by Ron Fassler . . .
Jet lagged is probably not the best way to head into watching what turned out to be a four-hour-twenty-minute 74th Annual Tony Awards last night. But having returned to my native New York City on Saturday from Portugal, there was no way I was going to miss the Tonys, especially as I’ve seen every broadcast since they first started on network television fifty-four years ago. Over the last few years, it was my privilege to watch from an orchestra seat at Radio City Musical Hall, where the awards have been handed out for nearly all of the past twenty-five years. But for a host of reasons, the show was back home where it truly belongs in a Broadway theatre last night, the first time since the 1999 Tonys, and the intimacy played beautifully on television. Sure, I would love to have reported what it was like to have seen it from in the theatre (especially what with some of the powerhouse performances that were done live on the Winter Garden stage), but the viewing party in my apartment will have to suffice, accompanied by a nice cheese plate and a bottle of wine shared with two friends (three, one is pregnant—no wine for her).
This year, due to the pandemic, the Tonys were delayed beyond all reason. In a season that should have officially ended before June 1st, its abrupt end came about on March 12, 2020, and more than a dozen shows that were either in previews or about to start them, closed and were not eligible for what became a truncated Broadway season. A lot had to be figured out in terms of how to present the awards during a global pandemic and the complicated solution pleased no one completely. Splitting the presentation of the awards into two separate shows (shared by the same audience, who are to be applauded for their steadfastness and mask wearing), made for two separate shows mostly better as parts than a whole. The cohesiveness of the first two hours, where twenty-three awards were handed out leaving ten minutes over to spare, was hosted by the gracious and unflappable Audra McDonald, whose unprecedented six Tony wins in all four acting categories has helped to create the icon she is today. How she always manages to look like the most relaxed person in the room is a skill that only adds to her mystical talents. This portion of the evening was admirable in that people weren’t “played off” by the orchestra, except in a very few cases. With the Tonys, most winners are people of the theatre, be they actors or behind the scenes players, and the articulateness with which they know how to give a proper thanks always makes this the best of the awards shows. Last night was no exception.
In fact, due to the mix of a lost season, halted by Covid in ways that hit home under sometimes tragic circumstances, the loss of work to the industry as a whole was its own devastation. So it did please me that the broadcast should be noted for any inherent lack of sadness. And if a bit of anger came up on occasion, it felt warranted, especially when coming from artists with a fire in their belly, compassion in their heart, and a way with words that seemingly made everyone a writer for the night. I appreciated all of that, especially as I’m the guy who tunes in for the speeches in the first place. So, on that note, I did not end my time in front of the TV disappointed.
And as for the entertainment (after all, the Tonys have ALWAYS been a three-hour commercial for the theatre), this was a show with powerful performances in abundance. A combination of young people showing that everything old is new again (Ali Stroker singing “What I Did for Love” with enormous simplicity and feeling), and ultimate pros like Audra McDonald (thank god they let her sing) and Brian Stokes Mitchell (who warbled twice), giving us a duet to end the evening that delivered as if sent directly from heaven. Repeating their Broadway roles as Sarah and Coalhouse in 1998’s Ragtime, anyone with a fond memory of seeing that show live was rewarded with a recreation of “Wheels of a Dream” that made the years fade away in an instant.
But in terms of the years not making a damn bit of difference, it would probably take more than just a paragraph to describe the sensation of Jennifer Holliday, forty years later, attempting another go at her now-legendary Tony performance from the 1982 telecast, when she so-so-memorably embodied her show-stopping “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” since that night the single most watched YouTube Tony clip of all-time. Watching it the first time thirty-nine years ago from a friend’s viewing party way back then, I’ll never forget the experience as long as I live. And seeing Ms. Holilday take the stage as a woman now in her sixties was positively breathtaking. There’s no other word for it. She had the audience at ‘hello’ (receiving a standing ovation before a note was sung), and she then went on to deliver in ways that left little to the imagination that the song is hers, has always been hers, and will forever be hers.
Leslie Odom Jr. had the task of hosting the second portion of the show, which was set up to deliver a valentine to Broadway (titled “Broadway’s Back”), which kicked off with his leading a wonderfully staged (amazing camera work to boot) opening number that got a chance to show off Broadway dancers at their best. If the next number, “Burning Down the House,” performed live on stage as a representation of David Byrne’s concert-style show American Utopia—the recipient of a Special Tony—didn’t exactly translate to television the way it did in the theatre, the remotely pre-recorded next number from Moulin Rouge! most certainly did. Other highlights included the other two nominees for Best Musical, Jagged Little Pill and Tina: the Tina Turner Musical, which did themselves proud (including the world getting a chance to see Tony winner Adrienne Warren strut her stuff as Tina).
Due to CBS’s decision to bisect the awards, featuring the first two hours on its relatively new streaming service Paramount+ TV, and the second on broadcast television across the country in the Sunday night 9-11 pm time slot, few got to watch the actual awards that were given out. This made for a certain level of disappointment among die-hard theatre fans who watch the show each year, as I do, but let me say this: the Tony ratings and CBS’s commitment to airing them for so many decade was due nearly entirely to Les Moonves, a theatre fan who just happened to run the network (until he was forced out last year over allegations of sexual harassment). It’s not surprising, and frankly was inevitable, that things were going to change once Moonves was gone. The compromise reached used the CBS Grammys playbook (it’s been years since that organization gave out on-camera awards), replacing it with a concentration of musical performances, felt just fine.
The one decision I can’t reconcile is why no mention was made of the previous twenty-three awards that were handed out during the “Broadway’s Back” two-hour special. If you missed the Paramount+ TV presentation on non-broadcast television, you would have no idea what trends had transpired and who won (you’d also have missed—inexplicably—Jennifer Holliday). It was unfair to the winners, who should have at least had a one or two line excerpt from their speech replayed on national television for the benefit of a wider audience.
For me the prime takeaway was that 87,000 people, most of whom were out of work for the past eighteen months, are now getting back to what they do best and love most: the telling of stories for paid audiences gathered together for a shared experience right in front of them for a night or afternoon. For my money (even if it’s overpriced) is that there’s nothing beats live theatre as the total package for entertainment of the heart and soul. And for one evening, CBS, the American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League threw a televised party to celebrate last night. Therefore, you’ll get no quibble or complaints from me.