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As the Tonys arrive, uncertainty for Broadway lingers in the air

From wildfire smoke that’s disrupted performances to a writers strike that threatened its awards show to uninspiring box office numbers, Broadway has taken some blows as it prepares for Sunday’s celebration.

Photos SARA KRULWICH/NYT, Adobe. Illustration Ally Rzesa/Globe Staff

To theater people, “The show must go on” is more than a hoary old adage. It’s the defining principle of their difficult business.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that Broadway is putting on a brave face amid recent turmoil as it prepares for what shapes up as an unusual Tony Awards ceremony on Sunday night. The five most-nominated shows are upbeat, life-affirming musicals that are out to lift your spirits — and maybe Broadway’s, too? — by recognizing the simple value of, and delivering, a good time.

That comfort-food quintet includes “Some Like It Hot” (13 nominations), “& Juliet” (nine), “New York, New York” (nine), “Shucked” (nine), and, although deep emotional currents course through it, “Kimberly Akimbo” (eight).


(Also garnering eight nods is the terrific revival of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” which is not terribly interested in lifting your spirits and involves food that is not at all comforting.)

It’s important to note that by one yardstick — diversity — the Tonys can already be considered a success. As Michael Paulson of The New York Times wrote: “Five of this year’s nominated new plays and play revivals are by Black writers; four of the five nominees for best actor in a play are Black; the best score category for the first time includes an Asian American woman; and the acting nominees include two gender nonconforming performers as well as a woman who is a double amputee.”

But even for an industry where uncertainty is a way of life, and resiliency is a job requirement, it has been a bumpy few weeks leading up to the Tony broadcast, which usually functions as essentially a commercial for Broadway.

Bumpy how? Let us count the ways.

1) In an illustration that Broadway’s comeback from the pandemic is still a work in progress, box-office grosses for the week ending June 4 were down 6 percent from the previous week for nearly three dozen Broadway shows. “New York, New York” and “Life of Pi,” which was presented at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater before transferring to New York, experienced the weakest box-office performance of their runs so far.


2) Out of the blue — make that gray — Broadway was disrupted Wednesday when smoke from Canadian wildfires created extremely unhealthy air-quality levels in New York. That evening’s performances of the blockbuster “Hamilton” and the revival of “Camelot” were canceled. During the Wednesday matinee of the solo play “Prima Facie,” the Tony-nominated actress Jodie Comer (”Killing Eve”) stopped the performance after about 10 minutes. According to Deadline, Comer told a stage manager: “I can’t breathe in this air.” The show went on with Comer’s understudy.

Broadway was disrupted on Wednesday when smoke from Canadian wildfires created extremely unhealthy air-quality levels in New York, causing the cancellations of that night's performances of "Camelot" and "Hamilton."Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

3) The talents of the writers who script the Tony ceremony help to make it the most watchable of the awards shows. But this year the wordsmiths have been sidelined.

The Writers Guild of America (WGA) went on strike more than a month ago against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. That alliance includes CBS, which broadcasts the Tonys each year, and Paramount+, where the ceremony is live-streamed and also available on-demand.

The WGA made clear it did not want its members involved in the Tonys. The Tony production team asked the union for a waiver that would keep the ceremony from being picketed and would enable writers to remain on the job. (Including Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” fame, who was writing an opening rap number for host Ariana DeBose to perform.)


But the union said no. Then, according to the Times, the WGA received a flurry of phone calls and e-mails from playwrights, including such well-known figures as Tony Kushner and Lynn Nottage, pointing out how dependent Broadway is on the televised Tonys. The WGA agreed to a compromise: The ceremony could go forward — and would not be picketed — as long as no writers were involved in the production. The WGA has reportedly asked Tony nominees who belong to the union to not attend the ceremony in person but to instead pre-tape acceptance speeches.

So the Tonys will happen, but the unscripted format may result in a creatively diminished broadcast. DeBose, who is hosting the ceremony for the second year in a row, will have her hands full. Presenters will have to fall back on their own resources, and will have to make up witty intros on their own. Then again, theater artists are pretty good at improvising.

4) A controversy has erupted over plans to use pre-recorded instrumental tracks rather than live musicians in David Byrne’s high-profile “Here Lies Love.’’

A musical about former Philippines first lady Imelda Marcos, with music written by Byrne and Fatboy Slim and lyrics by Byrne, “Here Lies Love” is slated to begin performances on June 17 at the Broadway Theatre. But Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians has expressed fierce opposition, noting that its contract with the Broadway League requires that 19 musicians be employed for musicals at that theater.


For years, Broadway musicians have expressed concern about the number of shows presented with reduced orchestra sizes. Might “Here Lies Love’' be a harbinger of things to come? Musicians were out of work for a year and a half during the nationwide shutdown. A new threat to their livelihoods is the last thing they need.

Meanwhile, here in Boston, where both the Bruins and the Celtics were knocked out of the playoffs, the losing streak extended to theater. There have been years when the Boston-Cambridge imprint on the Tony Awards has been significant. This is not one of those years.

“Life of Pi” was not nominated in the acting or best play categories, though it did earn nods for Max Webster’s direction as well as for the extraordinary scenic design by Tim Hatley and Andrzej Goulding; the costumes by Hatley, Nick Barnes, and Finn Caldwell; Tim Lutkin’s lighting; and Carolyn Dowling’s sound design.

But the high-profile “1776,” a musical revival that opened at the American Repertory Theater before transferring to Broadway, did not receive a single Tony nomination.

Neither did “A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical,” which debuted at the Emerson Colonial Theatre. (Will Swenson, who gave a roof-raising performance as Diamond, wuz robbed as far as I’m concerned.) In what is probably small consolation for the shutout but may bolster the box office, the cast of “A Beautiful Noise” is scheduled to perform at the Tonys.


As for the Tony producers, who doubtless have their fingers crossed and are hoping for more tranquil times ahead, we old-school Red Sox fans offer a pithy, hopeful, and a bit sardonic one-liner that’s our version of “The show must go on.” It’s one that has gotten us through many a tough stretch, and it goes like this: Wait till next year.


On CBS and Paramount+, Sunday at 8 p.m.

Don Aucoin can be reached at Follow him @GlobeAucoin.