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Will the Tonys Be Canceled? Broadway’s Biggest Night Might Not Happen in 2020 (EXCLUSIVE)

Jagged Little Pill Broadway
Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

For the past seven decades, the show has always gone on for the Tony Awards, which honor the best Broadway performances and productions. But with the 74th edition being postponed from its planned June 7 date due to the coronavirus, there’s a real chance that the ceremony will be scrapped altogether this year, multiple sources tell Variety.

As the future of Broadway remains uncertain — with a deserted Times Square and tourists steering clear of Manhattan — insiders say that discussions by the committee that plans the Tonys have come to a “standstill.”

Part of the reason for a cancellation would be logistics. While Tony voters and the awards’ 54-member nominating committee are asked to see musicals and plays when they open, not everyone can keep up. Thus, April is usually a period when voters cram in the shows they missed, which wasn’t possible this year after 31 musicals and plays abruptly went dark on March 12 to prevent the spread of the virus. The same goes for the larger body of Tony voters, who decide who takes home the statues after the nominating committee whittles down the potential candidates to a handful of contenders.

A representative for Tony Award Productions — the joint venture from the Broadway League and American Theatre Wing, which plans the Tonys — declined the comment.

The fate of the Tonys is more complicated than that of other awards shows. Unlike the Oscars or the Emmys, the purpose of the Tonys is to encourage audiences to leave their homes and buy tickets to live theater, an impossible mission when mass gatherings are banned.

And yet, much of the theater community believes that it’s important to honor the best productions of the 2019-20 season. Otherwise, front-runners such as “Moulin Rouge!,” “Jagged Little Pill,” “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” “Slave Play” and “The Inheritance” will be robbed of the awards they had a good chance of winning.

“The Tonys must go on this season — in some form — because the blood, sweat, tears and full-on passion it takes to make theater simply deserves it,” says Montego Glover (“Memphis”), who was nominated for best actress in a musical in 2010 and whose play “All the Natalie Portmans” is among those that stopped.

Adds producer Justin Mikita (“Torch Song”): “The spirit of the Tonys will remind theatergoers of the love that comes from live performance, and will give hope to those affected by the crisis. The Tonys bring immense joy to theater people across the globe — so please, at least for one night, let us remember to sing, dance and celebrate.”

But the obstacles to holding an awards show when Broadway is dark will be difficult to overcome. While there could be a way to award statues over Zoom, with singers gathering as they did for Stephen Sondheim’s 90th-birthday celebration, there would be no way to translate buzz from the event into ticket sales. Some Broadway producers may be wary of devoting time, resources and money to staging COVID-19-safe production numbers, because with theaters closed, they won’t be able to realize any return on their investment. According to sources, CBS, which broadcasts the telecast, hasn’t expressed interest in a lo-fi version of the show. (A representative from CBS didn’t respond to a request for comment, but a source with knowledge of the network’s internal discussions says that a Zoom version of the Tonys has yet to be pitched.) 

If the Tonys don’t happen this year, the next logical step would be to combine the next two seasons for a single ceremony — possibly in the summer of 2021. That would put some musicals and plays at a disadvantage, given that they’d have to live on in voters’ minds for another 12 months, or possibly longer. Even if the ceremony is delayed until next year, many productions that were expected to be major contenders won’t get a chance to shine. The producers of Martin McDonagh’s “Hangmen” and a revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” closed their shows before they even got out of previews and don’t plan to reopen when Broadway does. The fate of other highly anticipated shows, such as “Mrs. Doubtfire: The Musical” and “The Lehman Trilogy,” is unclear.

A third option is also on the table. If productions return in the fall or winter, there has been talk of hosting a general celebration of Broadway — with numbers from past musicals (think “Avenue Q” or “Les Misérables”) by star-studded crooners. While plans are still being drawn, in one scenario, the singers would perform live in a single Broadway house after agreeing to a voluntary period of self-isolation to make sure that they aren’t contagious. Statues could still be awarded, but such a show would be more focused on the reopening of Broadway, to ease the nerves of the public. That the hybrid ceremony might coincide with the awards’ 75th anniversary would add to their luster, proponents say.

“My thoughts on the Tony Awards are a bit different,” says Jeannette Bayardelle, who was set to co-star in “The Girl From the North Country.” “During this time, I feel Broadway as a whole should be celebrated — every show and every performer. We managed to survive being in the epicenter of the pandemic.”