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5 takeaways from the 2024 Tony Awards

Sarah Paulson is seen Sunday night accepting the best leading actress in a play award for <em>Appropriate</em>, marking her halfway point to EGOT status, a person who has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards.
Theo Wargo
Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)
Sarah Paulson is seen Sunday night accepting the best leading actress in a play award for Appropriate, marking her halfway point to EGOT status, a person who has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards.

It was no surprise that Stereophonic, a play about a rock band creating a hit album, took home the most Tony Awards on Sunday night, including for the best new play. It had received the most nominations for a play ever — 13 of them.

In fact, there were very few surprises at all during this very dull 77th annual Tony Awards, except for one: Best Musical. That honor was widely expected to go to Hell’s Kitchen, a musical loosely based on Alicia Keys’ life and incorporating her music, with its 13 nominations. And then, midway through the show, the winner looked like it might instead be the original musical Suffs, which early on won Tonys for both its book and score for creator and star Shaina Taub.

But no — the final award of the night went to The Outsiders, an energetic adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s beloved YA book and a later movie. It was directed by Danya Taymor, who also won. Hell’s Kitchen won only two awards, for star Maleah Joi Moon, and Kecia Lewis, who plays her mentor.

The Outsiders is an exciting show — and maybe excitement is what Broadway needs right now. Certainly the Tonys did, because....

1. The show was … kinda dull.

For people whose profession depends on making words sound engaging, too many fumbled with their speeches. And most of those speeches were laundry lists of thank-yous (a notable exception was Jonathan Groff’s lovely speech — for leading role in a musical — about growing up with parents who didn’t always understand him, but who encouraged him anyway).

The performances were great, but whenever anyone opened their mouths — even the normally sparkling host Ariana DeBose — it was usually lackluster.

Last year, there were no scripts because of the SAG-AFTRA strike … maybe we should go back to that.

2. Politics were (vaguely) everywhere...

This theater season had its share of political shows: Suffs is about women fighting for the right to vote, Enemy of the People is about a battle over an environmental calamity, and Patriots is about Putin’s rise to power.

Politics made an appearance on the Tony stage, too. Several presenters and winners either made a point of pleading with people to vote in this election year, talked confidently about “making change,” or both. Yet there was little that was specific — I didn’t hear anyone name check a candidate, speak out about a current issue or draw attention to something they thought was undercovered in the media.

3.  … and so were celebrities

Angelina Jolie, Hillary Clinton, Cynthia Erivo, Nick Jonas and Brooke Shields were all presenters. Jay-Z and Alicia Keys sang their anthem “Empire State of Mind,” which is the closing number in Hell’s Kitchen, though they don’t appear in the Broadway production. Pete Townshend of The Who played guitar on “Pinball Wizard” when the cast of Tommy performed (he’s not on Broadway, either). Daniel Radcliffe, Jeremy Strong and Sarah Paulson won acting awards and Eddie Redmayne performed with the cast of Cabaret.

Basically, if someone has both Broadway and celeb credentials, the Tony Awards tried to stuff them into the show. It probably was meant to feel cool. Instead, it felt a little desperate.

4. Plays are back. 

A “little desperate” seems to be the current Broadway vibe. And no wonder. Though there’s plenty to see (36 Tony-eligible productions opened this season, 14 in the last few weeks of April alone) the audience hasn’t yet bounced back to 2019 levels.

Musicals are usually what draw tourists, and the Tonys showcased that, running a number from each nominee. But they also added....a play. Stereophonic. (Which, to be fair, has quite a lot of music.)

That’s because Stereophonic is currently a hot ticket. It just feels fresh and new, bringing us into a recording studio, where young members of a band are fighting to create something despite their clashing personalities. It has no stars — but compelling performances, taut writing and memorable music. It’s innovative. It’s breathtaking. It’s something you just can’t see anywhere else.

That’s a lot different from the musicals situation. Musicals now cost so much money that producers seem to be hesitant to back any production that’s not based on familiar material, meaning theaters are filled with adaptations of movies, books, even albums. Though every one of this season’s shows had at least one scene that was innovative or moving or even wildly creative, as a whole musicals felt disappointingly safe this year.

Stereophonic is just one example of many. There’s also Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' Appropriate, which won Best Revival of a Play. Its intense performances, surprising set and tangled family drama make it a thrilling roller coaster ride. And so many others.

Basically, if you saw a play on Broadway this season, you almost couldn’t go wrong.

5. Making the case for theater

Most of the resonant speeches happened before the main Tonys began; the special achievement and many of the design awards were streamed on Pluto TV before the main event.

One of the best of those was from director George C. Wolfe, the winner of a special achievement Tony, who made the case for theater’s importance to society.

He said theater “doesn’t need to look like you to be about you.” And, he said, at an “incredibly complicated time in this country,” theater is “celebrating and exploring the human heart.”

Now that was a speech that would have been worth hearing in prime time.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Jennifer Vanasco
Jennifer Vanasco is an editor on the NPR Culture Desk, where she also reports on theater, visual arts, cultural institutions, the intersection of tech/culture and the economics of the arts.