There were a few laughs, and as always, a few tears in the acceptance speeches at the Tony Awards. There were dedications to members of the community who have passed, and many recognitions for others in the room who had contributed work to the 2019–2020 Broadway season.
But this year's 74th annual celebration also acknowledged a theatre community in flux, emerging from a historic 18-month pandemic shutdown which afforded the industry a lot of time to reflect and admit its shortcomings. Several of this year's Tony winners took their moment to advocate for continued examination of the industry, and encourage it to "do better."
Read on for some highlights from the acceptance speeches from this year's Tony Award winners.
David Alan Grier, A Soldier’s Play
Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play
An excited and emotional David Alan Grier took the stage with humor in his first win from his fourth nomination, calling to host Audra McDonald (who he knows from their time starring together starring in The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, one of his previous three nominations), “Audra! Where’s Audra? I finally won one of these, too!” The actor thanked Douglas Turner Ward of the Negro Ensemble Company, who directed the original production of A Soldier’s Play, and gave a shout-out to director Kenny Leon with “I don’t know if I was the first call or the last call, but I’m just glad you called.” He wrapped his speech with a kind word for his fellow nominees: “Tough bananas! I won!”
Danny Burstein, Moulin Rouge!
Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical
After seven nominations, Broadway favorite Danny Burstein finally gets to take home a trophy this year for his role as Harold Zidler, the owner of the Moulin Rouge. He took a moment to thank the audience and theatre community for their support during this past year as the family dealt with the loss of Rebecca Luker. "I want to thank all of you because, whether you know it or not, my wife passed away in December of ALS, and you all showed up for us. You were there for us, whether you just sent a note or sent your love, sent your prayers—sent bagels—it meant the world to us, and it's something I'll never forget," said a misty-eyed Burstein. He parted the stage with "And I love being an actor on Broadway. Thank you." No, Danny. Thank you.
Lois Smith, The Inheritance
Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play
Lois Smith became the oldest performer to win an acting award, when at age 90, her name was called for her work as Margaret in The Inheritance. After a few joyous thank yous to the audience, as well as the cast and creative team of The Inheritance, Smith told her of her connection to the play. "I love the processes of the live theatre," she began. "I first worked on The Inheritance in a workshop where Matthew López was finishing a play about the AIDS plague, and it was partly based on E.M. Forster's book Howards End, which had been my favorite novel for as long as I can remember." She concluded with a short quote from the novel: "E.M. Forster gave us, there's a famous two-word message from Howards End, which is so apt, I think, tonight for all of us who are here celebrating the importance, the functions, of live theatre: Only connect."
Lauren Patten, Jagged Little Pill
Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical
“It is such a joy to finally be able to celebrate all of these phenomenal artists in this room after this long, long pause. It is also a strange time for awards. We are in the middle of a reckoning in our industry,” said first-time nominee, now winner, Patten in her acceptance speech. “First and foremost, I want to thank my trans and nonbinary friends and colleagues who have engaged with me in difficult conversations, and have joined me in dialogue about my character Jo," she said, touching on the controversy surrounding her portrayal of Jo and the erasure of the character's their gender identity through the development course of the musical.
Alex Timbers, Moulin Rouge!
Best Direction of a Musical
First-time winner Alex Timbers called out his Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson collaborator Michael Friedman, who passed away in 2017. Timbers directed and co-wrote the musical, which gave both artists their Broadway debuts in 2010, as well as each of their first Tony nominations. “I’d love to dedicate this to the composer Michael Friedman. Those that were lucky enough to work with Michael saw firsthand that passion is the essential carburetor of any artistic endeavor. I love you, Michael, and thank you.”
Stephen Daldry, The Inheritance
Best Direction of a Play
Stephen Daldry took home the honor for The Inheritance, which examines a group of gay men living during the AIDS crisis. After thanking his collaborators, Daldry touched on what made Matthew López’s work so moving, invoking the victims of the AIDS epidemic that inspired López’s characters. “We were blessed to have Matthew López’s play. What an extraordinary piece he wrote. I would also just take just a moment to thank all those young men who were ghosts in our play representing the many tens of thousands of people who died in the city on another pandemic that is shamefully still with us, AIDS.”
Broadway Advocacy Coalition
Special Tony Award
Two-time Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage announced the Special Tony Award for the Broadway Advocacy Coalition for their work combating racism in the theatre industry. BAC President Britton Smith accepted the award with a speech for continued call to action: "I want to acknowledge that I’m only standing here because George Floyd’s murder in a global pandemic stopped all of us and brought us to our knees, and reminded us that beyond costumes, and beyond glamour, beyond design, was pain that we weren’t yet seeing. It created this beautiful opening that allowed us to say 'Enough.' To challenge. To speak up. For white people to listen and adjust. For Black people to unite around rage, around anger, around hope, around redesigning this very room. Woah. 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. But this award is evidence that moving forward requires calling out. It requires saying that it’s not enough to have an all white team and one Black person on your team. It requires challenge. It requires enough. It requires raising the standard. It requires power and influence to use their power and influence. I’ve been thinking about power and change and where it lives and where it comes from. And it’s in this room right here. It’s in this room right here. And with this room decides to move beyond design and say “We want this room to look different. Let’s design this room for next year and the year after.” That’s when we’ll earn the phrase Black Lives Matter. That’s when we’ll earn the phrase Black Lives Matter. That’s when we’ll earn the phrase Black Lives Matter."
Sonya Tayeh, Moulin Rouge!
As Sonya Tayeh accepted the Best Choreography Tony Award for her work on Moulin Rouge!, she became the first woman to win in the category since Kathleen Marshall won for Anything Goes in 2011. Tayeh used her acceptance speech to call this out and to advocate for further equity and inclusion in the industry and at The Tony Awards.“Dance is an art that survives the multiplicity, color, and layer in community. As we steady ourselves again, I hope we can remember what art collectively brings us. It welcomes. As a brown, queer, Arab-American woman, I wasn’t always welcome. It takes graceful hands to lead people like me to the door. It’s been 10 years since a woman has won this award. Though I’m honored to be a part of this legacy, this legacy is too small. We need a vastness to break into a new era for all people.”
Andrew Burnap, The Inheritance
Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play
Andrew Burnap took the stage of the Winter Garden, immediately over-sharing. “Oh my god. I just peed a little bit. Woah.” The rest of Burnap’s speech was decidedly more serious, with the actor sharing some inspiration for aspiring performers. “If you are out there and you’re wondering if you want to go into the theatre and into the arts and you feel a little odd like I did and you don’t know if your perspective of the world will ever be valued, Google the letter that Martha Graham wrote to Agnes De Mille. Do not rob the world of your specialness, of your beauty, because we need it now more than ever.”
Burnap was referencing a personal letter written by modern dance legend Martha Graham to fellow choreographer Agnes de Mille. The latter had enjoyed personal artistic success that had not translated to commercial success, only to achieve great popularity and acclaim for what she considered mediocre work for Broadway’s Oklahoma! in 1943—de Mille’s choreography for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical would turn out to be some of the most influential and groundbreaking in Broadway history.
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique,” wrote Graham. “And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
Mary-Louise Parker, The Sound Inside
Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play
Parker wins her second award for Adam Rapp's two-hander The Sound Inside. After an acknowledgment of each of her fellow nominees, Parker thanked her dog Mrs. Roosevelt, and encouraged the audience to "get a dog if don't have one." She continued with the story that led to her casting, which, as it turns out, does involve Mrs. Roosevelt. In an emotional finish, Parker noted that the dress she was wearing belonged to her mother, who didn't have as many nice dresses as she deserved. "I would say this is for you, but it's really because of you."
Aaron Tveit, Moulin Rouge!
Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical
In a first for the Tony Awards, this year’s Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical Award had one single nominee: Aaron Tveit, for his performance in Moulin Rouge!. Though Tony rules stipulated that Tveit would still have to secure the affirmative votes of at least 60 percent of Tony voters to fully win his honor, there was little doubt that he would end the evening triumphant. Visibly emotional while accepting the award, Tveit focused on the power and importance of live theatre in his acceptance speech. “We are so privileged to get to do this—to be on Broadway, to have a life in the theatre. Let’s continue to strive to tell the stories that represent the many and not the few, by the many and not the few, for the many and not the few, because what we do changes peoples’ lives and changes peoples’ minds and changes peoples’ hearts. We can change he world with this. Let’s not forget that. This means more to me than I can ever say. Thank you very much.”
Adrienne Warren, Tina: The Tina Turner Musical
Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical
After a nomination for 2016's Shuffle Along, Warren breathlessly accepted her first award for her portrayal of legend Tina Turner, who she thanked for "trusting me to bring her story home." Warren also acknowledged all the people involved in Broadway musical who don't always get the invite on awards night. "I wish you were in this room," she said. She continued, stressing the importance of all the unsung bodies, souls, and spirits who make Broadway what it is, "The second we start making this business, and creating the business, and working the business through the lens of humanity and honoring those bodies and those souls and those spirits, the more the art will be transformative. The more the art will change lives. The more the art will change this world, because this world has been screaming for us to change."
Kenny Leon, A Soldier’s Play
Best Revival of a Play
Director Kenny Leon accepted the award on behalf of playwright Charles Fuller. He opened by honoring Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, simply and powerfully repeating their names. "All lives are precious," he said. A graduate of an HBCU, he went on to encourage students past, present, and those yet to come: "Yes, you can." The Tony-winning director (for 2014's A Raisin in the Sun) then turned his talk to the room: "We can do better," he said. "Charles Fuller wrote this play. No diss to Shakespeare, no diss to Ibsen, to Chekhov, to Shaw. They’re all at the table. But the table got to be bigger. We need the late, great Melvin van Peebles sitting at the table. We need Ntozake [Shange] sitting at the table. We need our young people to learn about all of our amazing writers in this land that we are standing on tonight, this Native American land. So we need to hear all of the stories. When we hear all of the stories, we are better!”
Matthew Lopez, The Inheritance
After a humorous little flub in which Matthew Lopez thanked his husband for writing the play (reading, he corrected), the playwright thanked the three men who most inspired this Broadway debut play and his career: "I wouldn't be standing here tonight if it weren't for the lives of three queer men, E.M. Forster, who started writing this play a century ago, who inspired me to become a writer. Terrence McNally, my friend and my mentor. He was the spiritual godfather of this play who encouraged me to become a writer, and who I know is right now, watching with that impish smile on his face, whispering in our ears, “I told you so.” Miguel Piñero, the first Puerto Rican playwright to be produced on Broadway. You opened the door for me and allowed me the opportunity to become a writer."
"This is the 74th Tony Awards," he continued, "and yet I am only the first Latine writer to win in this category. I say that not to elicit your applause, but to highlight the fact Latine community is underrepresented in American theatre, in New York theatre, and most especially on Broadway. We constitute 19 percent of the United States population and we represent about two percent of the playwrights having plays on Broadway in the last decade. This must change.
We are a vibrant community, reflecting a vast array of cultures, experiences, and yes, skin tones. We have so many stories to tell; they are inside of us aching to come out. Let us tell you our stories."
The full, 2-part Tony Awards ceremony is available to stream on Paramount+.