Broadway celebrates diversity and understudies in 75th Tony Awards

Caryl Anne Francia, Business Editor

The 75th Tony Awards returned to Radio City Music Hall on June 12 to celebrate Broadway’s big return during its 2021-2022 season,a rebounding theater industry in primetime.

Following last September’s delayed, scaled-down version for a shortened season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s ceremony saw a larger crowd. Masks were not required for the nominees and guests sitting in the orchestra. However, they did have to test negative for COVID-19. Attendees in the balcony section were required to wear masks.

Dancer Julianne Hough and “American Buffalo” star Darren Criss hosted the show’s first hour. This portion awarded those responsible for the technical aspects of production. Notably, “SIX” creators Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss won the best original score. In addition, Christopher Wheeldon won best choreography for “MJ.”

“We wrote these songs because we wanted to give a funny voice to women and nonbinary people who are our friends,” Moss said. “It’s just so exciting to recognize them.”

Four years after gracing the stage in a performance for “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” Ariana DeBose returned to Radio City as the main host. She kicked off the main ceremony in a number that mashed up popular Broadway show tunes and honored those who kept Broadway shows running despite pandemic setbacks.

After Broadway League President, Charlotte St. Martin, spurred controversy in 2021 for a comment that undermined the work of swing performers and understudies, DeBose, presenters and awardees made room in their speeches to address their work.

“To brass, percussion and strings, to everyone in the wings and all the swings, this is your round of applause,” DeBose sang with an ensemble in the opening number.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Strange Loop,” which follows a struggling Black, queer playwright, won two of the 11 Tonys it was nominated for, including best book for Michael R. Jackson and best new musical. The latter award earned co-producer Jennifer Hudson a Tony and“EGOT” status.

“I just wanted to create a little bit of a life raft for myself as a black gay man to try to just get through the day,” Jackson said. “Over the years, I was so fortunate to take up all my beautiful cast members, my director, so many queer people.”

Myles Frost won best leading actor for his performance as Michael Jackson in “MJ.” Joaquina Kalukango won best leading actress for her performance as Nelly O’Brien in “Paradise Square.”

“I give thanks to all of the nameless ancestors who have suffered,” Kalukango said. “This song, this show gives power to that.”

The modernized, gender-bent revival of “Company” won four awards, including best featured musical actress for Patti LuPone, best featured musical actor for Matt Doyle, best musical director for Marianne Elliott and best musical revival.

References to producer Chris Harper paying LuPone’s salary were frequently made, following LuPone’s interaction with an audience member who refused to wear a mask during a postshow panel.

“The Lehman Trilogy” won three awards, including best leading play male for Simon Russell Beale, best play direction for Sam Mendes and best new play. Additionally, the revival of “Take Me Out,” which follows the fallout after a baseball player comes out as gay, won best featured play actor for Jesse Tyler Ferguson and best play revival.

Deirdre O’Connell won best leading play actress for performing as the titular character in “Dana H.,” based on a real-life kidnapping. Phylicia Rashad won best featured play actress for her role in Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew,” which portrays close-knit workers in an automaking factory.

“You don’t come to this place alone,” Rashad said. “You’ve heard others say it tonight, and it’s true. It’s the work of many people.”

Although she was absent, Angela Lansbury was honored with a lifetime achievement award, her ninth Tony overall. She first performed on Broadway in the 1957 production of “Hotel Paradiso.”

While it addressed the understudy controversy, the ceremony did not run without creating its own. While the show celebrated having a Broadway season with a wave of Black productions, there was criticism over Tony voters’ choice of winners being “white.”

The ceremony showcased performances by the companies of “A Strange Loop,” “Company,” “Mr. Saturday Night,” “MJ,” “The Music Man,” “Paradise Square” and “SIX.” The original Broadway cast of the musical “Spring Awakening” also reunited to sing.

Kalukango shed tears while singing “Let It Burn.” Additionally, DeBose acknowledged “SIX” dance captain and alternate Mallory Maedke, who stepped in for Abby Mueller after she tested positive for COVID-19 earlier that day.

Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda gave a tribute to composer Stephen Sondheim, who died in November. Bernadette Peters, who originated the role of the Witch in Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” performed “Children Will Listen” from the musical.

Tony winner Billy Porter also performed a rendition of “On the Street Where You Live” during the ceremony’s “in memoriam” montage, which concluded with Sondheim.