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Why the Tony triumph of 'A Strange Loop' is momentous for Broadway

LA Times logo LA Times 6/13/2022 Charles McNulty

Michael R. Jackson's "A Strange Loop" received more Tony nominations than any other show in Broadway's 2021-22 season, but Tony voters are a fickle lot. Recall what happened to Jeremy O. Harris' "Slave Play" last year. Nominated for 12 awards, a record for a drama, the production went home empty-handed.

That didn't happen at Sunday's Tony Awards, but it seemed a case of deja vu until late in the show when Jackson won for book of a musical. True redemption, however, came at the very end when "A Strange Loop" took home the evening's biggest prize, best musical.

This victory is significant not only because this unapologetically Black, queer musical (winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for drama) is a stunning artistic achievement. The show represents a breakthrough for what kind of stories can be successfully presented on Broadway stages.

The Tony Award ceremony, which streamed the first hour on Paramount+ (hosted by Darren Criss and Julianne Hough) followed by a three-hour broadcast on CBS (hosted by Oscar-winner Ariana DeBose), showcased a season of impressive diversity. Anyone tuning in couldn’t fail to notice the way the margins of the Broadway community have moved closer to the center.

The first award of the evening (shown online) featured the first nonbinary composer-lyricist to win a Tony, Toby Marlow, who, collaborating with Lucy Moss on "Six: The Musical," shared the prize for original score. Soon after, Montana Levi Blanco paid tribute to Mexican American single mothers when accepting his Tony for costume design for "The Skin of Our Teeth."

DeBose, proud to be hosting the main event at a time when "theater is becoming more reflective of the community that adores it," may have said it best when she optimistically remarked that the "Great White Way is becoming more of a nickname as opposed to a how-to guide."

Yet the battle for the soul of Broadway rages on. And this last year, the first nearly full season since COVID-19 darkened Broadway's doors in March 2020, has been a testing ground for new producing possibilities.

Operating under a cloud of pandemic uncertainty, the season took its time to kick into gear. New protocols were adopted to reassure theater workers and audiences that it was safe to come back. A milestone was marked when "The Lion King," "Wicked" and "Hamilton" all returned in September 2021, but a Greek alphabet of variants wreaked havoc, sidelining stars, postponing performances and making understudies and swings the unsung heroes of the American theater.

One advantage of the soft launch was that it encouraged Broadway producers to live up to their promises for more inclusive programming and practices. Risks were taken in the name of equity that in previous seasons likely would have been seen as financially unworkable.

Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu's "Pass Over," a riff on Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" from the perspective of two Black men passing the time on a street corner under a looming threat of police violence, inaugurated Broadway's return in August. Other plays by Black authors, including "Chicken & Biscuits," "Thoughts of a Colored Man" and a revival of Alice Childress' "Trouble in Mind," were part of a fall lineup intent on making a statement that Broadway was back but not like before.

Still reeling from the fallout of COVID-19, the industry kept a tight lid on box office numbers. Everyone was inching forward, trying to survive while at the same time trying to do right. But the commercial imperative can be held at bay for only so long. The accountants have been busy sifting through the data of a season in which the gulf between blockbusters and washouts grew only wider.

An acclaimed revival of Ntozake Shange's “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf” announced it was closing before the Tony nominations came out. The production was up for seven awards, but that was not enough to keep the show from closing on June 5, two months earlier than expected.

This backdrop makes the validation that "A Strange Loop" received all the more vital. Jackson created a completely original musical based on his experience as a Black, queer musical theater writer fighting for his artistic voice in a ruthlessly mercantile and generally oppressive system.

Prestige wasn’t what was at stake. The Pulitzer took care of that. What this Tony win ensures is future productions. "A Strange Loop" is going to be a challenging sell in more conservative markets.

Usher, the show's protagonist portrayed by Jaquel Spivey in a groundbreaking Broadway debut, reveals himself in ways that Rodgers and Hammerstein could never have imagined. His goal is to fill the cis-white-heteronormative space of the theater with subversive Black, queer reality.

Mission accomplished. Hello, Peoria! Do we have a Tony-winning surprise for you!

“A Strange Loop” will have to be selective in its touring stops. But at least now it stands a chance of being seen nationwide.

Myles Frost won for his portrayal of the adult Michael Jackson in "MJ," the musical with a book by Lynn Nottage, who made history for being the first playwright to be nominated for both play (“Clyde’s") and book of a musical in the same season. But the magic of Frost's performance was in his dance moves, which earned director Christopher Wheeldon a well-earned Tony for his choreography.

Joaquina Kalukango showed why she won for lead actress in a musical when she stopped the show with her performance of "Let It Burn" from "Paradise Square." Phylicia Rashad, who won for her featured performance in "Skeleton Crew," paid tribute to a theater where it's possible "to present humanity in its fullness and feel it received."

"The Lehman Trilogy," as expected, took home the award for best play. As those who got to see this epic drama (adapted by Ben Power from Italian playwright’s Stefano Massini’s play) about the New York banking dynasty at the Ahmanson Theatre, where it opened in March after having ended its Broadway run in January, the production (more than the play) was the thing.

Sam Mendes won a Tony for his virtuosic direction of "Lehman," which also notably won for Es Devlin’s rotating glass box set. Simon Russell Beale, to my mind the canniest wielder of dramatic poetry in the English language, was honored for his mesmerizing lead performance.

The award that made me leap out of my seat in ecstatic surprise was for lead actress in a play, which went to off-Broadway doyenne Deirdre O'Connell for her uncanny lip-syncing performance in "Dana H.," Lucas Hnath's drama about his mother that had its 2019 premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. O'Connell said she hoped the work would be a sign to other artists to make weird art without worrying about its Broadway future.

Marianne Elliott’s gender-flipped production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s “Company” won for best musical revival. Elliott picked up her third directing Tony (she also won for her work on the “War Horse” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”

Other “Company” winners include the one and only Patti LuPone, who, in the role of Joanne, put her own indelible stamp on “The Ladies Who Lunch,” and Matt Doyle, who gave the manic number “Getting Married Today” a new, same-sexspin.

In a home run for LGBTQ-themed work, "Take Me Out," Richard Greenberg's play about a star baseball player who comes out, was named best revival. And Jesse Tyler Ferguson won for his featured performance in the same baseball fan convert role that earned Denis O'Hare a Tony in the original Broadway production.

I wish Angela Lansbury could have been there to receive her special Tony Award for lifetime achievement. She would have been reverently received at the table for artists that "A Strange Loop" has extended.

Still, it was fitting that Lin-Manuel Miranda introduced the tribute to Stephen Sondheim, who died last year. It was yet another reminder that excellence becomes richer only when the talent pool widens.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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