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Review: The 2020 Tony Awards - Broadway's Back?

A belated Tony presentation for the 2019-20 season reveals that Broadway still has a lot of work to do to get back in fighting shape.

Chita Rivera and Andrew Lloyd Webber prepare to present the Tony Award for Best Musical at the Winter Garden Theatre.
(© Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)

It was perhaps a bad omen that the preshow music for the 2020 Tony Awards was not anything from the three shows nominated for Best Musical, but an endless loop of an obscure (and possibly royalty-free) little ditty called "Broadway Lights." I listened to it at least five times as I waited for the livestream to commence on Paramount Plus. On and on it played, like imitation Bacharach in a stalled elevator to Hell — an apt metaphor for the state of the theater industry in 2021.

Because behind the proclamation of the triumphant return of Broadway (and there were many on Sunday) lingers real doubt about how this business will survive. Broadway needs the Tony Awards, especially right now. Last night was an opportunity to send a message to America, as Nettie does to Celie in the Act 1 finale of The Color Purple: "I want you to know, I love you, and I am not dead."

The first two hours (that is to say, the portion only available to Paramount Plus subscribers) were a good start: The show opened with the original cast of Hairspray singing "You Can't Stop the Beat," and host Audra McDonald offered a warm welcome to the live audience at the Winter Garden Theatre and to viewers around the globe.

Danny Burstein accepts the Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical for Moulin Rouge!, backed by presenters Ron Cephas Jones and John Lithgow.
(© Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)

Then she launched into the awards: David Allen Grier, sporting a big white beard, took home the first trophy for his excellent performance in A Soldier's Play. Moments later, Danny Burstein showed humility and grace in accepting his first Tony (of seven noms) when he thanked the community for showing up for his family following the death of his wife, Rebecca Luker. It was a beautiful moment that nearly caused McDonald to burst into tears as she thanked the accounting firm Deloitte in her following segment.

That might give you a sense the breakneck speed of the first half, in which all but three awards were announced. Ninety-year-old Lois Smith became the oldest person ever to win a Tony. Moulin Rouge! swept the musical design categories, while A Christmas Carol swept in the play design categories. Moulin Rouge! director Alex Timbers dedicated his win to his late collaborator Michael Friedman, and The Inheritance actor Andrew Burnap (who won Best Performance by a Lead Actor) took a swipe at his alma mater, "the artist formerly known as Yale School of Drama," which was recently renamed for billionaire David Geffen. In the greatest upset of the night, Mary-Louise Parker won for The Sound Inside, while Adrienne Warren won for Tina (as everyone expected). All gave a sigh of relief when Aaron Tveit won for Moulin Rouge!, sparing the presenters from having to announce that he had not made it past the 60 percent voter threshold in the uncontested category.

Lauren Patten accepts the Tony for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical for Jagged Little Pill, while presenters Santino Fontana and Patina Miller look on.
(© Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)

The greatest travesty of the evening came when Diablo Cody accepted the Tony for her overstuffed afterschool special of a book for Jagged Little Pill. Looking somewhat surprised, she thanked the usual people without making any mention of the controversies surrounding her show. That was left to Lauren Patten, the actor who plays "Jo," who accepted her Tony for featured performance by first thanking her trans and non-binary colleagues. It should have been a moment of exuberant joy for the actor, who absolutely deserves this win. Instead, dressed as Beetlejuice, she looked as though she was trying to placate a vengeful spirit.

Ali Stroker and Jennifer Nettles gave lovely vocal performances, but both were destined to be overshadowed by the return of Jennifer Holliday singing "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Dreamgirls. Her rendition of that same song during the 1982 awards is possibly the most-watched Tony performance ever, with millions of views on YouTube. Anticipating the moment, the audience at the Winter Garden rose to its feet before Holliday even finished, leaving them nowhere to go as she ended the song with her signature gasp and a dubious final note. One doubts the Winter Garden audience could hear that over their rapturous applause, though. It was a fair representation of how every Broadway show, good or bad, concludes these days.

Such quibbles aside, it was a zippy, joyous celebration of the truncated 2019-20 season. It proved that the whole thing can be completed in under two hours (there were 10 minutes to spare when McDonald signed off). And there was plenty of time for grateful acceptance speeches. Shockingly, it was turning out to be the most pleasant Tony Awards I've ever covered.

And then we switched over to CBS.

The second half started out well, with host Leslie Odom Jr. performing "Broadway's Back Tonight," a new number by Hairspray writers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, with Amber Ruffin (their Some Like It Hot collaborator). He sang, "It's a joy we can be in the very same place / And someday soon we'll see the bottom half of your face. / We want to stay safe and not in quarantine, / but you can't get a seat 'less you get the vaccine." Fair enough. I'm happily vaccinated with Moderna, and its apparently long-lasting potency makes me feel like I have armor in my veins. I'm more than ready to get back to Broadway!

The producers of the CBS broadcast of the Tonys, dubbed The Tony Awards Presents: Broadway's Back!, seemed to be operating from the assumption that all people really want to see from the Tonys is the performances, which is not incorrect. With only the "big three" awards (Best Musical, Best Play, and Best Revival of a Play) to present, the majority of time was dedicated to just that. Energetic presentations from American Utopia, Moulin Rouge!, and Ain't Too Proud (featuring John Legend) kept the show chugging along, and it reached its frenetic peak with a tap dance/spoken word performance by Daniel J. Watts and Jared Grimes in honor of the Broadway Advocacy Coalition.

But then the pace seemed to slacken with an indulgent rendition of "Move On" from Sunday in the Park With George featuring Ben Platt and Anika Noni Rose, and a positively catatonic performance of "Beautiful City" from Godspell featuring Leslie Odom Jr. and Josh Groban. Why wasn't this time used to promote shows that will actually be running on Broadway this fall? It didn't help matters that Odom and Groban began their number by talking up their education at Carnegie Mellon University, sending the message to theater kids everywhere that they too can be on Broadway if they are prepared to drop a quarter of a million dollars on drama school.

Well-deserved wins by Moulin Rouge! and The Inheritance weren't enough to revitalize an award show that had long overstayed its welcome. By the four-hour mark, after all of the trophies had been presented, it was hard to see exactly why everyone was still there. This was the kind of show you regret not leaving at intermission.

I hope I'm an outlier in that feeling. I hope that an unexpectedly high number of viewers tuned in on Sunday night, liked what they saw, and went online to buy tickets and book travel to New York. I hope that vaccine and mask requirements don't lead audiences to shy away from dropping hundreds of dollars on tickets until such restrictions are lifted. And I hope that the theater can continue its journey of self-reflection and reform without slipping into fashionable posturing and hypocritical moralizing. But I would be lying if I said that this year's Tony Awards left me with much rational basis for that hope.