With all the uncertainty around Broadway right now, one thing’s for sure: The Tony Awards this year will be unlike any other. The 2021 ceremony comes just as Broadway has begun its recovery from the extended, unprecedented shutdown necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with theaters across midtown incorporating new safety protocols while keeping a wary eye on variants and breakthrough infections. Held at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre rather than the usual Radio City Music Hall, the show on Sept. 26 will be split into two parts, with the first half streamed on Paramount Plus and a second part, conceived as a splashy showcase for Broadway’s overall return, getting a network spotlight on CBS.
But when you talk to this year’s Tony nominees, you’ll find that all of them, from awards-circuit veterans to first-timers, recognize that the upcoming ceremony is significant for more than just vaccinations and streaming platforms. As Broadway’s first awards show in the wake of the reckoning over racial justice sparked by the uprisings in 2020, the Tonys will be viewed as a statement of purpose and a proof of commitment to the ideals the industry has spent the past several months claiming to embrace. This year’s event will not only announce that Broadway is back; it’ll reveal how it’s changed.
“I’ve always felt that unfortunately the Tony Awards could be reflective of a community that felt so removed from the national conversation,” says Katori Hall, the newly minted Pulitzer Prize-winner (“The Hot Wing King”) currently nominated for her book to the musical “Tina.” “What I think is going to be a good challenge for the Tony Awards to rise to, is to see if they can make a statement about how important theater is to our world. It’s this moment to show why theater is an art form we need to support and rally around.”
Several nominees acknowledge that a full transformation of the Tonys, and the industry it represents, won’t happen overnight. “The frustrating part is that only so much can change with institutions, no matter how much people’s current ideas have shifted,” says Jeremy O. Harris, whose “Slave Play” is up for 12 awards, a record for a non-musical.
Harris is focused instead on the satisfaction that will come from a long-delayed sense of closure. “So many artists feel like they’ve been living in an ellipsis for the last 20 months,” he says. “What I feel is no sense of thrill or hope or even anxiety about what Sept. 26 has for me. What I feel is just relief that I will be able to see my community of collaborators again, and exhilaration that there might be finally the time and space to celebrate all of the labor we did together.”
“To me, the Tony Awards represent a sense of continuity more than anything,” adds Blair Underwood, up for the lead actor award for his performance in “A Soldier’s Play.” “I think we’re all looking for some sense of normality and of how things used to be, while hopefully moving forward with an improved sense of enlightenment.”
“The Tonys are really a part of a cycle that was broken,” says Tali Pelman, the producer of “Tina,” nominated for 12 awards. “They’re symbolic of our survival. I think it will be a catharsis for us all.”
In addition to the anticipation of convening after a long isolation, many nominees are keenly aware that there will be people missing from the room.
“I’m so glad to see work starting again, but there are shows that weren’t able to,” says Tom Kitt, the composer nominated for his orchestrations to “Jagged Little Pill” (one of 15 noms for the show). “My heart is with all of those artists.”
Meanwhile, for audiences outside the Winter Garden auditorium, the Tonys will serve as the first post-shutdown advertisement for an industry still on shaky ground.
“This year it’s even more important than ever to be a commercial for Broadway,” says Aaron Tveit, whose lead actor in a musical nomination is one of 14 for “Moulin Rouge!” “The Tonys are going out around the world to say: ‘We’re back. Come see a show.’”
But striking the right tone will be a delicate balance. “Of course it’s a massive honor to be nominated, but it does feel as if it’s the wrong time to think that awards are the be-all and end-all when matters of life and death have been at the forefront,” notes Phyllida Lloyd, nominated for her direction of “Tina.”
The ceremony, then, will need to be about more than just the awards, and take stock of how the industry has changed and its plans to evolve further.
“If there’s one thing the last 18 months have taught us, it’s that we simply cannot go back to the way things were,” says nominee Diane Paulus, director of “Jagged Little Pill.” “This is so much larger than the theater, but if theater is the world we’re part of, we’ve got to model it inside our industry. Now that we’re reopening, it’s time for actions to take center stage, and the Tonys are part of that.”
Sonya Tayeh, nominated for her “Moulin Rouge!” choreography, hopes the Tonys highlight the healing potential of theater. “Art brings so many people together who otherwise may never be in the same room, and it brings about so many beautifully forced discussions that allow for evolution of thought,” she says. “The Tonys can be a hearty reminder to the world of how important that is.”
Many nominees also find themselves focused on inclusivity in new ways. “For me, I’m looking at the Tonys through a new lens of access and privilege and responsibility,” says Lauren Patten, nominated for featured actress in “Jagged Little Pill.” “If you’re privileged enough to be in that space, how can you show up for that responsibility? After all this time of not being able to be with anybody, it’s more essential than ever that everybody have access to this art form.”
Anthony Veneziale, co-founder of the Special Tony Award-winning hip-hop improv comedy troupe Freestyle Love Supreme, hopes the recognition for the group’s 2019 Broadway run might serve as one step toward further diversifying what’s on stage and who’s in the audience.
“With our shows we’re saying there are more stories, more perspectives that need to be centered,” he says. “Theater really is the vanguard of that idea in society, and if we can’t be the ones to center the voices that need to be heard right now, who can?”
For Ato Blankson-Wood, nommed for his performance in “Slave Play,” it also feels important for the Tonys to recognize the nominated work that was already asking questions about diversity, inclusivity and equity.
“I do think it’s really important to celebrate the work in this last season that was about shifting culture on Broadway,” he says. “Maybe the Tonys are an opportunity to dispel a lot of the fear that people have around change, and to say that we celebrate the change.”
For many of the nominees, the Tonys also represent the chance to proclaim their own values and call out the things that need to change.
“The Tonys are one of the biggest platforms you can have as an artist of color,” says “Tina” nominee Hall. “If you win and you have the opportunity to stand on that stage, what are you going to say?”
Artists Speak Out
Clint Ramos, Double nominee for Scenic Design of a Play, “Slave Play” and Costume Design of a Play, “The Rose Tattoo”
“I think as artists and as theater artists of color, the last year and a half has opened a chamber in our souls that I don’t think we can shut again and just continue to function the way we used to function. The Tony Awards is a very institutionalized opportunity to reflect on: How are we arbitrating excellence in our field? Who gets to do that?
“To be honest I’m dreading the Tonys, and I’m also excited by it. Because it is a new frontier, and now I’m looking at it through this sense of community and how are we defining that. The more I talk about it, the more I realize this could actually be a touchstone moment.
“I think we can’t forget that we are in a moment of deep, deep change and any discomfort we feel is actually good. I know that on the day itself, I’ll be experiencing a lot of discomfort. I think I have been shaken in a way that I cannot go back to not asking questions anymore. Change is going to happen whether we like it or not, whether we participate or not. I think the Tonys are an opportunity for us to really decide: Are we going to jump on it, or are we just going to be in stasis?
“I always say the Tonys are a celebration of what we love most, which is the American theater. In spite of everything, I declare my full abiding love for it. Perhaps that’s why I criticize it a lot — because I love it.”
Britton Smith, President and Founder, Broadway Advocacy Coalition, Winner of a 2021 Special Tony Award:
“We all love the Tonys. It’s our Oscars. It’s an opportunity to flex and celebrate our friends. But it’s also an opportunity to look in the audience to see who is flexing and what they look like. It’s mostly a white audience who can even get to the Tonys. I was never that critical before.
“I hope that this Tony Awards is an opportunity to look around and say: We have so much to celebrate after coming back, but people also need to understand how freaking critical it is to know who’s in the room. We’re all charged to be more aware of who’s included. I don’t think this Tonys will reflect that, but the next one should, and the one after that.
“Our Special Tony award feels so good. It’s a moment of overwhelming affirmation that our work and our voice and our methodology is needed in the industry. We’re being honored for redesigning a whole culture. That’s wild. I feel that.
“But when we’re in a room with so many people that want to celebrate us, we have to do the thing where we remind people about why we all came together in the first place. Don’t forget that George Floyd died. That’s the reason we know you all. Don’t forget that in June 2020, y’all signed this pledge.
It’s exciting to have that be so loud. I would love for Broadway to think about everything like the Tonys, every one of the platforms that are loud, to think about them as a weapon of change and a tool for evolution.”