus-caused shutdown and underscored what priorities are crucial as we look ahead. There were also some trends that raised suspicions that Broadway's elite are all on the same group thread. Below, we look at a handful of key takeaways from this year's Tonys.
In addition to the predictable gratitude aimed at agents, producers, parents, children, and dogs, another group received notable number of thank yous, both in winners’ speeches and in planned segments during Broadway’s Back!. Teachers were celebrated by concert host Leslie Odom Jr. as he introduced a duet with Carnegie Mellon classmate Josh Groban (the pair sang “Beautiful City” from Godspell) immediately on the heels of a performance of “Move On” by Ben Platt and Anika Noni Rose. That number was introduced by Platt’s theatre-kid best friend Beanie Feldstein, who spoke about the importance of arts education for students. It was the harsh realities of Covid-induced changes to education that inspired Tony winners Justin Townsend (Best Lighting Design of a Musical) and Stephen Daldry (Best Direction of a Play) to recognize the efforts of both students and educators. “Thank you to all the teachers,” said Townsend, “who strive even in these times to keep our children vibrant and curious—our future artists.”
Broadway Advocacy Coalition President Britton Smith, accepting a Special Tony Honor, admonished that calls for accountability and recognition of systemic pain could not be upstaged in a celebration of Broadway coming back. “My biggest worry is that when we come back to the machine—when Broadway comes back—that that opening will close and push out empathy and push out challenge,” he said on the Winter Garden stage. “But this award is evidence that moving forward requires calling out.” Adrienne Warren, who co-founded BAC in 2016, echoed the sentiment later in her acceptance speech for Best Leading Actress in a Musical (for Tina): “I really look forward to the day that the bodies and souls and spirits that are involved in the shows that we are celebrating can be invited and join the celebration with us…this world has been screaming for us to change.”
It was fitting that a ceremony held a year and a half late due to a global pandemic often took a somber tone. Danny Burstein, who shared his gratitude for the community who supported him and his family after the recent death of his wife, Broadway star Rebecca Luker, set the heartfelt timbre of the evening. Other moments of remembrance during the ceremony included Adrienne Warren, who dedicated the Tony she won for Tina, to three family members who she lost over the course of her time in the musical, as well as Best Direction of a Play winner Stephen Daldry acknowledging the many who died during the “other pandemic that shamefully is still with us: AIDS.” One of the most felt losses was that of playwright Terrence McNally. The multiple Tony Award winner died of COVID complications early in the pandemic. Best Actor in a Musical winner Aaron Tviet, who appeared in the Tony winner’s Catch Me If You Can, joined The Inheritance playwright Mathew Lopez and producer Tom Kirdahy in remembering McNally, who was Kirdahy’s late husband. “I wouldn't be standing here tonight if it weren't for…Terrence McNally,” said Lopez, “Who I know is right now, watching with that impish smile on his face.”
Swallowing It Down
Jagged Little Pill arrived at the ceremony a top contender of the night, though not without the weight of multiple controversies that came to light as Broadway remained dark. In her acceptance speech for Featured Actress in a Musical, Lauren Patten acknowledged the erasure and harm of trans and non-binary people; an issue that’s become a focal point in conversations regarding Patten, a cis woman, playing Jo, a character perceived to be non-binary at various points of the show’s development. Diablo Cody, winning for Best Book of a Musical, refrained entirely from addressing the recent developments in the show’s beleaguered Broadway bow.
Christmas Comes Early
A total of eight plays were recognized across the four design categories (Lighting, Sound, Scenic, and Costume), but ultimately, the trophies all went to just one: A Christmas Carol. To cap it off, the play also won Best Original Score, becoming the first play to do so. (It's worth noting that any pick in the category this year would have had that distinction.) Moulin Rouge!, the top winner of the night, similarly dominated the design categories, though in a field of far fewer contenders.
Christine Ebersole/Elizabeth Arden would be proud.