Tony Awards 2021: ‘Moulin Rouge!’ ‘The Inheritance,’ ‘A Soldier’s Play’ Big Winners in Emotional Show

'Slave Play' Shut Out Despite Record Number of Nominations.

Moulin Rouge! The Musical
Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

“Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” a stage adaptation of the poplar movie, dominated an unorthodox and highly emotional 74th Annual Tony Awards on Sunday, winning ten prizes, including the statue for best musical (full winner’s list here). Matthew Lopez’s “The Inheritance,” a sprawling epic about the AIDS crisis, won four statues and was honored as best play, while Charles Fuller’s “A Soldier’s Play,” a murder mystery that unspools during segregation, was named the best revival of a play.

In a stunning upset, Jeremy O. Harris’ “Slave Play,” a provocative look at racism, gender and sexuality that was embraced by critics and received 12 nominations, a record for a non-musical, was entirely shut out. Among the other major awards-winners, “A Christmas Carol” earned five prizes, all of them in technical categories.

The four-hour event unspooled on both broadcast television and the Paramount Plus streaming platform. It served as both a commemoration of the best of Broadway and a salute to the return of live theater after 18 months of COVID-19 shutdowns. In fact, many of the shows that were nominated closed more than a year ago. “Slave Play,” for instance, played its final performance on January 19, 2020 at a time when much of the world was just waking up to the threat posed by the novel coronavirus.

The second part of the evening, the one that unspooled on CBS, was billed as “The Tony Awards Present: Broadway’s Back!” and featured performances from the likes of “Freestyle Love Supreme,” “David Byrne’s American Utopia,” “Moulin Rouge!” and “Jagged Little Pill.” Leslie Odom, Jr. hosted the concert portion of the night while Audra McDonald emceed the earlier ceremony, a marathon affair in which more than 20 statues were handed out, along with performances by the likes of Jennifer Holliday, belting “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from “Dreamgirls” and Matthew Morrison and Marissa Jaret Winokur singing “You Can’t Stop the Beat” from “Hairspray.”

“You can’t stop the beat of Broadway, the heart of New York City,” McDonald said in her introductory remarks. “I’ve always thought of the Tonys as Broadway’s prom, but tonight it feels like a homecoming.”

The idea that “Broadway’s Back!” might be more wishful than factual. Certain shows have reopened, such as “Hamilton” and “The Lion King,” and other major productions such as “Six” and “The Lehman Trilogy” will welcome audiences in the coming weeks, but the tourism industry, which provides the bulk of ticket sales, is still sluggish. Many producers and insiders believe the recovery will be a gradual one, particularly if Delta and other variants continue to delay the U.S.’s economic rebound. Throughout the evening there were nods to the new pandemic reality, with audience members remaining masked throughout the broadcast.

One winner was virtually assured of victory before the final votes were tallied. “Moulin Rouge’s” Aaron Tveit was the only nominee in the best leading actor in a musical category and managed to triumph over the complete lack of other nominees. There were plenty of surprises and upsets, however. Mary Louise Parker nabbed best leading actress in a play for “The Sound Inside,” besting the heavily favored Joaquina Kalukango (“Slave Play”) and Laura Linney (“My Name Is Lucy Barton”). “The Inheritance’s” Stephen Daldry also nabbed a best director prize, his third, over fierce competition from the likes of Kenny Leon (“A Soldier’s Play”) and Robert O’Hara (“Slave Play”). While Andrew Burnap, who starred as a callous playwright in “The Inheritance,” beat out such major stars as Jake Gyllenhaal (“Sea Wall/A Life”), Tom Hiddleston (“Betrayal”) and Blair Underwood (“A Soldier’s Play”) to win best leading actor in a play. As expected, Adrienne Warren nabbed the best leading actress in a musical prize for her chameleonic performance in the title role of “Tina – The Tina Turner Musical.”

“Moulin Rouge!” earned honors for its director Alex Timbers, as well as for its scenic design, costume, lighting, sound design, and orchestrations. “Jagged Little Pill,” which is inspired by Alanis Morissette’s mega-selling album of the same name, earned two prizes, for Diablo Cody’s book and for Lauren Patten’s supporting performance. The show has been embroiled in a controversy in recent days after two former cast members accused the show’s producers of inflicting harm “to the trans and non-binary community” and alleged that stage management and key creatives were not receptive to concerns about their healthcare.

Patten appeared to acknowledge the furor in her speech. “I believe that the future for the change we need to see on Broadway comes from these kinds of conversations that are full of honesty and empathy and respect for our shared humanity,” she said. “And I am so excited to see the action that comes from them, and to see where that leads our future as theater artists.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 26: Danny Burstein accepts the award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical for "Moulin Rouge! The Musical" onstage during the 74th Annual Tony Awards at Winter Garden Theatre on September 26, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)

Several venerable performers finally earned Tonys after many missed opportunities. David Allen Grier won a best featured actor in a play award after three previous nominations for his work as a corrosive sergeant in “David Alan Grier, “A Soldier’s Play,” while 90-year-old Lois Smith made history as the oldest acting winner ever for her work in “The Inheritance.” She’d had two previous nominations and quoted the novelist E.M. Forster’s whose novel “Howard’s End” inspired the play, urging viewers to “only connect.” And Danny Burstein finally took home a statue in his seventh try for “Moulin Rouge!” Burstein, who was hospitalized with COVID-19 in 2020 and whose wife Rebecca Luker died of ALS in December, thanked the Broadway community for bolstering the spirits of his family.

“You all showed up for us,” he said. You were there for us whether you just sent a note or sent your prayers, sent bagels. It meant the world to us, and it’s something I’ll never forget. I love being an actor on Broadway.”

The broadcast made frequent references to the public health crisis that devastated the theater industry, but that wasn’t the only indication of how much has changed since Broadway was operating at full strength. The broadcast also acknowledged the social justice movement that sprang up in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and which has put pressure on theater producers to back more stories featuring performers of color that are made by writers and creators of color. Winners like “Moulin Rouge” choreographer Sonya Tayeh urged the industry to promote more diverse talent, while a special Tony was awarded to the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, a group that is pushing the theater business to be more equitable.

“Our team and our founders who vision to make an industry better that wasn’t even built for us, we all owe them a huge round of applause and thank you,” said Britton Smith, president of the Broadway Advocacy Coalition. “My biggest worry is that when we come back to the machine, when Broadway comes back, that opening will close and push out empathy and push out challenge, but this award is evidence that moving forward requires calling out.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 26: Kenny Leon (L) accepts the award for Best Revival of a Play for "A Soldier's Play" during the 74th Annual Tony Awards at Winter Garden Theatre on September 26, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)

Accepting the award for best play revival, “A Soldier’s Play” director Kenny Leon was even more forceful about the need for meaningful change.

“The table needs to be bigger,” he said. “When we hear all of the stories, we are better. Let’s do better.”