The Tony Awards returned to Radio City Music Hall on Sunday for the first time since June 2019. And after such a roller-coaster ride of a year, the ceremony was a welcome chance to celebrate all those people (from understudies and swings to stage managers and Covid safety officers) who made sure the show went on again (and again). Ariana DeBose, the former theater understudy turned recent Oscar winner, was the host of the three-hour broadcast portion of the ceremony on CBS. But it was Darren Criss and Julianne Hough, hosts of the first hour of the ceremony on Paramount +, who delighted one of our writers with their endearing eagerness to put on a show. As for the awards themselves: There were a few pleasant surprises but voters showed that they were craving the familiar. Here are the highs and lows as our writers saw them. NICOLE HERRINGTON
Best Schtick: Billy Crystal Makes Silly Compelling
The telecast was professional, smooth, well paced and bland. Part of the problem: the generally lugubrious choice of musical material. Another: the overly careful and inoffensively middlebrow tone. Which may be why one of the few moments that broke through the taste and torpor was Billy Crystal’s lowbrow schtick from “Mr. Saturday Night, ”the new musical based on his 1992 film. Actually, the “Yiddish scat” he performed – nonsense guttural syllables and spitty consonants sung in the manner of an Ella Fitzgerald improvisation – has been part of his act forever, with good cause: It’s so stupidly funny you can not help but fall for it. And when he brought it out into the audience, and threw it up to the balcony, he showed how precision delivery and command of a room can make even the oldest, silliest material impossibly compelling. JESSE GREEN
Best Mid-Show Relief: A Win for ‘A Strange Loop’
For the first half of the ceremony, I was sweating over the fact that “A Strange Loop,” which had been nominated for 11 awards, hadn’t won anything. I was expecting the Pulitzer Prize-winner to make a full sweep, but once the broadcast was underway, it was clear that the Tony voters had been more inclined towards the predictable picks for the winners’ circle. So when “A Strange Loop” won its first award of the night, for best book of a musical, it was thrilling to see Michael R. Jackson take the stage to celebrate his “big, Black and queer-ass American Broadway” show. Jackson’s boundary-pushing, thought-provoking script manages to be both hilarious and devastating, as well as wide-ranging in every sense of the word. MAYA PHILLIPS
Best Shout-Out: Nods to Understudies
In the weeks leading up to the Tony Awards, a buzz had been building – on various social media platforms – around demands that the Tonys honor swings, understudies and standbys. In a season often disrupted by Covid-19 transmission, these performers filled in for named players at show after show, sometimes at just a few moment’s notice.
As the evening’s host Ariana DeBose noted in her opening monologue: “A show is put on by many people, not just the faces that you know and love.”
No understudy could be nominated, but winners and presenters found ways to salute them. During the “Act One” special on Paramount +, the director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, a winner for “MJ,” shouted out “all the swings and understudies who kept us onstage this season. I bow to you. ”
During the main program, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, a winner for “Take Me Out,” thanked his own understudy. Patti LuPone, a winner for “Company,” hailed not only understudies, but also the Covid-19 compliance officers. And in the big production number, DeBose, took another moment, while being hoisted into the air, to thank the swings.
Perhaps the greatest tribute came during the production number for the musical “Six.” Playing Jane Seymour was Mallory Maedke, the show’s dance captain, who had subbed in hours earlier after the actress who usually performs the role, Abby Mueller, tested positive for Covid-19. Maedke stepped in. The show went on. ALEXIS SOLOSKI
Best ‘Glee’ Alum: Darren Criss
It’s fitting that Darren Criss was one of the hosts at the 2022 Tony Awards: Before starring on Broadway, he got his big break in “Glee,” a series that was instrumental in bridging pop music and Broadway. He and Julianne Hough – a former “Dancing With the Stars” pro who did not miss a step even as her costume was coming off before the scheduled moment – had a sparkly showbiz quality peppered with an adorably enthusiastic nerdiness during their hourlong hosting gig of the “Act One” portion of the Tonys. And their opening number, written by Criss, for the Paramount + stream, had more zest than Ariana DeBose’s opener in the flagship section hosted by CBS. ELISABETH VINCENTELLI
Worst Display: The Evening-Long Amnesia
Imagining alternate worlds and stepping right into them is what theater people do. But there was some serious cognitive dissonance on display in the collectively imagined world of the Tony Awards ceremony, a four-hour celebration of a post-shutdown Broadway season that made it through thanks to stringent Covid-safety measures – most visibly, masks strictly required for audience members.
Disturbingly, the picture that the industry chose to present to the television cameras at Radio City Music Hall was a sea of bare faces, as if Broadway inhabited a post-Covid world. In the vast orchestra section, where the nominees sat, there was scarcely a mask anywhere.
A brass band from “The Music Man” paraded through the aisles; Ariana DeBose, this year Tonys host, sang right in audience members’ faces; and three winners from the revival of “Company” – Patti LuPone; her director, Marianne Elliott; and their producer Chris Harper – made mocking reference to a mask-refusing audience member at their show. Funny, sure, but they, too, were now barefaced in a crowd.
For all the loving shout-outs that the Tonys and Tony winners gave to understudies, swings and Covid safety teams for their indispensability in allowing so many productions to go on, it was hard not to wonder about Broadway choosing a normal-looking TV visual over caution, knowing how scary it can get when positive test results start rolling in. LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES
Best Look: Theater Stars Deliver Shine and Sparkle
The Tony Awards aren’t exactly known for being a major fashion event, at least compared to the other awards shows that make up the initials of EGOT. But maybe it should be. On Sunday, we saw major stars in major looks, with the biggest trend being found in high shine and sparkle, befitting of theater’s big night.
Just look at Joaquina Kalukango, who won the Tony for lead actress in a musical while wearing a golden gown dripping in gems, tied with an electric lime green bow – a dress that was designed, she said in her acceptance speech, by her sister.
Then there was Ariana DeBose’s head-to-toe black sequined gown; Kara Young’s metallic two-piece ball gown; Utkarsh Ambudkar’s suit covered in pearly buttons; Vanessa Hudgens’s big, gold abstract planetary earrings; and Billy Porter’s space-age jacquard silver tuxedo. There were women who wore their crystals and beading like armor. There were men who channeled Michael Jackson (with fringed epaulets) and Elvis (in a high-collared, low-cut shirt) – bringing enough glitz, glamor and intricate embroidery to occupy several Broadway costume designers. JESSICA TESTA
Worst Attempt at Nostalgia: Not So ‘Smooth Criminal’
I have numerous grievances about “MJ,” the Michael Jackson jukebox musical, so perhaps it’s no surprise that I found the Tonys performance – the star, Myles Frost, and some of the company performing “Smooth Criminal” – a bit lackluster. The musical is inherently hollow; the opacity of Michael Jackson and his life of traumas and controversies make it difficult to find material compelling and cohesive enough to tell a story onstage. So the name of the game is nostalgia, and the show moonwalks by with the momentum of fans happy to see and hear some of the most iconic performances of Jackson’s career. But everything is an impression, with even the choreography restrained to the tried and true with little nuance and variation. The airless enormity and formality of the Tonys stage drained what little bit of charisma “MJ” might have otherwise had – though by the end of the evening the show was still a big winner, with Frost nabbing the best leading actor in a musical award. MAYA PHILLIPS
Best Experimental Inspiration: Love for ‘Weird Art’
Dierdre O’Connell’s win for “Dana H.” – which earlier in the evening presenters had referred to as both “Donna H.” and “Diana H.” – came as a marvelous surprise. O’Connell, 70, an actress of absolute passion and precision, has made her career Off and Off Off Broadway, enriching the work of two generations of playwrights, in works both traditional and very strange. (She is currently starring in Will Arbery’s “Corsicana” at Playwrights Horizons.)
In “Dana H.,” she lip-synced to harrowing audio recorded by the mother of the playwright, Lucas Hnath. And in her acceptance speech, which came midway through a ceremony in which more traditional fare was typically rewarded, O’Connell dedicated her Tony to every artist who has worried if the art they are making would prove too esoteric for Broadway. She insisted that her presence should inspire haunting art, frightening art, art that no one else may understand.
“Please let me standing here,” she said, “be a little sign to you from the universe to make the weird art.” So go ahead, writers and directors of Tonys future: Make the weird art. ALEXIS SOLOSKI
Best Spotlight: A Playwright Medley
On typical Tony Awards shows, playwrights are about as prominent as animal trainers and child wranglers. (It’s a permanent embarrassment that they seldom get to talk even if their work wins.) This year’s presentation may not have heaped upon them the glory they deserve – they are, after all, at the heart of the entire enterprise – but it gave them a longer-than-usual segment that was also clever and insightful. Each of the five best play nominees answered a few simple questions about themselves and their work; their answers were edited together like a medley. What one word would Tracy Letts, the author of “The Minutes,” use to describe it? “Hilarious,” he said, with a self-serving twinkle. What is Lynn Nottage’s favorite line from “Clyde’s”? “A little salt makes the food taste good. Too much makes it inedible. ” And how would Ben Power, the author of “The Lehman Trilogy,” describe a play about his own life? “As long as ‘The Lehman Trilogy,’ but with a happier ending.” JESSE GREEN
Worst Trend: Rewarding Marquee Names
The worst part of the evening was not a single moment but the fact that almost every time the most famous person or show won. It felt as if the voters were craving something familiar for the first full post-Covid Broadway season – even when that familiarity was draped in a seemingly (but not really) edgy concept like a gender-flipped Sondheim show (“Company”) or a fun retread of the Spice Girls (“Six”).
There were two major exceptions to that trend: the Off Broadway veteran Deirdre O’Connell winning best actress in a play for “Dana H.” and Michael R. Jackson’s bracing “A Strange Loop” winning for best musical. ELISABETH VINCENTELLI
Best Heroine: Joaquina Kalukango Lifts ‘Paradise Square’
“Paradise Square” is not the best musical. And that makes Joaquina Kalukango’s moving performance, as the show’s tough-broad-heroine Nelly O’Brien, that much more impressive. In an otherwise drab Tonys broadcast, the excerpt from “Paradise Square” brought some much-needed vitality to the stage. Beginning with an ensemble song and dance that showed off the musical’s jaunty choreography, the segment then turned into a solo showcase for Kalukango, who blazed through her character’s big number “Let It Burn.”
Thanks to the camera close-ups (something we do not often get in the world of theater) we got to see the particulars of Kalukango’s performance; her face seems to open up into a dauntless roar, and by the end of the song her whole visage darkens with tears. It’s no surprise that she later won the award for best actress in a musical; watching her perform is like watching the bursting of a Roman candle in a starless night – that kind of powerful, that kind of beautiful. MAYA PHILLIPS