Broadway hopes to razzle-dazzle past pandemic at Sunday's Tony Awards

  • Audra McDonald will host the Tony Awards Sunday, Sept. 26, followed by a two-hour celebration of Broadway's return, hosted by Leslie Odom Jr.

    Audra McDonald will host the Tony Awards Sunday, Sept. 26, followed by a two-hour celebration of Broadway's return, hosted by Leslie Odom Jr. Associated Press file photos

 
 
Updated 9/26/2021 8:44 AM

Broadway is in need of a boost these days, so it has smartly called on one of its most beloved, award-winning stage veterans for help -- Audra McDonald.

McDonald has been tapped to host the Tony Awards on Sunday, a telecast that theater producers hope can serve as a splashy advertisement that a post-pandemic Broadway is inching back to normalcy.

 

"I was honored that they asked me, and I am so happy to be a part of bringing Broadway back online, as it were," McDonald said. "Broadway is my family."

The typical three-hour awards show this year has been expanded to four, with McDonald handing out Tonys for the first two hours and Leslie Odom Jr. hosting a "Broadway's Back!" celebration for the second half, including the awarding of the top three trophies -- best play revival, best play and best musical. (The awards air from 6-8 p.m. on Paramount+, followed by the second show from 8-10 p.m. on CBS.)

"I'm going to do whatever I can to remind people about the power and magic of live performance," Odom said. "Whether they need me to take a pie in the face or run around on a stage full of rakes, whatever we have to do to remind people of the magic that happens in these theaters, we're going to do it."

The live special will include David Byrne and the cast of "American Utopia," John Legend and the cast of "Ain't Too Proud," a reunion of the cast members of "Hairspray" and a number by Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Freestyle Love Supreme" group.

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Broadway's stars will be in force: Annaleigh Ashford, Kristin Chenoweth, André De Shields, Courtney B. Vance, Jake Gyllenhaal, Idina Menzel, Bebe Neuwirth, Kelli O'Hara, Ben Platt, Chita Rivera, Wayne Brady, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Cyndi Lauper, Norm Lewis, John Lithgow, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Jennifer Nettles, BD Wong and more.

The Tonys last took place in June 2019. So much has happened in the meantime.

Broadway theaters abruptly closed on March 12, 2020, knocking out all shows and scrambling the spring season. Several have restarted in September, including the so-called big three of "Wicked," "Hamilton" and "The Lion King." More will open or reopen this fall and winter, including a Michael Jackson musical and a revival of "The Music Man" with Hugh Jackman.

The Tony Awards and TV special will finally close a drawn-out nomination chapter -- the three musicals vying for the top prize, "Tina -- The Tina Turner Musical," "Moulin Rouge! The Musical" and "Jagged Little Pill," also will perform -- and yet also look forward to promote the shows that have survived the pandemic or need help after it.

"I think they're going about it in a way of making it a celebration. And I think that's what people need and what they're hungry for," said Adrienne Walker, who plays Nala in "The Lion King" and who performed at the 2019 Tonys. "I think it's going to boost everyone's excitement of Broadway's return and just hopefully keep the train going."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

McDonald isn't just a host. The six-time Tony-winner also has skin in the game: She's up for best actress award in a play, which, if she won, would give her seven awards, breaking her own record for the most Tony Awards won by a performer.

"If that happens, that would be amazing. There are a lot of incredible women in that category this year. It's wonderful if it happens, it's wonderful if it doesn't," said McDonald. "I'm just glad that we're finally getting a chance to be doing this again. It got scary for a while, so I'm just grateful that there is a game to get skin in."

Theatergoers show proof of vaccination before a recent performance of "The Lion King" at the Minskoff Theatre in New York.
Theatergoers show proof of vaccination before a recent performance of "The Lion King" at the Minskoff Theatre in New York. - Associated Press

During the 18 months that Broadway was shuttered, seismic shifts happened. Scott Rudin, once lauded as a key producer of challenging works, was toppled and withdrew after allegations of bullying. And civil rights groups sprung up to make Broadway a more equitable and inclusive space in the wake of George Floyd's killing.

Tangible changes are already being implemented, including The New Deal for Broadway that outlines a series of reforms and commitments for the theater industry to ensure equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility. And there's been an uncharacteristic burst in Black-led works: The fall lineup has seven new plays written by Black playwrights, five of whom are making their Broadway debuts.

The coronavirus sickened Broadway veterans, including actors Brian Stokes Mitchell, Gavin Creel and Laura Bell Bundy as well as composer David Bryan. It claimed the life of Tony-winning playwright Terrence McNally and Tony-nominated actor Nick Cordero. Two Tony nominees this year -- Danny Burstein and Aaron Tveit -- also battled COVID-19.

Evidence of the pandemic is all over Broadway. The Disney musical "Frozen" isn't returning, nor is the once Rudin-backed 2020 revival of "West Side Story." The two-part Harry Potter play is being condensed in a nod to COVID-19. Audiences are asked to be vaccinated and masked.

"We have to be gentle with what we just went through," says Celia Keenan-Bolger, who is returning to the stage adaptation of "To Kill a Mockingbird." "I know that from my life, a huge part of processing grief has been both as an actor in the theater and as an audience member in the theater. And so I hope that this will give us a space for healing after this year that we've been through."

• Associated Press journalist John Carucci contributed to this report.

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