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Last year’s Tony Awards were a little…peculiar. The show aired in September, instead of its typical June, and it honored a truncated 2019-2020 season that seemed light years away, due to the 17-month-long Covid shutdown. Ooh, those words still make me shudder — and crave sourdough for some reason. Plus, theaters had only just begun cautiously re-raising their curtains again a month before, in August. Aaron Tveit was the only person nominated in the Leading Actor in a Musical category. He won, as he should have, for his spectacular performance, but it wasn’t even a sure thing! Due to some rules tomfoolery — who is this Tom, btw? And how foolery can he be? — he could have actually lost…to himself. I digress. Slave Play broke a record nominations, but unfortunately didn’t bring a single award home. And then there was the ongoing battle with Covid, which led to the permanent closure of shows like West Side Story, a disaster that made the “Broadway’s Back!” theme feel like it had a question mark on the end instead of an exclamation point. And Broadway NEEDS those exclamation points! Red Mill! Oliver! Something Rotten! Oklahoma! Hello!?! (Dolly! Another one!!)
Which is why I’m over-the-moon (à la Maureen in Rent) to say that with Sunday’s 75th Tony Awards, Broadway is really, truly, seriously-this-time Back! Capital “B” very much intended: It’s Back at Radio City…Back on the air in its regular June slot…and I just nearly threw my Back out jumping for joy. Oh.
You might be saying to yourself, “But Neil, I haven’t been back to the Great White Way since the lights were turned back on after its long, sad Covid slumber, so how can I enjoy Sunday’s Tony show at 8pm ET on CBS and multiple streaming platforms?!” To that I’d reply, “Wow, that’s a deeply detailed, oddly formally-worded way to talk to yourself.” I’d also tell you, I got you. Don’t feel like you need to spend the next 96 hours binging cast albums on Spotify in order to get caught up on the year that was. (Though that would be a blissful 4 days.) I can do you one better. Enter: The Wondercade 2022 Tony Awards Cheat Sheet!
Marking 75 years of Broadway’s biggest night is no small matter, so let’s go curtains up and start with the marquee highlights you absolutely need to know, shall we? Not only is Academy Award-winner Ariana DeBose (of hamilton, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical and Spielberg’s West Side Story fame) hosting on Sunday night, but we’re getting a special one-hour pre-show courtesy of Darren Criss (one of my successors in Hedwig!) and Julianne Hough (who I can’t believe just made her Broadway debut this very year). Almost doubling last year’s Tonys, we have a total of 34 shows in contention this season, with A Strange Loop leading the musicals with 11 names and The Lehman Trilogy leading the plays with 8. So while things may look back to normal, there are more than a few intriguing wrinkles this time around.
How was Broadway able to open 34 new shows in this unconventional season? It’s because a whole bunch of them aren’t technically new new. Yes, this is the 2022 Tonys, but some of you may have caught productions like Company, Diana, Girl From the North Country, Hangmen, Mrs. Doubtfire, Six, The Lehman Trilogy and others over two years ago. All of those shows were up and running (some in previews, some officially open) when the Covid cancellation notice arrived on March 12, 2020, but hadn’t opened early enough to qualify for last September’s odd Tonys. Thankfully, they all came back. Others, like Ivo van Hove’s brooding West Side Story, didn’t. But we got Spielberg’s Hollywood take instead, and DeBose scored a well-deserved Oscar, so hard to complain.
This is not, however, a throwback Tonys. On the contrary, there are so many firsts I’m worried I’ll run out of time listing them all and the band will start playing me out…. Let’s begin with A Strange Loop, Michael R.Jackson‘s new musical, which already has a Pulitzer Prize. Now it’s achieved another milestone: L Morgan Lee, who plays one of the main character’s thoughts (as in, Thought 1), is the first openly transgender performer to receive a nomination (Featured Actress in a Musical). Elsewhere in the world of Black excellence, Lynn Nottage has become the first writer to get the nod for a musical (GMthe Michael Jackson jukebox extravaganza) and a play (Clyde’s) in the same season, and Camille A. Brown is the first person to score a Best Direction and Best Choreography name for the same play (the much-needed revival of for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf).
And now we come to my favorite part: the How to Wow at Your Tony Party With Fun Facts section of our cheat sheet. Even if you’ve not seen any of these shows, hell, even if you’ve never been to a Broadway show in your lifethere’s still a cornucopia of theatrical fun facts to be learned and recited on Sunday night while sipping themed cocktails (I’m thinking flying-over Tequila Sunsetor maybe The Music Manhattan…). This is a banner year for original musicals: It’s the first year since 1997 that three shows (A Strange Loop, Paradise Square, Six) up for Best Musical are not based on other material. Not only that, but there are simply a whole bunch more nominees in general: Usually there are 5 nominees in each category, but due to close races, 8 categories have more than 5 names. And who doesn’t like a TV-theater crossover? Be on the lookout for Alfie Allen (Theon Greyjoy from Game Of Thrones), Rachel Drach (tea SNL icon!), take me out stars jesse williams (Grey’s Anatomy) and my buddy Jesse Tyler Ferguson (an accomplished theater actor, but perhaps best-known for Modern Family), and Uzo Aduba (Orange Is the New Black) all of whom are up for acting awards.
Speaking of celebrities you maybe didn’t know had their jazz hands in the theatre, if A Strange Loop wins Best Musical (as it’s expected to), a who’s-who of Big Name producers will take home a Tony, including RuPaul, Don Cheadle, Alan Cumming, Mindy Kaling and Billy Porter. Oh, and Jennifer Hudson, who already has an Emmy, two Grammys and an Oscar. You know what that means? The biggest winner on Sunday may be her, as she’s primed for an EGOT.
But you know who the real winners are? You, me and everyone watching at home. Even Playbill-collecting diehards who live just blocks away from the 41 theaters that formally comprehend the Broadway community — another great party fact! — have trouble seeing every show that’s in contention, but the Tony Awards share them all with us on a silver platter (metaphorically, of course) through the small screen (also something of a metaphor because flatscreens these days are huuuuuge, amirite). Consider it all an appetizer before your next big theatrical feast in the Big Apple.
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