Critic’s Notebook: Fierce and Focused, the 76th Tony Awards Were a Much-Needed Win for Broadway

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Here’s the thing about this year’s Tony Awards: They didn’t just want to exist. They needed to exist.

So in that brief moment last month when, after not getting a waiver from the WGA, it was unclear how or if the show was going to go on at all, the theater community freaked out. A little. But justifiably. The relationship between the Tony Awards and not just Broadway, but the theatrical community on every level — from touring productions to regional shows to unlicensed summer-camp versions of the classics — is entirely unlike the relationship between the Oscars and movies, Emmys and television, or Grammys and music.

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Every award show is, by nature, half a commercial for the industry being honored and half a nice chance to honor talented people. But if those other industries get a boost or general infusion from their respective kudos-fests, Broadway gets full-on dialysis. The Tonys keep Broadway going and, with it, the entire theatrical craft.

So when the WGA and the show’s organizers reached a compromise — the WGA wouldn’t picket, but no writers could work on the Tonys telecast — it felt honorable and, beyond that, imperative for maintaining Broadway’s still-fragile equilibrium coming out of the pandemic.

Did it work?

Well, let’s just say that I’m on Expedia trying to price a trip to the Big Apple for some theatrical catch-up.

Sunday’s Tonys telecast was the first major awards show mounted in our current moment of labor unrest, and the show, produced by Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss, succeeded with a formula that no other gala can reproduce. Other shows require a host and presenters to deliver written or written-adjacent bits in order to set and maintain a tone. Or at least they think they do, which the diminishing returns for the recent wave of un-hosted awards shows confirmed. Hosts and big-name presenters improve ratings and improve viability.

The Tonys, however, don’t care, and CBS — God bless ’em in this one particular case, though not for the needless muting of Michael Arden’s acceptance speech — only seems to care a little. The Tonys have their audience, and even if that audience is small, it’s DEVOTED. So the Tonys just need to give that audience what they want: a dozen performances, a dozen tear-filled, fiercely individualistic speeches and a precise three-hour running time.

Done. Done. Done.

Ariana DeBose was a solid host last year and she may have been even better suited for this year’s cheekily “unwritten” show. Can she belt the heck out of a so-so parody song or turn an atrocious parody rap into viral gold? Yes, but before she was Oscar winner Ariana DeBose, she was So You Think You Can Dance favorite Ariana DeBose, and that skill set was on full display in the opening, which started with the blank pages of the show’s script and became an elaborate song-free dance routine working through the high and low reaches of the United Palace Theater in Washington Heights. Karla Puno Garcia’s choreography was excellent and DeBose is a marvelous dancer; if she finished the opening completely out of breath, it was an almost perfect setup for the monologue she wasn’t giving anyway.

DeBose took her few minutes in the spotlight to smile broadly, make a few tiny quips and generously talk the at-home audience through the “Why is this night different from all other nights?” show, in which the only thing passed over was banter. Throughout the telecast, DeBose returned a few times. She talked to people in the balcony. She took a selfie in the aisle. And she and Julianne Hough did a dancing introduction to lifetime achievement recipients Joel Grey and John Kander. She did all she could and she couldn’t have done more.

There was something unsettling about the way presenters took the stage and actually introduced themselves and then went straight into handing out prizes. Some of the presenters only said their names, the category and the nominees. Some made nervous jokes, peaking with Denée Benton earning instant icon status for calling the governor of Florida the state’s “grand wizard.”

I eagerly await a whole bunch of Fox News commentators who didn’t watch the Tonys and haven’t seen an original play or musical in their lifetimes attempt to raise a stink about the Tonys going “woke” because, honestly, I need a little more comedy in my life. This is a big part of what the Tonys exist for. The world is full of shows where Jennifer Lawrence can be charming and funny and thank her agent, but there’s one show in which J. Harrison Ghee (Some Like It Hot) and Alex Newell (Shucked) can become the first openly nonbinary performers to receive awards and make passionate speeches directly to a subset of viewers who need to know that the states attempting to legislate their identities out of existence are not the only voices in society.

Throw in the handful of strong salutes to the WGA and its crusade for a fair wage, and the heart of the Tonys was in the right — which is to say left — place.

Sunday’s winners were proudly nonbinary and queer and Jewish and pro-union and at least for a while, they weren’t getting cut off by the band. Eventually people were getting shut down, because even in a show without any exhausting comedy bits and with only a small selection of trophies to hand out in primetime, three hours isn’t as much time as you think it is.

A good Tonys telecast is a theatrical smorgasbord — if you don’t like one style of show or one selected showcase number…just wait! Me, I’ve got little interest in jukebox musicals, so while I could appreciate the high energy of & Juliet star Lorna Courtney or the amusing spectacle of Jessica Chastain singing along to “Sweet Caroline” during the A Beautiful Noise number, neither show will be high on my list if I find the right New York City package for later this summer.

Best musical winner Kimberly Akimbo, however? The performance of “Anagram” was special, as were the speeches by winners Victoria Clark and Bonnie Milligan. I worried Shucked would be corny, but it looked a-maize-ing. OK. It still looked corny, but in a fun way. Given the chance, my Sondheim-loving heart will always make room for productions of Sweeney Todd or Into the Woods and they both looked wonderful enough that I could have paused the rest of the Tonys to just sing along. The joy in the Some Like It Hot number was thorough enough to put aside any reservations about how little it immediately resembles the Some Like It Hot I know and love.

Even the performances I didn’t love — too much yodeling, Ben Platt, and what’s with the weird accent choice, Colton Ryan? — still whet my appetite for the overall theatrical experience.

And in one of those things that the Emmys and Oscars always struggle with, the Tonys producers found a way to work in clips for basically all of the theatrical performances, either getting me excited for work I’d barely heard about previously or disappointed about the myriad shows that have already closed. Guess what, though? Some of them will be mounted at a theater near you in the near future or revived on Broadway with this enhanced profile in five or 10 years.

The Tonys are an investment in Theater Present, Theater Past and Theater Future. They’re even an investment in Film and Television Future. How many people are going to go back to rewatch Glee after Newell’s win and Lea Michele’s second Tonys rendition of “Rain on My Parade”? How many people said, “Hey, it’s Stewy from Succession!” when Arian Moayed’s nomination was read? When, in a couple of weeks, people fall for Kara Young in Amazon’s I’m a Virgo, how many will remember seeing her in the Tony supporting actress field for Cost of Living?

The Tonys came very close to being a disaster this year. Instead, they were a well-needed victory for the winners and the industry alike.


Critic’s Notebook: Fierce and Focused, the 76th Tony Awards Were a Much-Needed Win for Broadway

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