Tony Awards kick off with a flurry of awards and hope

NEW YORK (AP) — The Tony Awards sped out of the gate Sunday with a flurry of awards, including trophies for Broadway favorite Danny Burstein, David Alan Grier, veteran Lois Smith and rising star Lauren Patten.

The pandemic-delayed Tony Awards kicked off with an energetic performance of “You Can’t Stop The Beat” from the original Broadway cast of “Hairspray!”

The optimistic number was performed for a masked and appreciative audience at a packed Winter Garden Theatre. Host Audra McDonald got a standing ovation. “You can’t stop the beat. The heart of New York City!” she said.

Burstein, who won for featured actor in a musical for “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” thanked the Broadway community for supporting him after the death of his wife. Grier won featured actor in a play for his role in a “A Soldier’s Play.” “To my other nominees: Tough banana, I won,” he said.

Smith won her first Tony for best performance by an actress in a featured role in a play for “The Inheritance.” And Patten edged out her co-stars from “Jagged Little Pill” to win the award for best featured actress in a musical.

Sunday’s show has been expanded from its typical three hours to four, with McDonald handing out Tonys for the first two hours and Leslie Odom Jr. hosting a “Broadway’s Back!” celebration for the second half, including the awarding of the top three trophies — best play revival, best play and best musical.

While other entertainment industries like TV and film found ways to restart during the pandemic, Broadway was unable until now due to financial and physical impediments. The lifting of all capacity restrictions was crucial to any reopening since Broadway economics demand full venue capacity.

The sobering musical “Jagged Little Pill,” which plumbs Alanis Morissette’s 1995 breakthrough album to tell a story of an American family spiraling out of control, goes into the night with a leading 15 Tony nominations.

Nipping on its heels is “Moulin Rouge!,” a jukebox adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s hyperactive 2001 movie about the goings-on in a turn-of-the-century Parisian nightclub that has 14 nods.

“Slave Play,” Jeremy O. Harris’ ground-breaking, bracing work that mixes race, sex, taboo desires and class, earned a dozen nominations, making it the most nominated play in Tony history.

Other shows to keep an eye on are “The Inheritance” by Matthew Lopez, which nabbed 11 nominations. It’s a two-part, seven-hour epic that uses “Howards End” as a starting point for a play that looks at gay life in the early 21st century. And “Tina — The Tina Turner Musical,” which tells the rock icon’s life with songs that include “Let’s Stay Together” and “Proud Mary,” earned 12 nods.

This season’s nominations were pulled from just 18 eligible plays and musicals from the 2019-2020 season, a fraction of the 34 shows the previous season. During most years, there are 26 competitive categories. This year there are 25 with several depleted ones. But theater insiders think an awards show is even more vital now.

“I would argue it’s more important than ever, in a way,” said James Corden, who hosted the Tonys in 2016. “If there’s a year that we should ever celebrate them, it’s this year, where people’s entire lives have just been ripped away and turned upside down.”

Some intriguing races include whether Karen Olivo wins best leading actress in a musical, despite quitting her show, “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” in frustration with Broadway.

Six-time Tony-winner McDonald is not just a host. She’s up for best actress award in a play, which, if she won, would give her seven awards, breaking her own record for the most Tonys won by a performer. And something bizarre has to happen to deny Aaron Tveit winning for best leading actor in a musical; he’s the only person nominated in the category. Voting for the nominees was done in March.

The last Tony Awards ceremony was held in 2019. The virus forced Broadway theaters to abruptly close on March 12, 2020, knocking out all shows and scrambling the spring season. Several have restarted, including the so-called big three of “Wicked,” “Hamilton” and “The Lion King.”

“Jagged Little Pill” goes into the telecast on the defensive, dogged by two controversies.

A former cast member, Nora Schell, a Black nonbinary actor who made their Broadway debut in the chorus in 2019, posted a statement this week on social media describing repeated instances early in the run of the show in which they were “intimidated, coerced, and forced by multiple higher ups to put off critical and necessary surgery to remove growths from my vagina that were making me anemic.”

“Jagged Little Pill” producers — saying they are “deeply troubled” by the claims — have hired an independent investigator, and the union Actors Equity Association said Sunday it was also commissioning “a thorough, independent investigation” of the show’s workplace.

In another controversy, the show’s producers have apologized to fans for changing a character from gender-nonconforming to cisgender female after the show moved from Boston to Broadway.

Two original stars — Celia Rose Gooding and Antonio Cipriano — have announced that they are leaving after Sunday’s performance, with Cipriano on Sunday citing “the harm that many trans + non-binary, and all marginalized folks, in-stage cast members and off have endured.” He wrote he took responsibility “for being part of the cause harmed.”

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Entertainment Writer Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits.