The Tony Awards Show Must Go On

The Show Must Go On

The 2020 Tony Award nominations were announced on October 15 on a YouTube Livestream featuring James Monroe Iglehart. The magnetic Broadway star (a 2014 Tony winner for Aladdin, seen most recently as Lafayette and Jefferson in Hamilton) began by asserting, “History has shown us that every great society has had theatre at its core.” But if the year 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that historical precedent is no guarantee for the present.

“Theatre has always and will always survive,” Iglehart continued. “Theatre is constant.” These are uplifting words, but what do they mean, in a year that has seen an unprecedented total shutdown, not just of the industry but also of the art form? Theatre artists have created plenty of dazzling work in 2020, to be sure, but if it’s not presented live before an in-person audience, is it theatre?

Tony Awards in the New Normal

The Tony Awards, an institution concerned exclusively with Broadway, can sidestep that question. Even if plays via Zoom are theatre, they’re not Broadway theatre—which, by definition, takes place in a number of professional houses (currently 41) with 500 seats or more, located near (or, in rare cases, on) Broadway, between 41st and 54th Streets (plus Lincoln Center). That kind of theatre—the kind eligible for Tony Awards—has been dormant since March 12, the beginning of a “dramatic pause” initially expected to last only 32 days.

In the early spring, haunted by the pandemic’s New York peak, the question of whether there would be Tony Awards this year seemed trivial as well as unlikely. But recently, the American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League have been taking steps toward awarding Tonys to Broadway productions, which were running prior to the shutdown. The announcement of nominations has been the most significant step thus far; no ceremony date or other specifics have been disclosed, though a virtual event in December is expected.

To ensure that award eligibility would be extended only to productions which Tony voters had had a fair chance to see, the Tonys decided to consider only shows which had opened by February 19. This eliminated some which had opened between February 20 and March 12, including two high-profile musicals, the Bob Dylan songbook show Girl From the North Country and Ivo van Hove’s revival of West Side Story; as well as several plays and musicals which had yet to open.

Musicals

The abbreviated season accounts for most of the idiosyncrasies in the nominations. Only one musical with an original score opened on Broadway during the eligibility period, but the Tonys declined to nominate The Lightning Thief. Therefore, for the first time, every Best Original Score nomination is for background or incidental music in a non-musical play. The nominating committee is responding to the pandemic and, apparently, to its own low opinion of The Lightning Thief. Compare this to 1995, when only two new musicals were nominated for Tonys, and only one had an original score. (Sunset Boulevard, the only nominee in the category, won.) The same dynamic is emerging this season in another category, Best Actor in a Musical, where the sole nominee (Aaron Tveit in Moulin Rouge) would seem to have a lock.

Tveit’s nomination’s singularity isn’t just because of the shutdown; the Tonys judged that the season’s other eligible musicals (The Lightning Thief, again, excluded) lacked male characters substantial enough to be considered leads. The Best Actress and Best Featured Actor and Actress musical categories are relatively well-stocked with nominees from Jagged Little PillMoulin Rouge, and Tina: The Tina Turner Musical. Best Actress in a Musical is a genuinely competitive category, with three nominees who are stage favorites giving acclaimed performances: Karen Olivo (Moulin Rouge), Elizabeth Stanley (Jagged Little Pill), and Adrienne Warren (Tina), who is thought to have an edge.

Not a single musical revival is eligible for Tonys this year, which eliminates an entire category. The three musicals which have received nominations are all variations on the jukebox approach: Jagged Little Pill (15 nominations) uses the songs of Alanis Morissette to tell an original story (book by Diablo Cody); Moulin Rouge (13 nominations) is an adaptation of a film which is, itself, a jukebox musical; and Tina (12 nominations) is a pop songbook bio-musical.

Plays

Over on the non-musical side, the season looks more like old times. There’s a higher number of eligible shows and at least one cultural phenomenon. Jeremy O. Harris’s provocative Slave Play garnered 12 nominations, the most ever for a non-musical play (besting the previous record of ten nominations, held by the 2018 revival of Angels in America). Slave Play’s rivals in the Best Play category are Grand Horizons, The Inheritance, Sea Wall/A Life, and The Sound Inside—a list that doesn’t seem unlike what we’d see in a “normal” Broadway season. 

The straight acting categories also have the ring of the familiar: a healthy mix of film and television stars who know their way around a stage (Laura Linney in My Name is Lucy Barton, Jake Gyllenhaal in Sea Wall/A Life, Mary-Louise Parker in The Sound Inside); theatrical superstars (David Alan Grier in A Soldier’s Play, Lois Smith in The Inheritance, Audra McDonald in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune), and emerging stars (Joaquina Kalukango, Ato Blankson-Wood, James Cusati-Moyer, Chalia La Tour, and Annie McNamara in Slave Play).

Strength Through Stillness

Perhaps the most warmly-received nomination of the season within the New York theatre community is for Danny Burstein’s featured performance in Moulin Rouge—but not just because his performance was well-loved. But because he’s still waiting for a Tony after seven nominations and wrote eloquently about the coronavirus in a much-circulated essay published by the Hollywood Reporter in April. Moulin Rouge was the first Broadway show to close its doors due to COVID-19 after a company member tested positive. Burstein’s case was severe and persistent; he was hospitalized and unsure whether he would survive.

As Burstein writes in his essay, the experience taught him “strength through stillness”—a good description of the New York theatre world during this long march through uncharted territory.