by Matt Smith . . .
The Tony Awards have long been appointment television for the diehard Broadway superfan. And after a months-long delay on account of a year-and-a-half industry shutdown, you can bet we, like many theatre lovers, were clamoring around our screens, eager to embrace live theatre in its totality once again. Blending the recognition of the artists from the COVID-truncated 2019-2020 season with a more general celebration trumpeting Broadway’s grand return, this year saw the lengthy broadcast split in two halves; the latter, aired on CBS, billed as The Tony Awards Present: Broadway’s Back!
Filled with topical jabs, poignant speeches, and a cavalcade of musical performances, the concert encapsulated the industry in the best way it could: honoring the past, recognizing the present, and paving the road for the future. Here are our top five moments from the evening’s spirited second half!
Broadway’s Back with Dynamic Opener
Perpetually proving “you can’t stop the beat,” host Leslie Odom, Jr. delivers a razzle-dazzle opener worthy of Broadway’s big return. Penned by Some Like It Hot scribes Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman & Amber Ruffin, the glitzy number literally checked all the boxes, noting vaccinations, mask-wearing (“And someday soon we’ll see the bottom half of your face!”) and the dawn of our new inclusive era of Broadway. With cameos from Angie Schworer, Rachelle Rak, Lindsay Pearce, nods to Waitress, The Lion King and Wicked, and a bevy of leggy ensemble dancers, it solidified the statement we’ve been longing to hear for the last 18 months: Broadway is indeed back tonight!
What Does Your Silence Sound Like?
That was the question pointedly asked by Daniel J. Watts. Joined by dancer Jared Grimes and members of Broadway Inspirational Voices, the Tina Tony nominee stunned the room with a spoken word tribute to the Broadway Advocacy Coalition that addressed the industry unrest head-on, once again, calling for change.
Through tap, rap, and poignant Broadway lyrics (the most effective being the inversion of the evening’s recurring Hairspray motif to reflect Black lives: “You can’t stop this beat, not this Black beat”), Watts straightforwardly set the tone for the evening, expressing frustration for the past, while genuinely looking hopeful toward the future… if everyone helps.
“There’s nothing wrong with silence until there is,” he stated defiantly, adding “Silence is no longer golden when talk is cheap and actions are hollow.”
Concluding the number with a quote from Ragtime’s ardent anthem, Watts once again pushed for action, urging allies to “Make Them Hear You,” and providing us a powerful answer to his titular question: “Your silence sounds best when it’s surrounded by sound, between the work already done and the work yet to come.” We’re not finished yet.
An Evening of Stars and Song
Though the buzziest performance may have come before the concert proper began, being a celebration of the Main Stem’s return, there was no shortage of notable performances, from musicals past and present. In addition to high-octane samplings from each of the nominated Best Musicals, the concert highlighted classics by Stephen Sondheim, who entered nonagenarian status during the pandemic, as sung by past Tony winners and other stage faves: Anika Noni Rose pushed Ben Platt to “Move On,” while Tituss Burgess and Andrew Rannells discovered “It Takes Two” to complete an arduous journey.
Special Tony recipient American Utopia returned for an encore, while John Legend proved he “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” for a chance to perform with that show’s cast.
Meanwhile, Odom, Jr., a noted Carnegie Mellon University alum, took the mic with fellow CMU graduate Josh Groban to salute the school – and arts educators citywide and around the world – for keeping a “beautiful city” inspired and afloat in a tumultuous time; he then joined his wife, former Waitress waitress Nicolette Robinson, to croon that show’s “You Matter to Me.”
In addition, the In Memoriam segment, particularly poignant this year in light of the pandemic, was further punctuated by three distinct presentations: the first, an interpretative dance, courtesy of Robbie Fairchild, to “Give My Regards to Broadway,” the second, Stokes’ signature salute to dreaming “The Impossible Dream” and third, a final reminder, courtesy of Norm Lewis Kelli O’Hara and again, Sondheim, that whether we’re breathing on this Earth or deep within its roots and soil, if we’ve made a mark on Broadway, “there’s a place for us” forever.
And yet, with all this musical goodness, the performances didn’t stop there.
Broadway’s Dynamic Duos
The evening hosted several iconic “power couples” duetting on what have been cemented as Broadway’s most memorable melodies. Original Wicked witches Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, on the heels of the musical’s 18th anniversary, reunited to sing “For Good” (with Chenoweth visibly tearing up at the realization of the show’s staying power), Rent-heads Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal tore up the house with “What You Own,” and first-half host Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell were “riding on the wheels of a dream” with the Ragtime hit they first made famous in 1998 – its message reverberating just as fervently as its singers on the precipice of this new Broadway dawning. A new day has begun.
A Closer to End Them All
Just as with the opener, the rapid-fire closing number was equally dynamic and whimsical, as Special Tony recipient Freestyle Love Supreme took to the stage to recap the evening’s events. With just four minutes on the clock, they zipped through the lineup, step by step, moment by moment, went step by step, moment by moment, with mind-blowingly impressive accuracy. From the silly (“Hello, chickens!” quoting the Moulin Rouge acceptance) to the sublime (“Make Them Hear You”) they captured it all as only they can, their summation cementing what, again, what we already knew: this was indeed a Tonys ceremony to remember.
TP BONUS FUN FACT:
The crowd erupted when Chita Rivera, presenting Best Musical alongside longtime Winter Garden tenant Andrew Lloyd Webber, made a historical declaration: On the very same day, September 26th, 1957 — 64 years ago! — in the very same theatre, Rivera first stepped out as Anita in West Side Story, a role which, as all know, affirmed her as a pillar in Latinx theatrical history, and forever changed the landscape for Latinx performers everywhere.
Photos:Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions
Lead Photo: Jenny Anderson/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions