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At this year’s Tonys, diversity wins

From left: James Jackson Jr., L. Morgan Lee, Antwayn Hopper, John-Andrew Morrison, Jaquel Spivey, Jason Veasey, and John-Michael Lyles in the musical "A Strange Loop," which has been nominated for 11 Tony Awards.Marc J. Franklin/Polk & Co. via AP

NEW YORK — For much of its 75-year history, the Tony Awards ceremony has functioned as a glossy, upbeat commercial for Broadway.

It will play that role again on Sunday night — and Broadway badly needs it to — but this year’s Tony celebration is something more: a marker of progress.

An exceptionally diverse slate of nominees is vying for those disc-shaped silver medallions that denote excellence and industry recognition. In the performance categories, actors of color account for nearly half of the nominees. Black theater artists, stories, or cultural icons are at the center of the three most-nominated productions: “A Strange Loop” (11 nods), “MJ” (10), and “Paradise Square” (10).


Also receiving their due are groundbreaking older works about the Black experience in America such as Ntozake Shange’s “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf” (seven nominations) and Alice Childress’s “Trouble in Mind” (four), which finally made it to Broadway 6½ decades after debuting off Broadway.

Sunday night’s ceremony at Radio City Music Hall will be the first Tony Awards since the November death of legendary composer Stephen Sondheim. His “Company” earned nine nominations, including for best revival of a musical. Expect an emotional tribute or two, especially if Patti LuPone — who starred in “Sweeney Todd” and “Gypsy” — earns another Tony (she’s got two) for her turn as the acerbic but wounded Joanne in “Company.”

The Tony ceremony’s marketing function as a glitzy means of raising public awareness of what’s onstage and visibility for shows that may be slumping at the box office has seldom been more vital than now.

COVID-19 shuttered Broadway for 15 months, from mid-March 2020 until “Springsteen on Broadway” in June 2021. The theater industry’s rebound from that catastrophic financial damage is still very much a work in progress in New York, in Boston, and everywhere else. Broadway revenues remain way below their pre-pandemic levels, hampered by the reluctance of COVID-wary tourists to visit New York and its theaters.


Just this week, in fact, three shows announced plans to close: “Tina” (in August), “Dear Evan Hansen” (in September), and “Come From Away” (in October). After struggling to find an audience, “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf” ended last Sunday.

The Tony Awards — which are presented by the nonprofit American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League, a trade association of theater owners and producers — will try to stem that tide. The ceremony starts at 7 p.m. Sunday, with the first hour to be streamed on Paramount +, cohosted by Darren Criss and Julianne Hough. Then, starting at 8 p.m., “West Side Story” Oscar winner Ariana DeBose will host the remaining three hours on CBS (which will also stream live on Paramount+).

The strong showing by Black artists and stories comes two years after attention was focused on racial inequity in the American theater by a 29-page letter titled “We See You, White American Theater.” The letter demanded swift and sweeping structural changes to improve conditions for BIPOC theater professionals and to make the American theater far more representative, both onstage and off.

It was signed by more than 300 theater artists, including playwrights Lynn Nottage and Dominique Morisseau.

Already a two-time Pulitzer winner, Nottage last month became the first playwright to be nominated for best play (“Clyde’s”) and best book of a musical (”MJ”) in the same season. Meanwhile, Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew” (presented in 2018 at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company) is up for best play.


Uzo Aduba and Ron Cephas Jones in "Clyde's," which garnered a Tony nomination for playwright Lynn Nottage. She is also nominated for her book for the musical "MJ."Joan Marcus/Polk & Co. via AP

It will be competing with Nottage’s “Clyde’s,” Martin McDonagh’s “Hangmen,” Tracy Letts’s “The Minutes,” and Stefano Massini and Ben Power’s “The Lehman Trilogy.”

Tony telecasts have historically done a better job showcasing musicals than plays. Musicals obviously have more built-in sizzle, but will that imbalance be at least partly redressed Sunday night?

“The Lehman Trilogy,” the most-nominated play, ended its limited engagement in January. Despite the lamentably brief run of “for colored girls …,” it’s some consolation that Shange’s 1976 “choreopoem” about the lives of Black women made sufficient impact to garner seven Tony nominations. That’s more than big-budget productions like the Hugh Jackman-Sutton Foster-starring revival of “The Music Man.” (“The Music Man” is competing with “Company” and “Caroline, or Change” for best revival of a musical.)

Competing with “for colored girls …” for best revival of a play will be “Trouble in Mind,” a 1955 drama about racism in American commercial theater by pioneering Black playwright Childress, as well as Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive,” Richard Greenberg’s “Take Me Out,” and David Mamet’s “American Buffalo.” It’ll be interesting to see and hear the crowd’s reaction if “American Buffalo” wins, given Mamet’s recent, bizarre assertion that teachers “are inclined” toward pedophilia.

The show with the most Tony nominations, “A Strange Loop,” will likely be unfamiliar to much of the national audience watching from home. It’s a meta-musical by Michael R. Jackson about a gay Black writer who is struggling to create a musical about a gay Black writer.


Jackson’s inquiry into questions of race, sexuality, and identity premiered off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 2019, won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and then opened at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre in April. Among its 11 nominations are nods for best musical. Jackson is also in the running for best original score and best book of a musical.

A scene from the nominated musical “Paradise Square.” SARA KRULWICH/The New York Times

Close behind are two new musicals with 10 nominations apiece: “MJ,” a glossy look at the life and career of the late singer Michael Jackson, and “Paradise Square,” which focuses on the forces that led to the violent Civil War-era Draft Riots that targeted Black residents in New York. Joining “A Strange Loop,” “MJ,” and “Paradise Square” in the running for best musical are “Six,” “Mr. Saturday Night,” and “Girl From the North Country.” Best musical is considered the biggest prize of the night because a Tony in that category boosts ticket sales and increases the likelihood a show will go on a national tour.

Last fall’s truncated Tonys — presented, very belatedly, to shows that opened in the pandemic-shortened 2019-2020 season — had a distinctly Boston flavor, as “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” which had premiered at Boston’s Emerson Colonial Theatre, walked away with 10 Tonys. “Jagged Little Pill,” which had debuted at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater, won a pair of Tonys.


From left: Adrianna Hicks, Andrea Macasaet, Abby Mueller, Brittney Mack, Samantha Pauly and Anna Uzele in the musical “Six” at the Brooks Atkinson Theater.Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

On Sunday night, Boston-area theatergoers who saw the ART’s pre-Broadway run of “Six” may tune in to see how many of the show’s eight nominations translate into wins. The same will likely be true in the Berkshires as regards “Mr. Saturday Night,” where a developmental production was staged last fall at Pittsfield’s Barrington Stage Company. It’s up for five Tony Awards, including for Billy Crystal as best lead actor in a musical.

Two local favorites are among the performers squaring off in the category of best featured actress in a play: Lexington’s Rachel Dratch, for “POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive,” and Medfield’s Uzo Aduba, for “Clyde’s.”

The outcome of that contest and all the others won’t be known until Sunday night, and in the longer term, it remains to be seen whether the diversity of this year’s roster of nominees will be sustained. But for the time being, the Tony Awards themselves have to be counted among the winners.


Sunday at 7 p.m. on Paramount+ and at 8 p.m. on CBS

Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.