Tonys’ journey to the past while celebrating Broadway’s comeback

By Sharon Eberson

There was a moment during the CBS portion of the Tony Awards, when host Leslie Odom Jr. shifted the focus on the masked audience. 

The point was: Get used to it. 

This is what Broadway theaters, and responsible venues everywhere, will look like for the foreseeable future.

Broadway’s Back host Leslie Odom Jr. and Josh Groban talk about the good old days at Carnegie Mellon and the importance of arts educators, then sing Stephen Schwartz’s “Beautiful City” from Godspell.

It was just days later that we learned proof of vaccination and mask mandates will be in place for all 41 Broadway theaters through 2021. As if to prove the need, Aladdin last week became the first Broadway show to cancel performances due to COVID-19 breakthrough cases among the cast. 

The stops and starts of Broadway’s comeback may have been reflected in the split-platform presentation of the Tonys, which garnered the lowest Neilsen ratings in the awards show’s history — 2.6 million, while 20 million people watched the wild ending that gave the Green Bay Packers a 2-point win over the San Francisco 49ers. 

However, with relatively few watching, the Tonys had some heart-pounding moments, too — many of them not available to the network viewing audience.

Moulin Rouge’s Danny Burstein accepts his Tony for featured actor in a musical, his first in seven nominations

The emotions were high from the get-go. First David Alan Grier (A Soldier’s Story) delivered a teary speech for his win as featured actor in a play, then Danny Burstein (Moulin Rouge, the Musical) won a Tony in his seventh nomination. In his acceptance speech, Burstein reminded us about the theater family that came through for him when his wife, the great performer Rebecca Luker, died last year of ALS. 

Wait. What’s that you say? You don’t have Paramount+ and you missed those moving moments?

To talk about the 2021 Tonys, we probably should begin with the, um, unusual — some would say exclusionary — format. 

Audra McDonald hosted the Paramount+ portion of the ceremony, which finished with 10 minutes to spare, plenty of time “go get a cookie,” the fabulous Miss A said, before viewers were told to switch from the streamer to the CBS Broadway’s Back show, with three awards left to go. 

Jennifer Holliday, an original star of Dreamgirls, electrified the Tony Awards with her rendition of “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” seen only by the Paramount+ viewing audience.

So, if you don’t pay for Paramount+ and you didn’t choose to grab a free trial, you missed Dreamgirl Jennifer Holliday’s electrifying reprise of “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” 40 years after she first sang it. And you didn’t hear director Kenny Leon invoke the names of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and declare, “All lives are precious.” He then talked about the reckoning their deaths have inspired, saying, “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.”

You also missed poor Aaron Tveit, the only nominee for best actor in a musical, sweat out the opening of the envelope that gave him the victory.

At this point, late in the first half of the doubleheader, fans had to be wondering, would they ever hear Slave Play called to the stage?

The answer is no.

The final three awards were announced after the switch to CBS. Best revival of a play was won by A Soldier’s Story (there were no eligible musical revivals when the pandemic shut down Broadway), Best musical went to Moulin Rouge, and best play, The Inheritance.

The latter, a portrait of gay life in the 21st century by Matthew Lopez, was put in the line of fire when Slave Play won none.

Now, I’m not saying I agree with all of the awards. And I didn’t see The Inheritance a critical success — or five-time winner A Christmas Carol. But I did see Slave Play and I wasn’t the only one wondering: How can you give the provocative, original work 12 nominations and have it walk away with none?  

But that’s the thing about awards shows — if they don’t hit a nerve, then they haven’t done their job. And odd though it may seem that Slave Play was shut out, it was announced within days of the awards show that Jeremy O. Harris’ play that explores race, sex, power and trauma among interracial couples, would return to Broadway — an unusual turn for a work that came up empty at the Tonys.

What the awards show(s) did best was remind us of what we are missing, if not where we are going. There were no performances representing new works, and the only mention of Hadestown, the previous best musical, was the presence of Andre De Shields. 

In 2021, Broadway royalty reigned at the Tonys. The two-time Tony winner Bernadette Peters introduced a particularly wrenching in memoriam segment, with Brian Stokes Mitchell singing “Impossible Dream“.

Stokes was back later for a hat trick of duet reunions: Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel (Wicked), Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal (Rent) and Audra and Stokes for “Wheels of a Dream”, from Ragtime. Finishing up were Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast of Freestyle Love Supreme, which received a special Tonys honor earlier in the night.

Everything that came before fell away during those performances. 

I have been replaying some of those favorite CBS moments on a DVR loop, but I am going to stop now. If Broadway is, indeed, back, it’s time to change the conversation and gear up for a season of new and new-to-New York shows, musicals like Six, Mrs. Doubtfire and Girl From the North Country, and plays such as Thoughts of a Colored Man and Skeleton Crew

Stephen Sondheim at 90 has something almost new, too — the gender-bending version of Company that was delayed by the pandemic is finally set to open in December.

I’m ready. I’m ready now.

For full list of 2021 Tony winners, click here.

Before we head indoors …

The air is crisper, the leaves are falling, and theater season is in the air once more.

But before we don our masks, show proofs of vaccination and head indoors, let’s acknowledge the outdoor venues of summer. 

Pittsburgh Musical Theater’s West End Canopy was host to Richard Rockage, with fellow Pittsburghers Lara Hayhurst and Trey Compton, in the 2021 Artists Spotlight series finale.

One I missed out on until last week is Pittsburgh Musical Theater’s West End Canopy. I finally found my way there on Saturday to catch the Artists Spotlight finale, featuring Lara Hayhurst, husband Trey Compton and their pal Richard Rockage (three New York artists by way of Pittsburgh), in a mostly comic romp through the Comptons’ relationship, which began when they were tweens at Pittsburgh’s Act One Theater School.

I was surprised how few Main Street noises infiltrated the tented space across from the Zone 6 police station, and I hope the night is just as clear and comfy when PMT presents a Young Artist Production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee there Nov. 4-7.

Here’s also hoping there is an annual raising of the big top in the West End.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, speaking at a Lights On press event last month, expressed similar sentiments about a comeback for the Allegheny Overlook pop-up stage, the site of Pittsburgh Public Theater’s Barefoot in the Park and many other performances.

We could go on, including Pittsburgh Ballet Theater’s Open Air stage that graced Flagstaff Hill and, for Pittsburgh CLO’s two-show summer, Heinz Field.

Rain, wind and generally rotten weather events aside, all of the outdoor theater opportunities provided by Western Pennsylvania companies this summer make me thankful for their resourcefulness as well as their artistry.

For What’s onStage in Pittsburgh this month, click here.



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