‘Moulin Rouge!’ dances away with 10 Tony wins as Broadway celebrates its recovery

·5 min read

Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” the dazzlingly intense Broadway version of Baz Luhrmann’s beloved 2001 movie, emerged a feel-good winner at the 2021 Tony Awards, waltzing away with 10 Tony Awards, including best musical, best director for Alex Timbers, best choreographer for Sonya Tayeh and best actor in a musical for Aaron Tviet.

Jagged Little Pill,” its chief rival in a truncated Broadway season, won just two awards, best book of a musical for Diablo Cody and best featured actress in a musical for Lauren Patten. The coveted best actress in a musical Tony went to Adrienne Warren, the lynchpin of “Tina: The Tina Tuner Musical.”

Relatively few plays were eligible in the truncated 2019-20 season. The best play Tony went to the Matthew Lopez AIDS drama “The Inheritance” which, with four Tony Awards, did better with Tony voters than Broadway critics. “Slave Play,” the daring, ground-breaking drama by the high-profile Black playwright Jeremy O. Harris had a disappointing night, despite all its nominees, likely to be a controversial outcome. The Tony for best revival of a play went to “A Soldier’s Play” by Charles Fuller.

Mary-Louise Parker won the coveted Tony for best actress in a play for her work in “The Sound Inside.” The veteran director, Stephen Daldry, won the Tony for his direction of “The Inheritance.” And Andrew Burnap won the Tony for best actor in a play for his work in that epic show.

“What a blessing,” Daldry said, referencing the horrors of the global pandemic and its impact on the world’s children.

In the middle of the pandemic that devastated the industry, the Broadway bosses had made a bold decision.

After 27 months of Tony Awards silence, the 2021 ceremony wouldn’t be about cut-throat competition, raging egos, acceptance speeches and brutal competition. Instead, they’d be as close as possible to a massive prime-time commercial designed to get vaccinated patrons back in the velour seats whose owners have missed them so.

This was a showcase of the best of Broadway, designed to throw some gasoline on a Gotham fire that’s been out for a year and a half but, thanks to vaccines and masking, is finally flickering again.

And that’s exactly what happened. David Byrne, John Legend, Ben Platt, Josh Groban, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Christopher Jackson and other bold-face names entertained the prime-time audience on what was billed as a theatrical concert called “Broadway’s Back,” hosted by Leslie Odom, Jr. who began the show with a dance number on the street outside the Winter Gardens theater. The musical numbers, traditionally performed live during the show, mostly were performed from their own theaters; a fine idea, since it allowed for far greater levels of spectacle. Footage also was shown from the opening night of returning Broadway shows.

A few acceptance speeches made it to prime time. But most of the actual awards were handed out early in the night on the Paramount+ network, hosted by Audra McDonald. The traditional CBS broadcast was focused on musicals numbers promoting Broadway musicals in general in honor of the street’s return.

This wasn’t to be a year of “I was so honored just to be nominated” said through gritted teeth. Not the time for 500 camera-greedy producers jostling for recognition from the cameras — COVID protocols meant that no more than two people could be on Winter Gardens stage at once.

Instead, winners took care to thank front-line theater workers — electricians up ladders, orchestra members in the pit, ensemble members of all stripes. On both broadcasts, many also referenced the demands for racial equity and social change that have become part of Broadway’s ongoing reinvention.

“I’ve always thought of the Tonys as Broadway’s prom night”, said McDonald. “But tonight it feels like homecoming. So good to see half your faces.”

In the first Tony to be handed out in a stunning 27 months, David Alan Grier (”A Solider’s Play”) won for best featured actor in a play.

“And to the other nominees, tough bananas!” Grier said. “I won!”

And after six unsuccessful nominations, Danny Burstein (“Moulin Rouge!”) finally went home with a Tony for best featured actor in a musical.

Burstein paid tribute to the Broadway community in the wake of the recent death of his wife. “You all showed up for us,” he said, drawing a standing ovation.

At the age of 90, making her the oldest Tony winner in history, Lois Smith won best featured actress in a play for her moving work in “The Inheritance.” She quoted the novelist, E. M. Forster, as a concise statement about the value of life theater: “Only Connect.”

Lauren Patten won on the first try for her performance as a featured actress in “Jagged Little Pill.”

Byrne, one of the big successes of the 2020-21 season, won a special Tony for his “American Utopia,” his exuberant, concert-style show that seemed to match the moment, albeit before the pandemic engulfed everything (he and his show are coming back this fall). “Freestyle Love Supreme,” an improv show headlined (on some nights) by Lin-Manuel Miranda, also won a special Tony.

Design awards for work on plays went to Rob Howell (set and costumes) and Hugh Vanstone (costumes), part of a decent showing by the holiday attraction “A Christmas Carol.” Neither of those winners were present, perhaps due to the travel ban on international visitors to the U.S. But veteran scenic designer Derek McLane showed up to win best scenic design of a musical for “Moulin Rouge!” as did Catherine Zuber, who won for costume design, and Justin Townsend, who won for lighting design, also for “Moulin Rouge!”

The biggest welcome of the night, unseen by network viewers? Jennifer Holliday, an original member of the cast of “Dreamgirls,” performing “I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.”

She was telling it, for sure. On behalf of everyone who works on Broadway.

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