The 2021 Tony Awards: reaction and response

The Tony Awards took place on Sept. 26 for the first time since 2019. For any uncultured people who live under a rock, the Tony Awards are the awards given for Broadway musicals and plays. They highlight achievements both onstage and off, including awards for leading actors and actresses, actors and actresses in featured roles, various design aspects, etc. The Tony Awards are a big deal for theatre professionals; it is a night of recognition and celebration for people who create theatre. Broadway creates hundreds of thousands of jobs in New York City, and racks up billions of dollars every season. Theatre is one of America’s most slept-on industries in terms of economic impact, and the importance of which has been made apparent by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year’s Tony celebration differed from past ones in a number of ways. Firstly, everyone in the audience was masked in addition to being vaccinated. One thing I have always loved about theatre people is the incredible intelligence levels encapsulated in every individual. While still being outrageous, extravagant and over-the-top, theatre people are professional and considerate of the needs of others. That being said, I did not see a single person wearing their mask incorrectly. There were no chin straps, no noses hanging out and no people visibly showing that they think they are above a global pandemic. It is always encouraging to see people being sensible about such a serious disease, and it warms my heart to see that my industry is full of intelligent, caring individuals.

There were also a number of social distancing guidelines in place. The announcers discussed how there were only two people allowed to be onstage, unmasked and speaking at a microphone at a time. After each award was announced, the speakers put their masks back on and moved out of the way for the winner to give their acceptance speech. I appreciated how sensible this was, and how strictly it was enforced. It is the sort of thing that one might expect them to be more lackadaisical about, but they most certainly were not.

These precautions were all the more welcome after the previous week’s Emmy Awards ceremony where no one was masked or socially distant. I did not watch them live or stream it later, but after reading about “The Crown” dominating all of the acting categories, it finalized my feelings about them. I do not have time to watch celebrities flaunt COVID guidelines and underwhelming shows sweep entire categories.

In terms of the awards given out, I am pleased they once again presented awards for both Best Sound Design of a Musical, and of a Play. The award for sound design was first given in 2008, and was already long overdue at that point. For the 2015 Tony Awards, the committee decided to discontinue the award. This was extremely disappointing, as sound design is incredibly important in the creation of the theatrical experience. The award was brought back for the 2018 Tony Awards, and was again awarded in 2019 and now in 2021. This award has struggled, and I am very glad it has not been discontinued once again.

There were a number of winners who, upon being announced, were also mentioned to have been first-time winners. The most notable of these in my opinion was Lois Smith receiving the award for Featured Actress in a Play. She has received a few nominations in the past, but this was her first Tony win — making her, at 90 years old, the oldest performer ever to receive a Tony for acting. At the 2019 Tony awards, I was in tears over Stephanie J. Block finally winning a Tony after a few nominations that I believe she should have won for. Seeing Smith win her first Tony at 90 years old is not only a testament to not giving up, but shows that a person can and should keep doing what they love even if they do not receive glory and fame for it. I am very happy for her, and was touched by her win.

The most controversial win, both in my opinion and to the general public, was Lauren Patten’s award for Featured Actress in a Musical for her performance in “Jagged Little Pill” (“JLP”). “JLP” is a jukebox musical, meaning that the libretto is full of songs that were not created specifically for the show; instead, the show is written around the songs. Generally, I am not a fan of jukebox musicals. While some yield iconic moments, such as “Mamma Mia!” and its ABBA soundtrack, I hate when plot suffers in the name of jukebox-ing a show. I love the music in “Mamma Mia!” but the plot is terrible and makes it more or less unwatchable for me. But, I digress.

“JLP” uses songs from the 1995 Alanis Morissette’s album “Jagged Little Pill” and tells a story that portrays struggles with sexuality, mental health, addiction and other sorts of hot-button topics. In the original run, Patten’s character Jo was a nonbinary individual. When the show moved to Broadway, the decision was made to make Jo a cisgendered woman. This rightfully angered many of the show’s original fans, as the iconic character was changed to fit the heteronormative society we live in.

Furthermore, there is an ongoing investigation into the show as two of the show’s cast members have reported that the workplace was harmful to transgender and non-binary performers. While “JLP” had the potential to speak to these communities in a meaningful way, I think it is safe to say that that possibility is out the window.

All of that being so, in her acceptance speech, Patten thanked her “trans and non-binary friends and colleagues” who have “engaged in difficult conversations” with her about her portrayal of Jo. She speaks of Broadway needing more conversations that are “full of honesty, empathy, and respect for our shared humanity.”

This all being so, I am thoroughly disappointed with Patten’s acceptance of the award. To stand up there and thank her “trans and non-binary friends and colleagues” feels like a slap in the face to her castmates who have genuinely faced struggles in the same show she is being awarded for. I do not know if I would have preferred her to turn down the award, but I do not think it was in any way appropriate for her to “thank” her gender nonconforming castmates for helping her play an LGBTQ character. I am not a transgender, non-binary or otherwise genderqueer person, so I cannot speak for that community, but I cannot simply turn a blind eye to the ignorance of this acceptance speech. It was not appropriate, and we cannot pretend that it was okay.

Lastly, I would like to mention the host of this year’s award ceremony, Audra McDonald. McDonald is a highly decorated and seasoned Broadway veteran whom I have great respect for. That being said, I wanted to call attention to how well she hosted the ceremony despite it being so different than it has been in the past. Of all the years to host the Tony Awards, this was certainly a feat, and I think it shows what a fantastic performer McDonald is and I continue to have nothing but respect for her.

Overall, I am pleased with how the Tony Awards went. It was definitely weird to not have musical performances interspersed between awards, but it was nice that they still had performances after the awards ceremony. This portion was hosted by Leslie Odom, Jr. of “Hamilton” fame, and he was phenomenal as ever. While there was certainly a low point in the Patten controversy, and a few other decisions I may not have agreed with, I think this year’s awards were well done, and long overdue. It makes me overjoyed to hear them say over and over, Broadway is back. After such a trying year, the reopening of Broadway is more than welcome, and I just hope that they can do so safely as we continue to fight a global pandemic.