The 74 Tony Awards took place Sunday, Sept. 26.
The Awards, which recognize outstanding Broadway productions and the talent surrounding them, were delayed over a year beyond their original 2020 date due to the pandemic. Many see the show’s return as the first step in the triumphant revival of theater, and even its title acts as herald: “The Tony Awards Present: Broadway’s Back!”
Last year’s shutdowns hit the theater world hard. As shows closed, 41 playhouses shut down and the lights of Broadway remained dim month after month, Broadway lost an estimated $35 million in gross revenue every week, based on previous reports from the Broadway League.
Now, over a year since the March 2020 closures, the adage rings true once again: the show must go on.
“After this devastating past year and a half for our industry, our city and for the entire world, we are excited to finally be able to celebrate the return of Broadway,” president of the Broadway League Charlotte St. Martin said. “There is nothing that compares to the magic of live theater—and we are thrilled to be able to share its celebratory return and the incredible talent and artistry of the abbreviated 2019-2020 season with theatre fans everywhere.”
Shutdowns and quarantines cut the 2019-2020 theatre season short, leaving little to judge between in most categories—the Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical award only had one nominee, Aaron Tveit, and only eighteen productions were eligible for nominations.
The Tony Awards featured performances by big names such as Idina Menzel, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr. and Kristen Chenoweth. Audra McDonalds and Odom hosted, and a two-hour concert streamed after most of the awards had been handed out. Organizers talked up the stream’s innovative new formatting—the awards were exclusive to Paramount+, and the concert aired on the CBS Network.
“With the combined power of CBS and Paramount+, the show will honor this year’s Tony Award nominees and winners in a new format unlike any other and celebrate the iconic music, memorable performances and unique personalities that make Broadway so special,” CBS executive vice president Jack Sussman said.
The flashy performances and new formatting can be likened to a marquee boldly and brightly announcing Broadway’s return, which was the clear theme of the night.
“[The Tony Awards] act like a big commercial for Broadway shows,” “Backstage” writer Diep Tran said. “And so it does make sense that the Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing, which co-produce the Tony Awards, [wanted] to wait until Broadway reopens so everyone else in America can see the Tony Awards and be compelled to buy a plane ticket and risk COVID to go see theater again.”
However, despite the hype and pageantry behind the long-delayed show, this year’s Tony Awards hit an all-time viewership low with only 2.26 million tuning in to CBS and Paramount+ to watch the streams, according to Forbes. In 2019, the Awards hit 5.4 million viewers; in 2016, there were 8.7 million.
The drop in viewership could be chalked up to the “confusing” and “unnecessary” streaming setup.
“In an industry that is constantly working on—and scrutinized for—its level of accessibility, why are they making it harder for audiences to watch the vast majority of awards?” New York Times reporter Nancy Coleman said in her review of the show. “All but three honors were given exclusively on Paramount+, not to mention some of the best performances of the evening.”
“[The format] offended many in the Broadway community, since the presentation of almost all Tonys have historically aired on CBS, not on a streaming service that requires a subscription sign-up, or at least a trial for one,” The Hollywood Reporter said in its review. “So it was a frustrating evening for me and a lot of other theater lovers (see: Twitter), and a hot mess of the sort that is particularly inexcusable given that CBS and the forces behind the Tonys… had 16 months longer than usual to get their act together.”
Others remain optimistic that the Tony Awards did their job in advertising Broadway’s return. According to Broadway’s official website, 23 shows are currently running, though vaccinations and masks are required. Current productions include “The Phantom of the Opera,” “The Lion King” and 2021 Best Musical winner “Moulin Rouge! The Musical.”
“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 who aren’t as close to New York know that Broadway is back.”
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