After unprecedented upheaval and delay, with a field of contenders greatly depleted by the pandemic, the Tony Awards will take place Sunday in New York, as they always do, and will honor shows staged in one of the 41 Broadway theaters in and around Times Square, as they always do.
But literal geography aside, a piece of Tony territory can also be claimed by Cambridge, Boston, and Williamstown, for it was in those municipalities that the curtain first rose on four new works that are now vying for the most coveted prizes in the American theater. Coincidentally, three of the four premieres took place over a few months in 2018.
“Jagged Little Pill,” which debuted at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater, heads into Sunday’s ceremony with 15 nominations, the most of any show, including one for best musical. “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” initially presented at Boston’s Emerson Colonial Theatre, is close behind with 14 Tony nods, also including best musical.
Up for best play are “The Sound Inside” (six nominations total) and “Grand Horizons” (two nods), both of which debuted at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
All in all, it’s a pretty safe bet that by the end of the evening, there will be a few celebrations in the 617 and 413 area codes.
For the theater industry as a whole, traumatized by the pandemic but now returning to life while praying the coronavirus will not upend operations again, the Tony Awards will carry even more symbolic weight this year than usual. Indeed, the ceremony has been specifically scheduled to coincide with, and put an exclamation point on, the reopening of Broadway after the longest shutdown in its history.
Yet accompanying those high spirits is a gnawing awareness that Broadway is walking on eggshells, balancing hope and uncertainty amid the spread of the Delta variant. Against that backdrop, the Tonys can be seen as part emblem of recovery, part therapy-session catharsis, part intramural pep rally, and part TV commercial for Broadway.
That last role is a very familiar one for the Tonys, which are presented by the American Theatre Wing and The Broadway League, a trade organization of theater producers and owners. But this year’s ceremony will look and feel very different. The presentation will be split between streaming and broadcast TV, and the diminished roster of nominees will underscore the abbreviated nature of the 2019/2020 season because of the pandemic.
Fairly or unfairly, an asterisk will be attached, figuratively speaking, to this year’s winners, because the pandemic shut down theaters in March 2020. Consequently, 16 shows that were scheduled to open on Broadway in the spring of 2020, such as “Six,” could not do so in time for Tony consideration.
The upshot was that only 18 plays and musicals were even eligible for Tony consideration, barely more than half the number eligible for the 2018-2019 awards. (This pandemic-induced attrition is most vividly illustrated, perhaps, by the fact that Aaron Tveit of “Moulin Rouge!” is the sole nominee for best lead actor in a musical. He should have a good night Sunday. Or a very, very bad one.)
None of this will reduce the stakes for the shows, directors, performers, songwriters, and designers who were nominated, of course. Apart from the career-capping prestige of the award, winning a Tony often translates into larger box office revenues on Broadway and a greater likelihood of a national tour.
Vying for best musical, the biggest prize of the night, are “Jagged Little Pill,” “Moulin Rouge!,” and “Tina — The Tina Turner Musical.”
An adaptation by Diablo Cody of Alanis Morissette’s scorching 1995 album, “Jagged Little Pill” is about a family in suburban Connecticut contending with issues of addiction, racism, sexual assault, marital strife, and gender identity. It was directed at Cambridge’s ART by the company’s artistic director, Diane Paulus, who is nominated for a Tony for her work on the Broadway production.
“Moulin Rouge! The Musical” is a lavish jukebox musical, adapted by John Logan from Baz Luhrmann’s film, that tells the story of an ambitious songwriter besotted with a glamorous cabaret performer in turn-of-the-20th-century Paris. At the Colonial Theatre and on Broadway, it was directed by Alex Timbers, also a Tony nominee.
“The Sound Inside,” written by Adam Rapp and directed by Tony-nominated David Cromer, is about a cancer-stricken Yale writing professor (played by Mary-Louise Parker) and a gifted but troubled student. “Grand Horizons,” written by Bess Wohl and directed by Leigh Silverman, is about a woman who decides she wants a divorce from her husband of 50 years, jolting their two adult sons. (The music and costume design of a revival of Tennessee Williams’s “The Rose Tattoo” that originated at Williamstown Theatre Festival also earned Tony nods.) The frontrunner in the category of best play is considered to be Jeremy O. Harris’s “Slave Play,” which racked up 12 nominations overall, the most ever for a new play.
The Tonys will be divided between CBS and its streaming platform, Paramount+. First, at 7 p.m., the ceremony will begin streaming live on Paramount+, hosted by six-time Tony Award winner (and nominated for a seventh) Audra McDonald. The lion’s share of the trophies will be handed out during that ceremony, but awards in several major categories will be saved for the second part of the program.
That will start at 9 p.m., when CBS will air a two-hour concert special live from the Winter Garden Theatre, hosted by Leslie Odom Jr. Performances by Broadway entertainers will include numbers by the three shows nominated for best musical: “Jagged Little Pill,” “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” and “Tina — The Tina Turner Musical.”
That will be followed by the live presentation of the Tony Awards for best play and best revival of a play. The winner for best musical will be announced last, as is customary. Even in this most unusual of Tony years, some things don’t change.