Near the start of Sunday night’s Tony Awards ceremony from New York’s Winter Garden Theatre, which finally took place after the longest shutdown in Broadway history, host Audra McDonald wryly summed up the moment: “We’re a little late, but we are here.”
Almost anyone connected with “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” had to be glad they showed up, because the show won 10 Tonys — more than any other — and was named best musical, the most coveted award of the night.
Matthew Lopez became the first Latino playwright to win for best play with “The Inheritance,” an epic two-part drama about gay men and the AIDS epidemic that was inspired by E.M. Forster’s “Howards End.”
“We are a vibrant community reflecting a vast array of cultures, experiences and yes, skin tones,” Lopez said. “We have so many stories to tell. They are inside of us aching to come out. Let us tell you our stories.” In another milestone, Lois Smith, 90, became the oldest performer to win a Tony Award for acting, named best featured actress in a play for her performance in “The Inheritance.”
Among those honored for their work in “Moulin Rouge!,” which premiered at Boston’s Emerson Colonial Theatre three years ago, were director Alex Timbers; Aaron Tveit as best lead actor in a musical for his portrayal of a penniless composer in fin de siècle Paris who falls in love with a nightclub chanteuse; and Danny Burstein as best featured actor in a musical for his performance as the nightclub’s owner. (Tveit was the only nominee in his pandemic-depleted category.)
“Jagged Little Pill,” which debuted in 2018 at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater, won only two Tonys despite being nominated for 14. One win called attention to a controversy swirling around the Broadway production of the musical adaptation of Alanis Morissette’s 1995 album.
The Tony ceremony kicked off, pointedly, with a performance of “You Can’t Stop the Beat” from “Hairspray.” In her opening remarks, McDonald emphasized the need for Broadway to finally take decisive steps to be “more inclusive and equitable for all.” Those sentiments were echoed by several subsequent speakers, including Sonya Tayeh, winner for best choreography for “Moulin Rouge!”
“As a brown, queer, Arab-American woman, I wasn’t always welcome,” said Tayeh, calling for the emergence of “a new era for all people.” Director Kenny Leon, speaking after Charles Fuller’s “A Soldier’s Play” won for best revival of a play, said: “The table’s got to be bigger. We need to hear all of the stories.”
Lauren Patten of “Jagged Little Pill” won for best featured actress in a musical. Criticism has been leveled at the change to Patten’s character, Jo, from gender-nonconforming to cisgender female after the show transferred from Cambridge to New York. Patten addressed the controversy in accepting her award, saying that “first and foremost, I want to thank my trans and nonbinary friends and colleagues who have engaged with me in difficult conversations, that have joined me in dialogue about my character Jo.”
“I believe that the future for the change we need to see on Broadway comes from these kinds of conversations that are full of honesty and empathy and respect for our shared humanity,” she added. “And I am so excited to see the action that comes from them, and to see where that leads our future as theater artists in this country.”
In another recent controversy, Nora Schell, a nonbinary actor, posted on Twitter that during previews for the Broadway run of “Jagged Little Pill” she was “intimidated, coerced, and forced by multiple higher ups to put off critical and necessary surgery to remove growths from my vagina that were making me anemic.”
Saying they were “deeply troubled” by the claims, the lead producers announced they have hired an outside firm to investigate. On Sunday, Actors Equity Association, the union representing actors and stage managers, said it also would commission “a thorough, independent investigation of the Jagged Little Pill workplace.”
The other “Jagged Little Pill” winner was Diablo Cody, for best book of a musical. Mary-Louise Parker won for best lead actress in a play for her portrayal of a cancer-stricken professor in Adam Rapp’s “The Sound Inside” (a production of which is currently at Boston’s SpeakEasy Stage Company). As expected, Adrienne Warren’s sensational performance in “Tina — The Tina Turner Musical” earned her the Tony for best lead actress in a musical. Accepting the award for best featured actor in a play for his performance in “A Soldier’s Play,” David Alan Grier saluted the late Douglas Turner Ward, cofounder of the Negro Ensemble Company, which premiered “A Soldier’s Play” in 1981.
Originally scheduled for June 2020, the Tonys were awarded Sunday to a field of contenders greatly shrunken by the pandemic. When COVID-19 shut down theaters nationwide in mid-March 2020, it meant that 16 shows that had planned to open in the spring were unable to do so, and thus were ineligible for Tony consideration. Consequently, only 18 plays and musicals were eligible for awards, down from 34 the previous year.
Sunday night’s ceremony signaled a return to life for the theater industry as a whole, although apprehension lingers that the Delta strain of the coronavirus could disrupt theater operations again.