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Long-delayed Tony Awards herald theater’s return

New York Daily News logo New York Daily News 9/26/2021 Tim Balk, New York Daily News
From left, American Theatre Wing Chair Emilio Sosa, American Theatre Wing President Heather Hitchens, and The Broadway League President Charlotte St. Martin speak onstage during the 74th Annual Tony Awards at Winter Garden Theatre on Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, in New York City. © Theo Wargo/Getty Images North America/TNS From left, American Theatre Wing Chair Emilio Sosa, American Theatre Wing President Heather Hitchens, and The Broadway League President Charlotte St. Martin speak onstage during the 74th Annual Tony Awards at Winter Garden Theatre on Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, in New York City.

NEW YORK — The “best revival” could be Broadway itself.

The 74th annual Tony Awards Sunday will carry a double dose of meaning. The ceremony at the Winter Garden Theatre won’t simply honor the pre-pandemic Broadway theater season that was cut short in March 2020, it will seek to draw attention to the Theater District as it awakens from its coronavirus slumber.

“This has been a long haul for all of us,” said Heather Hitchens, chief executive of the American Theatre Wing, which created the Tonys in 1947. “This is going to be an amazing coming-together of the community.”

After Broadway’s longest shutdown ever, a more than 16-month blackout, playhouses have cautiously cast open their doors in recent weeks.

“Pass Over,” a modern spin on “Waiting for Godot” circling racism, led the charge when it launched previews on Aug. 4. And a handful of beloved musicals — “Chicago,” “Hamilton,” “The Lion King” and “Wicked” — burst back onto the stage on Sept. 14, a major media event that made Midtown hum like old times, if only for a night.

Theater remains far from normal. Masks and vaccine cards are mandatory at shows, and Broadway faces a mighty challenge posed by the delta coronavirus variant and the reduced flow of tourists in New York. Before the pandemic, visitors from outside the tri-state area made up almost two-thirds of ticket-buyers.

It’s unclear if the Theater District will roar back, or fall on its face. But early ticket sales have been strong, according to the Broadway League, the industry’s trade group.

And with more than a dozen shows now playing, and an eclectic and exciting season on the way, theater workers hope the Tonys will give their industry a shot in the arm. Broadway plans to have launched 38 productions by year’s end, many of them new.

“It’s really so exciting to see all of the brilliant work that has come out of the last 18 months,” said Kathryn Gallagher, who is nominated for best featured actress in a musical for her role in “Jagged Little Pill,” adding that “the thing about artists is even when you don’t have a stage, you never stop creating, whether there’s an audience or not.”

On Sunday, Broadway will welcome the return of its audience. But don’t expect your father’s Tony Awards.


Video: Broadway Gears Up For The Tony Awards (CBS New York)

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The concert-powered TV event, titled “The Tony Awards Present: Broadway’s Back!” and set for 9 p.m. on CBS, will only include the presentation of three prestigious awards: best play, best revival of a play and best musical, according to organizers. Leslie Odom Jr. is hosting.

The rest of the hardware will be handed out during a streaming two-hour presentation starting at 7 p.m. and appearing on Paramount+, with Audra McDonald, the versatile six-time Tony winner, at the helm.

Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League, said the streaming platform will allow outside viewers to see the presentation of every award for the first time in years. Hitchens added: “We want to elevate and celebrate in as many ways as we can.”

Eighteen productions from the 2019-2020 season were eligible for trophies, about half as many as in the previous year, when 34 shows vied for awards.

“Jagged Little Pill,” the smash Alanis Morissette musical broaching sexuality, drug addiction, race and consent, hauled in a field-topping 15 nominations. Other shows that shined in the nomination process included the jukebox musical “Moulin Rouge!” (14 nominations), the buzzy and bold “Slave Play” (12) and the frenetic “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” (12).

“The Inheritance,” an ambitious play about gay culture, scored 11 nominations. “A Soldier’s Play,” which tackles racism in the military and featured a powerful performance from Blair Underwood, picked up seven. And an immersive and musical take on “A Christmas Carol” landed five.

While the true theater buffs can pore over the particulars — like an amusing clipped-season wrinkle that left Aaron Tveit as the lone nominee for best leading actor in a musical — the broader TV audience will largely be spared the awards drama.

The shift in focus represents a tacit acknowledgment that Broadway is looking forward, and focusing on marketing, after the COVID-19 nightmare.

Over the course of the blanket closure, Broadway lost an estimated $35 million in gross revenue each week. Forty-one playhouses gathered dust. Performers languished and waited.

The day the lights went dark on Broadway and COVID’s devastating impact on theater »

Now, at long last, footlights are illuminating, curtains are rising and theaters are filling.

“It’s been phenomenal, just this feeling of being in a room with other people,” said Underwood, who is nominated for best leading actor in a play. “It feeds the soul.”

As the Tonys rejoice in the return, an army of powerful performers are slated to perform, including “Wicked” star Idina Menzel, “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and EGOT winner John Legend.

Broadway’s road back to true revival might prove rocky. But it will hit a major checkpoint on Sunday.

“Most everybody walking around Times Square are about a foot off the ground, because they can feel the excitement,” St. Martin said. “We’re certainly looking for the Tony Awards to let those people that aren’t as close to New York know that Broadway is back.”

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