Monday, September 27, 2021

At Long Last

The Tony awards for 2020 were given out last night.

It was the first Tony Awards in 27 months. It followed the longest Broadway closing in history. It arrived during a pandemic that has already killed 687,000 Americans, and as the theater industry, like many other sectors of society, is wrestling with intensifying demands for racial equity.

The Tony Awards ceremony Sunday night was unlike any that came before — still a mix of prizes and performances, but now with a mission to lure audiences back as the imperiled industry and the enduring art form seek to rebound.

The ceremony’s biggest prize, for best musical, went to “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” a sumptuously eye-popping stage adaptation of the 2001 Baz Luhrmann film about a love triangle in fin-de-siècle Paris. The musical, jam-packed with present-day pop songs, swept the musical categories, picking up 10 prizes,

“I feel that every show of last season deserves to be thought of as the best musical,” said the “Moulin Rouge!” lead producer, Carmen Pavlovic, “The shows that opened, the shows that closed — not to return — the shows that nearly opened, and of course the shows that paused and are fortunate enough to be reborn.”

The best play award went to “The Inheritance,” a two-part drama, written by Matthew Lopez and inspired by “Howards End,” about two generations of gay men in New York City. The win was an upset; “The Inheritance” had received, at best, mixed reviews in the U.S., and many observers had expected Jeremy O. Harris’s “Slave Play” to pick up the prize. Lopez, whose father is from Puerto Rico, described himself as the first Latino writer to win the best play Tony, which he said was a point of pride but also suggested the industry needs to do better.

“We constitute 19 percent of the United States population, and we represent about two percent of the playwrights having plays on Broadway in the last decade,” López said. “This must change.”

Right from the start, there were reminders of the extraordinary difficulties theater artists have faced. Danny Burstein, a much-loved Broadway veteran who had a life-threatening bout of Covid-19 and then lost his wife, the actress Rebecca Luker, to a neurodegenerative disease, won his first Tony. It was the seventh time he was nominated, for his performance as a cabaret impresario in “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” a show in which at least 25 company members fell ill.

In his speech Burstein thanked the Broadway community for its support. “You were there for us whether you just sent a note or sent your love, sent your prayers, sent bagels,” he said. “It meant the world to us, and it’s something I’ll never forget. I love being an actor on Broadway.”

The ceremony was held at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theater, which holds 1,500 people, far fewer than the 6,000 who can fit into Radio City Music Hall, where the event was often held in previous years. Attendees were subjected to the same restrictions as patrons at Broadway shows: they were required to demonstrate proof of vaccination, and they were asked to wear masks that cover their mouths and noses.

I’m glad they’re back and I hope that this is the start of the revival of theatre not just on Broadway but all over the world. During the pandemic we’ve made do with Zoom readings, alternative staging such as Miami New Drama did by using storefront windows between the cast and the audience in chairs in the street, and the use of procedures such as they’re doing on Broadway. This isn’t the first time theatre has been shut down by a plague — it happened to Shakespeare — and it won’t be the last.

But I also think that Broadway isn’t going to be the barometer for the revival and survival of theatre now and in the future. It’s become more like a theme park with its Disney-infused juggernauts — not to mention astronomical ticket prices — that attract the tourists to the Great White Way.  There are other theatre venues in New York where they’re beginning to open up and present plays by writers and actors who would rather work on a play then be in a spectacle that draws in the visitors.  And Broadway isn’t the starting place for new works.  That’s happening in other places like Denver, Austin, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Dallas, Portland, Seattle, and Miami, and at long last the table is getting bigger.  Matthew López’s dream of seeing more Latino/a plays and playwrights is happening in places where you wouldn’t naturally think they would, and good works by all sorts of writers and producers from all sorts of backgrounds are finding their place.  It may not be on Broadway, but to be honest — and speaking as an old white guy — it’s about damn time.

Perhaps I’m overly optimistic, but I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game where us old gaffers are shoved aside for the new kids.  A good play with compelling characters and a story to tell will get produced regardless of the genetics and ethnicity of the playwright — at least I hope so — and with any luck, it will be in a theatre where the audience does not have to take out a second mortgage to see it.  Playwrights will keep writing — and publishing — and the show will go on.

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