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Belated, Bifurcated, Bungled: The Sad, Strange State Of The 2021 Tony Awards

Hopefully not the Winter Garden Theatre on Sunday, when the 2021 Tony Awards are set to take place.


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Have you heard? Broadway is back! And what better way to celebrate than…an awards ceremony for shows that opened and closed two years ago?

Yes, that’s right: it’s The Tony Awards. Last bestowed in June 2019, they are finally happening again on September 26 (yay) just as dozens of shows are returning to the Great White Way (double yay). But after 18 months of kicking the proverbial can, Broadway’s big night now falls during the worst Covid surge since last winter’s death loop (boo) and faces logistical and existential chaos that threatens to undermine the whole affair (double boo).

As a nominee, I’ve refrained from reporting on the Tonys beyond just-the-facts, ma’am. But now that voting is complete and shows are reopening, it feels necessary to lay out the bones of this mess before they get gussied up and potentially rearranged on Sunday – if only to serve as a reference for future burials.

Let’s start with the big night itself, which will be split into two parts. First comes the ceremony where most awards will be presented, streamed in full on Paramount+, but not broadcast on TV. (Here’s the full list of nominees). Immediately following, Broadway’s Back! will be a live concert, featuring performances from new and long-running shows, alongside the “Big Three” awards: Best Musical, Best Play, and Best Revival of a Play. Those will be broadcast live on CBS and streamed on Paramount+.

If the structure sounds awkward and confusing, that’s because it is. The unusual format was a compromise between the co-presenters – the Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing – and CBS, which has broadcast the awards since 1978. The intent was to both honor work and juice ticket sales, but when announced earlier this spring it was met with bemusement and not a little derision.

“We waited a year and a half for an award ceremony for half of a season and they put it behind a subscription paywall?” wrote playwright Hayley St. James, in a post more widely shared than the announcement itself. “I have to laugh. What a slap in the face to every nominee.”

While Paramount+ offers a free trial to new users, the optics are still rough, especially for an industry that has long struggled to appear more accessible. Since that announcement, it’s been crickets until last week, when the hosts, icons Audra McDonald and Leslie Odom, Jr., were finally announced. All told, it’s a confounding press strategy for an event that traditionally serves as a national commercial for the $15 billion industry.

To be fair, this year is anything but traditional. Unfortunately, that applies to the offstage drama, too. As of this writing, every official event, party, or gathering associated with the Tonys has been cancelled, including the red carpet, afterparties, and a livestreamed industry viewing party for those who can’t attend – or afford – the main event. Some were nixed due to internal “concerns over the Delta variant,” others because the city refused to grant them event permits.

“I think they truly are just f—king w us now,” tweeted playwright Jeremy O. Harris, whose Slave Play is a contender for 12 awards, after being informed he was eligible for a $250 rebate for the cancellations. (The cheapest tickets offered to industry members, including nominees, were $2,000 a pop).

Harris expounded when I followed up with him: “To be working in a city that has just done Fashion Week, the Met gala, the Governors Ball and a litany of other events with relative safety, then to witness the Tonys continually limit the space for celebration on the basis of ‘covid safety’ feels disappointing after waiting two years for a chance to celebrate decades of work.”

The upshot: What was once billed as a triumphant celebration of live entertainment now feels like a collapsing house of cards. The rapid dehiscing also raises alarming questions about the industry’s reopening plans, and underscores a profound cognitive dissonance about the purpose of awards in the year 2021. And nobody can drown their sorrows at the afterparty bar!

Audra McDonald and Leslie Odom Jr., hosts of the 2021 Tony Awards, accepting their own respective … [+] trophies in 2014 and 2016.


(Photos by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions AND Charles Sykes-Invision-AP

The ongoing pandemic bears the brunt of blame. Earlier this year, when vaccinations were up and cases down, September 26 seemed like a reasonable date for a big indoor celebration. Then came idiotic vaccine resistance and a highly transmissible variant, leading to ongoing travel restrictions, skyrocketing deaths, and resurgent consumer anxiety.

But human error and ego played a role here, too, beginning last spring, when an initial message of Broadway unity morphed into a bizarre insistence that the worsening pandemic was “Only Intermission!”  The Tonys became a hostage of sorts, contingent on a reopening announcement, which all but a few deluded producers understood to be a fever dream. The fever finally broke in October, and nominees were hastily announced for a digital ceremony…which neither transpired nor was mentioned again. Months of silence followed, ending with a sudden invitation for voters to cast electronic ballots in March, a full year after any had seen a show. The results have been kept secret until now, when the Tonys will recognize shows that opened and closed two years ago, only three of which – Jagged Little Pill, Tina, and Moulin Rouge! – will reopen this fall.

Which raises the question: does anybody still care?

Speaking as a nominee, yes. I do. But I sense I’m in the minority. A quick social media scan turns up mostly subdued interest, tempered by frustrations over access and streaming services. Meanwhile, in-person tickets are available to the public for a breezy $1,500 a pop. Not a great way to convince anyone that Broadway is “back” for everyone.

“It certainly feels as though wealthy people are the only ones welcome,” one producer lamented to me after the prices went live. If the acidic public feedback is any indication, they’re right on the money.

Harris concurred. “As an artist who doesn’t come from a family that can widely afford to watch Paramount+, discovering the majority of the broadcast would happen there felt like one slap in the face.”

But the multi-platform structure, while imperfect, has perks a traditional telecast does not. For one, it will be the first time since 1997 that all competitive categories will be viewable in full. Most design and writing awards have not been televised in recent years, handed out instead during commercial breaks.

“The celebration of these awards on a major platform is a huge achievement,” said Heather Hitchens, President the Wing, when the event was announced. “That’s something we’ve wanted for years.”

The streaming option also means that international fans, who make up nearly a quarter of Broadway’s audience, can watch the full 4-hour event – all the more important given that travel restrictions will be eased in November.

Will that make up for the bad optics? Unclear. After years of hemming and hawing over accessibility, one hoped for a better comeback message than “Celebrate with us behind a paywall!” However, under the circumstances, I’d count the streaming arrangement as a soft win for the artists and workers who were once fodder for commercials, especially with a free trial on the table.

All this still leaves unanswered questions of taste, scale, and priorities. The notion of campaigning for trophies during a mass casualty event is uncomfortable to anyone with a functioning moral compass. What does it mean to win one in 2021, and for work completed years earlier?

“We’ve all been unemployed for over a year,” one nominee explained earlier this summer. “Some people have literally died since their shows went up. Why are we trying to spin this into a competition? Just mail out the statues and reopen things. Don’t make us feel like we’ve got to pit ourselves against each other on TV after all this. It’s gross.”

All awards organizations struggled to balance commercialism, celebration, and ethical rectitude during the pandemic. Many went ahead with the typical structure, as alternatives to competitive frameworks are thin on the ground. Which, one could argue, is the point. On one hand, all awards are commercials, and anyone who says otherwise is trying to sell you something. Probably a ticket to their show.

On the other, that mindset doesn’t align with, oh, every other major theatre award, which all bestowed their statuettes last spring, many allocating their budgets to relief funds, giving workers closure and a bit of joy in the face of cosmic horror.

And while griping about cancelled parties could be spun as the most sparkly of champagne problems, it raises uneasy questions about the industry’s entire reopening plan. If it’s somehow too risky for people to gather on a red carpet, or even to watch a projected livestream at an indoor viewing party, then why allow the awards to happen in person? For that matter, why reopen anything at full capacity?

As of this writing, multiple requests for clarification to the League, the Wing, and the mayor’s office remain unanswered.

Posters advertise Broadway musicals outside the Richard Rodgers Theatre near Times Square. -(Photo … [+] by Ed JONES / AFP) (Photo by ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images)


AFP via Getty Images

To assuage worry: Broadway theaters are among the safest places to be with 1,000 other people. Vaccines are mandated, as are masks, and landlords have done admirable work upgrading ventilation systems. Epidemiologists are on payrolls, and contingencies are legion. This all underscores the industry’s commitment to health and safety.

The Tonys, however, are sending mixed messages, which calls into question their purpose. If the goal is to move tickets, that’s a tough sell with only three nominees planning to reopen. If it’s to celebrate as a community, that’s a tall order when every communal event is cancelled. If it’s to let America know Broadway is open for business, you’d think they would have drummed up even a modicum of buzz more than a week out.

The point here is not that the Tonys need to happen in person, or that they need to be cancelled, either. It’s that they should have happened over a year ago. Belatedly yoking them to a reopening commercial undermines both the work being honored and the effort to bring back buyers. They were never a ratings heavyweight to begin with, and by splitting them down the middle and putting half of them behind a paywall, you’ve already irked your core audience.

Also, frankly, it hurts. Eighteen months of dismissive, bungled communication takes a toll. Multiple prominent nominees have made clear their dwindling interest in the industry, with some already departing for greener pastures, after feeling exhausted and disrespected by institutions claiming to support them. Here’s one response from a seasoned producer with over two dozen shows under their belt, when I asked how they were feeling:

“The way the League handled the Tonys demonstrates that they don’t actually care about the Tonys, other than for publicity. It is a horrible message to send, that these awards don’t matter unless we can leverage them to sell tickets. From the govern-by-tweet announcement of a digital Tonys that was never spoken of again, to determining the winners in March but sitting on them for months so they could artificially delay the results even further. I cannot believe this is the way our leadership feels about our industry’s ‘highest honor.’”

Another veteran producer simply responded: “At this point they might as well just be an email.”

The pandemic was never “Only Intermission.” It is, and always was, death. Not of the Theatre, nor of Broadway as an institution; it is a death of the Theatre and the Broadway that existed eighteen months ago. That Broadway is not “back” and it won’t be coming back. In many ways that is good news, but we still deserve to mourn the loss before we shove its successor-in-progress into the footlights.

The Tonys should have been an opportunity to do just that. At their best they are theatre itself: a ritual, a place and an experience entwined, like a wedding or a funeral – one that gives those concerned a chance to recognize the past while clearing a path toward the future, together. But Broadway’s path has remained cluttered with the ghosts of 2019. Holding space for them is painful; we do it because we care, even when the care feels disrespected. There was perhaps no way to salvage the event to the satisfaction of all interested parties, but the takeaway here is stultifyingly familiar: it didn’t have to be this bad.

In another timeline, we laid the ghosts to rest last spring. It wasn’t in person, but it happened, with honor and without commercials. Rising stars were one letter closer to their EGOT, and had a whole extra year to leverage their new clout and build their careers. And when the industry re-opened, new shows were poised to sit comfortably, knowing their places were, if still precarious, at least not visited by the wraiths of former compatriots.

Instead, the powers that be tried to have it both ways. Now we have a wedding, of sorts, but the alter is a casket and the cake topper is a melted candle that once spelled out “It’s only intermission!”

Maybe I’ll be proved wrong. God, I hope so. Maybe the Tonys will follow the Emmys’ lead and add a few million unexpected viewers. Travel restrictions are loosening, and it looks like kids as young as five will be able to get vaccinated soon. Broadway is recovering. If you’re in New York and vaxed, you can see one of a dozen shows right now, with more on the way. Nearly all of them are selling heavily discounted tickets and running lotteries. In some ways, there’s never been a better time to catch a matinee. I’m seeing three this week alone. Good work deserves an audience, and regardless of who wins a statue on Sunday, the labor force of live theatre will never cease to astound me with their dedication. Attention must be paid.

It’s just a damn shame that currency feels so limited.

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