Throughout the streamed 74th Tony Awards and its televised counterpart Broadway’s Back!, Leslie Odom Jr., Audra McDonald and more celebrated and reflected on the New York theater industry’s return following the 18-month pandemic shutdown.
Due to the shutdown, the ceremony’s annual In Memoriam tribute was postponed. In response, two-time Tony winner Bernadette Peters honored those lives, particularly those lost during the pandemic to COVID, ahead of Brian Stokes Mitchell’s performance of “Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha.
“Since the last Tony Awards, we lost a staggering legion of dear friends, far too many of them to the global pandemic,” she said. “A number of those treasured colleagues were performers and creative artists whose names were familiar far beyond the footlights of Broadway.”
“Tonight we do not mourn them in sorrow. Instead, we offer this remembrance, celebrating their lives and their passion for the performing arts,” she concluded ahead of a mournful dance performance.
Broadway’s Back! host Odom kicked off his half of the four-hour event with an energetic monologue and musical tribute to theater’s return after going dark, outlining the importance of the industry’s COVID protocols as a means of protecting the entire theater community.
“We’ve got an epic reunion of Broadway duets and some special guests who have come out to show their love for this community and their appreciation to our audiences who have waited 18 months for the lights to go back on Broadway,” Odom said in his opening speech. “Everyone here is vaxxed and tested, and everyone is wearing a mask. Every Broadway theater is gonna look like this for a while and that’s OK. We’re a community and that’s what community does. We look out for one another.”
Prior to his speech, Odom sang and danced in an opening performance that recounted Broadway’s return from its shutdown in March 2020 to its re-opening this September. The opening number moved from outside to inside the Winter Garden Theater, where the Broadway’s Back! host, flanked by dancers, narrated the pandemic’s impact through song.
“For a year and a half every theater was dark. The ticket booth could only sell a question mark. None of these seats held nary a butt. The actors were home doing God knows what!” Odom exclaimed. “We gotta ask that you wear that mask until everything feels right. Cause it’s no great labor to care about your neighbor when Broadway’s back tonight.”
“It’s a joy to be in the very same place and somebody soon will see the bottom half of your face. We want to stay safe and not in quarantine, but you can’t get a seat unless you get the vaccine!” he later sang.
The song also referenced the restaurant industry’s return, which Broadway and New York City leadership has repeatedly pointed to being a key benefactor of the re-opening.
Following Odom’s opening, Special Tony Award winner and American Utopia creator David Byrne kicked off a performance of “Burning Down the House” from the show, acknowledging how long it has been for many of the night’s attendees to share the same room. “Now, I know that many of you have not danced together in a room full of strangers or even with friends for quite a long time and so you may have forgotten how to do that, but you’re welcome to try,” he told the audience to laughs.
While accepting the win for best play, The Inheritance producer Tom Kirdahy dedicated his award to his husband, Terrence McNally, who died in March 2020, and those impacted by AIDS and COVID. “This award is in loving memory for all the beautiful souls lost to AIDS and COVID,” he told the crowd.
In the virtual pressroom for Broadway’s Back!, director Kenny Leon, who accepted the award for best revival of a play for A Soldier’s Play spoke to the change he hopes the pandemic’s disruption of theater will give way to while sharing that he lost family members to COVID.
While accepting the win for best musical, Moulin Rouge! producer Carmen Pavlovic dedicated the award to the shows that did and didn’t survive the pandemic shutdown. “I feel that every show of last season, deserves to be thought of as the Best Musical,” she said. “This shows that closed not to return, the shows that nearly opened and, of course, this shows that paused and were fortunate enough to be reborn.”
“Best is what we’ve defined in ourselves, as we’ve walked this unimaginable journey and carried our shows across the desert,” she added. “Best is what we know we need to become as we reimagine the Broadway of the future.”
“I lost two uncles and an aunt to COVID but everything else about these past 18 months has really been good for the country because were it not for this reset I don’t think we would be talking about making changes on Broadway and making changes in our world that affect race and acceptance of all people,” he said. “So I think it’s a great, wonderful beginning and it’s just gonna take all of us because I do feel that we can do better as people.”
During the official two-hour 74th Tony Awards show, which streamed on Paramount+ ahead of Broadway’s Back!, host Audra McDonald opened the show acknowledging the COVID precautions in place for the night’s event. “It’s wonderful to see half of your beautiful faces,” she began. “Like every show on Broadway, our audience is vaxxed and masked. Masks have made the re-opening of theaters a reality, after more than 560 nights in the dark. The lights are on and we’re back.”
Later during the show, presenter Wayne Brady noted during the best orchestrations win that part of the show’s COVID protocols restricted the number of individuals on stage, with the category’s winners — a total of four — having to accept the honor in pairs. In addition, to assist with maintaining COVID protocols and keeping attendees safe, the official Tony Awards after-party was canceled and the show’s press room went virtual.
Broadway officially shut down on March 12, 2020, with plans to re-open 32 days later on April 12. But that effort, as well as several other re-opening plans, would be delayed over the next year as the country continued to grapple with the ongoing pandemic. Following the FDA’s approved emergency use of several vaccines beginning in March, on May 5, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that after multiple delays, Broadway would fully reopen on Sept. 14 under the state’s health and safety guidance.
On May 6, ticket sales for Broadway shows began, with theaters at 100 percent capacity. By the end of July, industry leaders including The Broadway League and Actors’ Equity Association had announced their own set of protocols covering performers, backstage crew, theater staff and audiences across all 41 theaters, instituting show and venue-wide vaccine mandates and mask requirements for audiences.
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