The 75th Annual Tony Awards celebrated Broadway’s first full season after the pandemic shutdown. Many of the shows up for awards were supposed to open in 2020— until theaters unexpectedly closed for a year and a half.
One of the producers for The Lehman Trilogy, in his speech accepting the award for Best Play, said, with resignation, that “between the fourth and fifth preview were 577 days.”
Yet this Tony Awards didn’t harp on how hard COVID was for the industry. It didn’t beg tourists to return. Instead, the show was surprisingly warm and welcoming — thanks in large part to its host, Ariana DeBose.
Here are the six things that struck me as I watched the Tony Awards Sunday night:
1. Let Ariana DeBose Host Everything
DeBose, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Anita in Stephen Spielberg’s West Side Story, gave a master class on how to host an awards show — or really, any show. She was funny and playful, strutting into the audience and sitting on Andrew Garfield’s lap. She was poignant, coming to tears as she talked about her theater teacher mentor. She was honest, gently commenting on the racial disparities in the theater industry. (“I feel the Great White Way is becoming more of a nickname, as opposed to a how-to guide,” she said.)
Most importantly, she was engaged. She didn’t treat the awards like Hollywood Improv; she wasn’t competing for laughs or attention with anyone else on stage. Instead, it was if she warmly took the audience by the hand and invited us into her living room, so we could all watch the show together. She just seemed like she was having a good time.
When she said toward the end, “Broadway’s back, baby, and she’s waiting for you!” we believed her.
2. The Tonys are inclusive! Except when they’re not.
Hoo boy, for a while there, it seemed like this year’s Tony winners would be almost exclusively white. Much of the show focused on how welcoming theater is to everyone, and the nominees were diverse, but until the very end, the winners … just weren’t.
Deep into the Tonys, it looked a lot like the new musical A Strange Loop, about a struggling Black, gay man, would end the evening with 11 nominations and no awards. Best Director of a Musical, Best Score, Best Scenic Design, Best Lighting Design? Those all went to other shows. The Tony Awards spent time touting the fact that A Strange Loop’s L Morgan Lee is the first openly transgender performer to be nominated for a Tony. But when crunch time came, Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical went to Patti LuPone for her work in Company.
But then that turned around. A Strange Loop won Best Book (which was almost a given, since it won the Pulitzer for Drama in 2020) and — surprise! — it also won Best Musical.
There were other winners who were people of color, including Phylicia Rashad for Skeleton Crew, Myles Frost for MJ, and Joaquina Kalukango for Paradise Square (who earned a standing ovation, the only one of the evening, for her thrilling award show performance).
But the biggest winner of the night was the United Kingdom. Winners Simon Russell Beale, Sam Mendes, Marianne Elliott, Toby Marlow, Lucy Moss, Bunny Christie, Es Devlin, Gabriella Slade, Jon Clark, Ben Power … all British.
3. Hooray for understudies (and standbys and swings and stage managers and …)
A theme of the night was deep gratitude for the uncelebrated people who keep the show running, especially when the big names are out with COVID. Ariana DeBose herself mentioned she started her Broadway career as an understudy; she pointed out that understudy Mallory Maedke, who performed in a number from the new musical SIX at the Tony Awards, had just a few hours warning before she had to go on. Other winners, like Jesse Tyler Ferguson, thanked understudies, standbys and swings in their speeches. Plus, Paradise Square’s stage manager was introduced to the cameras. And 150 Broadway COVID safety managers were given tickets to the awards show — they waved to the television audience from the balcony.
A quick note: often, everyone who goes on for an actor is assumed to be an understudy. But understudies perform in the ensemble and then go on in lead roles if needed; standbys are performers who wait offstage in case a lead performer can’t go on; and swings cover several ensemble roles.
4. Jennifer Hudson got her EGOT
Hudson had already won an Emmy, a Grammy and an Oscar, and tonight she won a Tony. She is listed as one of a number of co-producers of A Strange Loop, which she joined once it transferred to Broadway. She’s the 17th performer to achieve EGOT status, and the second Black woman.
5. Dana H finally got the recognition it deserved
Dana H, which closed in November last year, was so little-known that two presenters mispronounced it. (George Takei called it Diana, Josh Lucas called it Donna H.) But it was an extraordinary, eviscerating show. Playwright Lucas Hnath compiled recordings of his mother telling the story of her kidnapping when her son was in college, and then actor Deirdre O’Connell lip-synched to the tape. O’Connell is on stage by herself almost the entire time.
The play’s Mikhail Fiksel won for best Sound Design, which seemed like an “of course” moment, since the whole play was based around sound.
But unexpectedly, O’Connell, who was up against actors like Mary-Louise Parker and Ruth Negga, won a Tony. In her speech, she said, “If you need a sign from the universe that you should make the weird art, here it is.”
6. Everyone misses Stephen Sondheim
Even before the Tony Awards, there was a sense that Company might win for Best Revival, because its music and lyrics were written by Stephen Sondheim, who died Nov. 26 last year. It did.
But Sondheim was also celebrated in a lovely tribute that combined video of him speaking with Bernadette Peters singing “Children Will Listen” from his 1987 Broadway musical Into the Woods. It was nostalgic, but not saccharine, thanks to those clips of Sondheim talking about how the arts are about teaching. Like the rest of this award show, it reached outward to draw the audience in.