Best and Worst Moments of the 76th Tony Awards

This post was originally published on NY Times – Theater
Jesse GreenMaya PhillipsElisabeth VincentelliLaura Collins-HughesAlexis Soloski and

With a clever opening number and repeated support for striking writers, the Tonys celebrated Broadway’s shows, performers and creative teams.

I’m live and unscripted,” Ariana DeBose, the host of this year’s Tony Awards, said at the start of Sunday night’s show. An out-of-breath DeBose had just danced her way around the majestic United Palace theater, joined by dancers and musicians in a wordless opening number that began with her backstage, paging through a binder labeled “Script” filled with blank pages, and then gradually making her way onto the stage. It was a thrilling start to a night that almost didn’t happen because of the ongoing screenwriters’ strike. We didn’t get the scripted banter, but we did get a ceremony that looked great and delighted in working around some of the limits posed by the strike. Here are the highs and lows as our writers saw them. (NICOLE HERRINGTON)

A real feeling of community

Men and women are standing close together and singing onstage. The men are dressed as soldiers, and the women are wearing long brightly colored dresses (in hues of yellow, pink and purple).
The medieval residents of “Camelot” during a production number on Sunday. Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Previous Tonys telecasts have often wasted their “bumpers” — the gaps between the end of a big performance or award and the commercials that follow — with unconvincing scripted nonsense. Guess what? No script, no nonsense. At this year’s ceremony, a camera merely scanned the collision backstage between those who had just finished belting their butts off (like the medieval residents of “Camelot”) and those about to go into battle (like the Elizabethans of “& Juliet”). You could see at a glance the love among performers in different shows, whom we often think of as opposing football teams. With hugs, high fives, hooting and sometimes mime — have to be careful with those vocal cords, after all — they demonstrated in visual shorthand that the “community” Broadway people are always talking about is real. JESSE GREEN

The performer Alex Newell, who is wearing a gold gown, is speaking into a microphone.
Alex Newell accepting the Tony Award for featured actor in a musical, “Shucked.”Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
The performer J. Harrison Ghee is standing onstage in a blue dress, holding up one hand and a Tonys statuette in the other hand.
J. Harrison Ghee accepting the Tony Award for best performance by an actor in a leading role in a musical, “Some Like It Hot.”Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Perhaps the only thing comparable to the absolute delight that is Alex Newell’s performance in “Shucked,” brimming with spicy line reads and downright blazing vocals, is Newell’s Tony win for best featured actor in a musical. The award was presented by Tatiana Maslany and Wilson Cruz, who shouted out the L.G.B.T.Q. community for Pride Month. That was fitting for a win by, in Newell’s words, a “queer, nonbinary, fat little baby from Massachusetts.” The night got even better when J. Harrison Ghee of “Some Like It Hot” won for best leading actor in a musical. Newell and Ghee are the first openly nonbinary performers to win acting Tonys. In an industry that has been so historically defined and bolstered by queer artists, and for an awards show that lacks a way of honoring people who don’t fit into one of the two prescribed gender categories, it’s heartening to see these stunning performers make history. MAYA PHILLIPS

Beaten by a piano

The performer Sean Hayes is talking into a microphone onstage. He is wearing a black tuxedo and holding a Tony statuette.
Sean Hayes won his first Tony for portraying the witty but troubled pianist Oscar Levant in “Good Night, Oscar.”Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

No disrespect to Sean Hayes, who won the Tony for best performance by an actor in a play. And I guess he did give the best piano performance, pounding out parts of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” at the climax of “Good Night, Oscar.” But I have to say that Corey Hawkins in “Topdog/Underdog” was at least as thrilling even without a Steinway, and Stephen McKinley Henderson, in “Between Riverside and Crazy,” was unforgettable. His portrayal of a cranky, crafty former police officer with a great apartment and a wicked secret was one for the ages. It’s a shame that after decades of service in small, priceless, often unheralded character roles, he got the chance to own the whole stage, only to be skunked by a little Gershwin. JESSE GREEN

A win for inclusivity 

The performer Bonnie Milligan is wearing a purple sequined dress. She is holding up a white piece of paper in her right hand and a Tony award in her left.
“You belong somewhere,” said Bonnie Milligan, who plays a grifter in “Kimberly Akimbo” and won the Tony for best featured actress in a musical.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Bonnie Milligan, who is known for her belting and wide vocal range, took home her first Tony Award on Sunday night and used her acceptance speech to decry size discrimination and other types of bias in the theater industry. “I want to tell everybody that doesn’t maybe look like what the world is telling you you should look like, whether you’re not pretty enough, you’re not fit enough, your identity is not right, who you love isn’t right — that doesn’t matter, because guess what?” she said. “It’s right, and you belong somewhere.” SARAH BAHR

Most years, the live performances at the Tony Awards simply aren’t the highlights that they ought to be. In past ceremonies, the performance capture has suffered from wonky camera placement and nonsensical moves between close-ups and wide shots. This year, the musical numbers were pure confection, ferociously sung (Jordan Donica!) and elegantly and judiciously filmed. In a few cases — “New York, New York,” significantly — the numbers looked even more seductive and sumptuous onscreen than they had onstage. ALEXIS SOLOSKI

A man is standing at a microphone giving a speech.
The composer John Kander was honored with a Tony for Lifetime Achievement. He has written the score for 16 Broadway musicals, from “A Family Affair” in 1962 to “New York, New York,” which opened in April.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

The composer John Kander is a titan of the musical theater and he deservedly received a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater. Yet that was part of a preshow that streamed on the streaming service Pluto TV, not the main telecast on CBS. Kander’s big moment should have been part of the main event, especially since he rose to the occasion with a lovely speech that started with a nod to his parents, who urged him to “consider the possibility of happiness.” Making matters worse, he and Joel Grey, who had also received his Lifetime Achievement award during that earlier segment, were brought out for a brief appearance in prime time that felt almost random. ELISABETH VINCENTELLI

A man is holding up a white sheet of paper and a Tony Award while speaking into a microphone. He is wearing a black tuxedo.
Beowulf Boritt accepting the Tony Award for best scenic design of a musical, for “New York, New York.”Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Tony voters struck a perfect equilibrium with the awards for scenic design. Beowulf Boritt won for the musical “New York, New York,” a big, buoyant throwback of a show whose aesthetic is decidedly classic Broadway.

“There’s no video wall in ‘New York, New York,’” he assured the audience, which sounded glad to hear it. “It is good, old-fashioned paint on canvas.”

But the very next award, for scenic design of a play, went to the set designer Tim Hatley and the video designer Andrzej Goulding for “Life of Pi,” which casts its surreal spell with an intricate, near-magical overlay of video on a clever physical set.

Recognizing such different kinds of excellence, the Tonys gracefully embraced both tradition and tradition-breaking. LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES

A woman and a young man are sitting on bean bags onstage. They are dressed casually and singing.
Victoria Clark and Justin Cooley sang “Anagram” from “Kimberly Akimbo” at the Tonys. Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Conventional wisdom holds that you need to go big when presenting a number at the Tonys. But the excerpt from “Kimberly Akimbo” was “Anagram,” a quiet song led by Victoria Clark that highlights not just the score’s melodic, aching grace, but the way Clark subtly acts out her character’s emotions. This strategy echoed the decision to have Sydney Lucas’s “Ring of Keys” represent “Fun Home” (another show scored by Jeanine Tesori) at the 2015 Tonys. That daring approach was widely seen as paying off at the time, charming telecast viewers into discovering the show. I can only hope the same will happen for “Kimberly Akimbo.” ELISABETH VINCENTELLI

A man wearing a black tuxedo accepts an award and talks into a microphone.
The director Patrick Marber, wearing a pro-union badge, accepting the Tony Award for best direction of a play, “Leopoldstadt.” Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

“I hate to complain,” Patrick Marber said with a charming hint of mischief, accepting the Tony for best direction of a play: “Leopoldstadt” by Tom Stoppard.

“But did you notice how, when the actors’ names were mentioned for their prizes,” Marber asked, “the camera went to them, and they smiled, and they said ‘Hello, Mum,’ and they got a little private moment of glory? Not so the directors! No one wants to see our ugly faces — not even the director of this show.”

It was the right call, he conceded good-humoredly; directors “belong in the dark, we belong backstage.”

What a missed opportunity, though, and not only because aficionados want to know what directors look like so they can spot them at the theater. The actor Lupita Nyong’o, who presented the award, wore a beautiful, curling design traced on her bare scalp — which would have made a perfect visual complement to the tattooed head of the director Jamie Lloyd, nominated for “A Doll’s House.” LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES

A man and a woman are posing on a carpet. The woman is wearing a long pink dress and the man is wearing a black suit.
The playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and her husband, Christian Konopka, before the ceremony.Credit…Angela Weiss/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
A man is posing in a pink suit. He is shirtless.
Myles Frost won his first Tony Award last year for his Broadway debut as Michael Jackson in the musical “MJ.”Credit…Evan Agostini/Invision, via Associated Press

The carpet was fuchsia this year, and the backdrop had the feel of lush foliage. Then came the Broadway stars, parading a sea of pinks, blues and golds. Pink it was for the “Topdog/Underdog” playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and last year’s best actor in a musical winner, Myles Frost, who made his shirtless look work. The comedian and writer Amber Ruffin, who co-wrote the book for “Some Like It Hot,” and the “Kimberly Akimbo” best actress winner, Victoria Clark, opted for strapless gowns in shades of blue, as did the “Some Like It Hot” Tony-winner J. Harrison Ghee, who looked radiant with a dramatic collar, long gloves and a neck bedazzled in necklaces. MADISON MALONE KIRCHER and MINJU PAK

Two men, standing side by side, are smiling as they talk into a microphone.
Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, riffing as they presented an award at the Tonys.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

No one turns to the Tonys for scripted banter. The lack of comebacks and skits, a necessary sacrifice to the writers’ strike, meant that the ceremony — impossibly — ended on time. But while a skilled improviser like the “Freestyle Love Supreme” alum Utkarsh Ambudkar could easily ad-lib a laugh line (he introduced himself as Marcia Gay Harden), other presenters floundered when invited to supply their own material. Even a gifted clown like Nathan Lane struggled, first with an “is it hot in here” riff and then with a groaner comparing the United Palace, a former “Wonder Theater” movie palace, to “Beyoncé’s screening room.” ALEXIS SOLOSKI


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