ABOVE PHOTO: Michael R. Jackson left, winner of the awards for best book of a musical and best new musical for “A Strange Loop” poses with producer Jennifer Hudson at the 75th annual Tony Awards on Sunday, June 12, 2022, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
By Mark Kennedy
NEW YORK — “A Strange Loop,” an irreverent, sexually frank work about Blackness and queerness took home the best new musical crown at the Tony Awards on Sunday, as voters celebrated Broadway’s most racially diverse season by choosing an envelope-pushing Black voice.
Michael R. Jackson’s 2020 Pulitzer Prize drama winner is a theater meta-journey — a tuneful show about a Black gay man writing a show about a Black gay man. Jackson also won for best book. Many of the night’s other Tonys were spread over several productions.
The victory of a smaller, more offbeat musical against more commercial offerings continues a recent trend, as when the intimate musical “The Band’s Visit” beat the big brand-musicals “Frozen,” “Mean Girls” and “SpongeBob SquarePants” in 2018 or when “Hadestown” bested “Tootsie,” “Beetlejuice” and “Ain’t Too Proud” a year later.
“A Strange Loop” beat “MJ,” a bio-musical of the King of Pop’s biggest hits, for the top prize, although the other Jackson musical nabbed four Tony Awards including for best choreography. Myles Frost moonwalked away with the award for best lead actor in a musical for playing Michael Jackson, becoming the youngest solo winner in that category. “Mom, I made it!” he said.
“MJ” represents the 22-year-old Frost’s Broadway debut as he plays Jackson with a high, whispery voice, a Lady Diana-like coquettishness and a fierce embrace of Jackson’s iconic dancing and singing style. “Heal the world,” Frost said from the stage, channeling Jackson.
Joaquina Kalukango won the Tony for best leading actress in a musical for her work in “Paradise Square,” a show about Irish immigrants and Black Americans jostling to survive in New York City around the time of the Civil War. Earlier in the night, she blew the house down with a stunning performance of the musical’s “Let It Burn.”
A gender-swapped revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” rode the fondness Broadway has for the late iconic composer by earning five statuettes, including best musical revival.
“Company” is an exploration of a single person’s conflicted feelings about commitment, traditionally focusing on a 35-year-old bachelor. This time, it had a bachelorette and the sexes of several couples were swapped.
Marianne Elliott made Tony history by becoming the only woman to have won three Tonys for directing, the latest for “Company.” She thanked Sondheim for letting her put a woman “front and center.” She dedicated her award to everyone fighting to keep theaters open.
Patti LuPone won best featured actress in a musical for her work in the revival, thanking COVID-19 safety officials in her acceptance speech. Matt Doyle won for best featured actor in a musical for “Company.”
“The Lehman Trilogy,” spanning 150 years and running three and a half hours, follows the fortunes of a single family into the financial crash of 2008. It was crowned best new play and Sam Mendes won for best direction of a play, praising the season for its “rampant creativity.” One of its three stars, Simon Russell Beale, won for best actor in a play and thanked the audience for coming to see a trio of British actors tell a New York story.
Deirdre O’Connell won for best actress in a play for her work in “Dana H.,” about a real woman kidnapped by a former convict and white supremacist. O’Connell never speaks, instead, lip-syncing to an edited recording of the survivor. On Sunday, O’Connell urged the crowd to ignore safe options and “make the weird art.”
“Take Me Out” won for best play revival, and “Modern Family” star Jesse Tyler Ferguson won the Tony for best featured actor in a play for his work in it. “Mom, Dad, thank you for letting me move to New York when I was 17-years-old. I told you it would be OK,” said Ferguson, who also thanked his understudy and his husband.
Host Ariana DeBose kicked off her portion of the show in a sparkling white jumpsuit and wide-brimmed hat, dancing and singing to the song “This Is Your Round of Applause,” which mashed up shards of musical theater favorites, like “Chicago, “The Wiz,” “Evita,” “Rent,” “Hair,” “Cabaret,” “Hairspray” and “West Side Story,” the movie remake for which she recently won an Oscar.
Still panting while welcoming viewers, she told the crowd that this was the season “Broadway got its groove back.”
Phylicia Rashad won best featured actress in a play for “Skeleton Crew.” The Dominique Morisseau play is about blue-collar job insecurity set in a Detroit auto stamping plant. “It’s wonderful to present humanity in all its fullness,” Rashad said.
And the Tonys ushered in the latest EGOT winner: Jennifer Hudson, who has an Emmy, Grammy and Oscar, and joined that elite group Sunday when “A Strange Loop” won best musical — she’s a producer.
A starry revival of the classic show “The Music Man” with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster walked away empty-handed despite six nominations and being a box office smash, regularly pulling in more than $3 million a week.
The season was marked by the embrace of seven Black playwrights, from contemporary writers like Dominique Morisseau, Keenan Scott II and Antoinette Nwandu, to underappreciated historical playwrights like Alice Childress and Ntozake Shange. DeBose said Broadway was more representative.
DeBose celebrated the Black voices and onstage talent — as well as noting that two Broadway theaters were being renamed for Black icons James Earl Jones and Lena Horne — saying that The Great White Way was now a nickname “as opposed to a how-to guide.”
DeBose also hailed the heroic efforts of understudies, swings and standbys to keep shows going throughout pandemic spikes, noting that she and many other Tony nominees had once been unheralded understudies and swings. After the cast of “Six” performed, DeBose noted that one was a fill-in at the last minute.
Having been freed of handling the technical awards, the main telecast had a less frantic, more airy feel. DeBose was an assured, funny and versatile host, one who roamed the seats, sat in Andrew Garfield’s lap, danced with Sam Rockwell and prompted Laurence Fishburne to do a Daffy Duck imitation. She closed the show with a medley of the musical nominees, at one point making “MJ” part of the Dylan show: “You’ve been hit by/A rolling stone.”
Some of the show highlights included the massive cast of “The Music Man” filling the massive Radio City stage with “Seventy-Six Trombones,” as well as Prince Jackson and Paris Jackson introducing the show about their father before the “MJ” cast danced to an energetic “Smooth Criminal.”
Billy Crystal taught the crowd “Yiddish scatting,” and the original cast of the 2007 Tony-winning musical “Spring Awakening” — including Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff — reunited for a performance.
Many acceptance speeches thanked the audiences for braving spikes in COVID-19 to come to see shows, and Marsha Gay Harden cheered 150 safety officers invited as guests to the Tonys.
Earlier, Darren Criss and Julianne Hough kicked off the four-hour awards, handing out mostly design awards. Criss opened the telecast with the original song, “Set the Stage,” as he and Hough energetically danced up ladders, on laundry hampers and in sliding theater seats to celebrate the artists who keep theater alive.
The first award of the night — for best score — went to “Six: The Musical,” with music and lyrics by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss. Marlow became the first out nonbinary composer-lyricist to win a Tony. “Six: The Musical” also picked up the award for best costumes for a musical.
The season — with 34 new productions — represents a full return to theaters after nearly two years of a pandemic-mandated shutdown. At the last Tonys nine months ago, the winners were pulled from just 18 eligible plays and musicals, and many of the competitive categories were depleted.
Sondheim, the iconic composer who died in late 2021, was honored in a special segment by Bernadette Peters singing his song “Children Will Listen.” Angela Lansbury, who was honored with a lifetime achievement Tony, wasn’t present so her “Sweeney Todd” co-star Len Cariou accepted on her behalf.