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Tony Awards Preview

The 2020 Tony Awards Preview

Like the recent Olympics, the 2020 Tony Awards arrive after a lengthy delay necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. And amid enduring uncertainty, they are all the more eagerly anticipated by fans of Broadway theater and the industry serving them.

This year’s ceremony, set for September 26 at the Winter Garden Theatre, will be different on several counts. The number of productions recognized has been limited by the March 2020 shutdown, which prevented a bunch of high-profile shows from opening, and rendered others — including Ivo von Hove’s staging of West Side Story, and Girl From the North Country, the acclaimed musical weaving Bob Dylan songs into a book by Conor McPherson — ineligible, as many Tony voters had not been able to see them.

The cast of Tina - The Tina Turner Musical. Photo by Manuel Harlan.
The cast of Tina – The Tina Turner Musical. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

On the other hand, a new arrangement that will make the entire event available on Paramount Plus, beginning at 7 p.m. ET — with longtime Tonys home CBS broadcasting from 9 to 11 p.m. ET — will enable viewers at home to see awards given out in categories such as design, orchestration, and choreography. “We haven’t had all of our creatives and the awards recognizing them on the special since before my time,” notes Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League, which presents the Tonys with the American Theatre Wing.

“The whole point of the show is to set an optimistic and realistic tone,” adds Heather Hitchens, the Wing’s president and CEO. “The theme of this show is that Broadway’s back — theater is safe if protocols are followed — and we have exciting new work for people to see.”

Both St. Martin and Hitchens point to the diversity of shows represented both in nominations for the 2019–2020 season as well as those premiering in the new season, which launched in August with the arrival of Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over. Slave Play, another work by a Black playwright that transferred after earning praise Off-Broadway, is up for 12 Tonys, making it the most nominated play to date. Author Jeremy O. Harris was tapped for his provocative look at the roles race, gender, and sexuality play in contemporary relationships; director Robert O’Hara, leading actress Joaquina Kalukango, featured actors Ato Blankson-Wood and James Cusati-Moyer, and featured actresses Chalia La Tour and Annie McNamara are among the other nominees.

Joaquina Kalukango and Paul Alexander Nolan in Slave Play. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Joaquina Kalukango and Paul Alexander Nolan in Slave Play. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Tina – The Tina Turner Musical is also a contender in 12 categories, with celebrated Black artists including Adrienne Warren, who won raves for her performance as the titular rock and R&B icon, and this year’s Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Katori Hall among the nominees. The other productions up for Best Musical, Jagged Little Pill and Moulin Rouge! The Musical respectively collected 15 and 14 nominations; both combine books by noted writers — Jagged Little Pill’s Diablo Cody and Moulin Rouge’s John Logan — with established music — Alanis Morissette’s for Jagged Little Pill, and various pop songs tracing several decades for Moulin Rouge!.

Consequently, none of the five candidates for best original score is a musical production. They include Slave Play and fellow Best Play nominees The Inheritance and The Sound Inside and new stagings of A Christmas Carol and Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo. (The theatrical concert David Byrne’s American Utopia is being honored with a Special Tony Award, as Springsteen on Broadway was in 2018.)

Only three revivals made the cut for Best Revival of a Play: a production of A Soldier’s Play showcasing Blair Underwood, a nominee for leading actor in a play, and David Alan Grier, up for featured actor; a Betrayal, featuring Tom Hiddleston, a contender for leading actor; and Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, starring six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald, nominated for leading actress.

Celia Rose Gooding, Derek Klena, Elizabeth Stanley, and Sean Allen Krill in Jagged Little Pill. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Celia Rose Gooding, Derek Klena, Elizabeth Stanley, and Sean Allen Krill in Jagged Little Pill. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Other stage and screen stars who are candidates at this year’s ceremony include Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge, both for leading actor in Best Play nominee Sea Wall/A Life, a pair of one-man pieces respectively written by Simon Stephens and Nick Payne, each told from the perspective of a young husband and father. In the category for leading actress in a play, Mary-Louise Parker is acknowledged for Adam Rapp’s The Sound Inside, an intimate mystery involving a cancer-stricken college professor and her alienated, prodigious student, also up for Best Play; and Laura Linney is nominated for My Name Is Lucy Barton, an adaptation of Alice Munro’s novel tracing a complex mother-daughter relationship.

Matthew López’s The Inheritance — up for 11 awards, and focused on gay men living in a New York haunted by a pandemic of the recent past, AIDS — yielded nominations for John Benjamin Hickey, for featured actor, and Lois Smith, for featured actress. (Cast members Andrew Burnap and Paul Hilton are nominees for leading and featured actor in turn, with Linda Vista’s Ian Barford also up for leading actor.) And a fifth Best Play contender, Grand Horizons — a comedy that dares to look at sex and marriage in the golden years — and the Broadway debut of Bess Wohl earned a nod for another duly cherished veteran, Jane Alexander, also for featured actress.

Musical theater favorites recognized include Danny Burstein, who earned a seventh Tony nomination for his featured performance in Moulin Rouge; Moulin Rouge’s Karen Olivo and Jagged Little Pill’s Elizabeth Stanley, completing the leading actress category; and Moulin Rouge’s Aaron Tveit, who, as a result of the relative dearth of musical productions in this abbreviated season, was the only performer nominated in the leading actor field. (He needs the approval of 60 percent of Tony voters to claim the prize.)

The company of Moulin Rouge! The Musical. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
The company of Moulin Rouge! The Musical. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

In vying for Best Direction of a Play, Slave Play’s O’Hara will face stiffer competition from lauded British directors Stephen Daldry (Inheritance) and Jamie Lloyd (Betrayal) and equally accomplished Americans David Cromer (Sound Inside) and Kenny Leon (Soldier’s Play). The directors tapped for their work on musicals are no less distinguished: British film and stage vet Phyllida Lloyd (TINA), Pill’s Diane Paulus, and Moulin Rouge’s Alex Timbers, who, between the two of them, have helmed some of the most admired musical productions of the past decade both on and Off-Broadway.

And thanks to this year’s multiplatform format, fans of the three musicals will get to see awards handed out to their choreographers and orchestrators — one of each, anyway. The nominees include Moulin Rouge’s Sonya Tayeh, whose collaborators have ranged from the Martha Graham Dance Company to Miley Cyrus, and Jagged Little Pill’s Tom Kitt, whose many credits as a composer include Next to Normal, for which he won both Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize.

Variety writer and podcast host Gordon Cox adds that the 2020 Tony nominations would likely have presented “an entirely different race” had the rush of productions originally scheduled to open in late March and April of last year had been able to do so. Still, he believes there are “a significant group of people who think the Tonys can be a celebration, not just of a season that got overshadowed by the pandemic, but of a return to performances — to being able to sit in theatres, knock on wood. There are people looking for an opportunity to celebrate theater in general.”