It was not the most gripping or exciting Tony Awards ceremony of all time. That being said, the 2022 Tony Awards, held on Sunday night, was more than just a commemoration of the best musicals and plays of the 2021-22 Broadway season, a night of song-and-dance entertainment, or a nonstop dose of “Broadway is Back” marketing and boosterism.
Under the panache, it was a candid and poignant portrait of an industry and art form that has endured unprecedented and unrelenting challenges since March 2020 and continues to face an uncertain future, especially as serious questions remain about how long COVID will continue to be a health and safety threat, how long it will take for Broadway to regain the commercial strength it enjoyed prior to the pandemic, and whether the industry can continue to improve in terms of diversity, inclusion, and equality.
The unofficial heroes of this year’s Tony Awards were not the armies of producers and co-producers who swarmed the stage of Radio City Music Hall to accept the awards for Best Musical and Best Play, but the lower-profile members of the industry who continue to do everything in their power to make sure that the show goes on in spite of the challenges of COVID, including health and safety personnel, understudies and swings.
Tellingly, one of the six actresses who appeared in the musical segment for “Six” was a dance captain who filled in at the last minute after Abby Mueller tested positive for COVID at the last minute.
The ceremony also served as a public memorial for Stephen Sondheim, whose memory was honored with video clips, a performance by Bernadette Peters, and multiple awards for the gender-reversed revival of the Sondheim musical “Company,” including Best Revival of a Musical, Best Direction of a Musical (Marianne Elliott), and Best Performance by a Featured Actress (Patti LuPone) and Featured Actor (Matt Doyle) in a Musical.
While “Company” and “The Lehman Trilogy” each racked up a solid number of awards, voters spread the love generously among shows this year. “A Strange Loop,” which ultimately won the coveted prize of Best New Musical, took home only one other award (for Best Book of a Musical). One suspects that “MJ” and “Six” may have split the vote of those who preferred more mainstream fare to “A Strange Loop.” But even if one has mixed feelings on “A Strange Loop,” it is significant and refreshing that such a risk-taking, experimental, and diverse show won.
As a host, Ariana DeBose was no Hugh Jackman or Neil Patrick Harris (or even James Corden) in terms of old-fashioned showmanship. But it was refreshing to have someone so young, enthusiastic, and attractive leading the ceremony. (The same could be said of Darren Criss and Julianne Hough, who hosted the hour-long “Act One” on Paramount Plus.)
The best performance of the night came not from a nominated show but from a musical that won the Tony Award for Best Musical 15 years ago: “Spring Awakening.” The original cast, including Jonathan Groff, Lea Michele, and Skyler Austin, came together to perform a gorgeous rendition of the song “Touch Me” with the original choreography. (For more, see “Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known,” the recently released HBO documentary with footage from the show’s recent reunion concert on Broadway.)