If the last 73 years of Tony Awards ceremonies have taught us anything, it’s that nothing is a guarantee when it comes to predicting the winners. Following a year like no other, it's no surprise that the 74th annual celebration had several remarkable wins, a few upsets, and its own share of history makers.
Read on for some of the breakout moments from this year's awards presentation.
A Tony at 90
Lois Smith may not have had much stage time in Matthew Lopez’s epic, two-part The Inheritance, but she certainly made the most of it, playing Margaret in the second half of Lopez’s homage to E. M. Forster’s Howards End. Her monologue about losing a son to AIDS resonated with audiences, who felt as deep a connection to her character as they did to the other characters with whom they had already spent several hours. And, Tony voters felt similarly, awarding Smith her very first Tony—following nominations in 1990 and 1996 for, respectively, The Grapes of Wrath and Buried Child. The win also reserves the actor, who has always imbued her work with a heartbreaking humanity, a spot in the Tony records book. At 90, she is now the oldest actor to ever win the award, replacing the late Cicely Tyson, who won her Tony in 2013 at the age of 89 for playing Mrs. Carrie Watts (a part Smith had played Off-Broadway in 2005) in Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful.
Lucky Number 7
It didn’t take the Tony Awards quite as long as it took the Emmys to finally recognize Susan Lucci, but Broadway favorite Danny Burstein broke his own piece of awards history (most Tony nominations without nabbing the prize) September 26. At 7:12 PM ET, he won the Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical Tony for his performance as Harold Zidler in Moulin Rouge! The Musical. It was a moment of light in a dark year for the actor, who wrote gracefully about both his near life-taking battle with COVID-19 and the devastating loss of his wife, the luminous Tony-nominated actor Rebecca Luker, to ALS. Burstein had been nominated six previous times, starting in 2006 for The Drowsy Chaperone, followed by South Pacific in 2008, Follies in 2012, Golden Boy In 2013, Cabaret in 2014, and Fiddler on the Roof in 2016. But it was his performance as the seedy Master of Ceremonies—who welcomes Moulin Rouge! audiences saying, “No matter your sin, you’re welcome here”—that finally brought him Tony gold. Burstein has always been welcome on Broadway, and tonight he finally got the thank you he has long deserved.
A Christmas Carol and Moulin Rouge! Design Sweeps
The visually stunning, limited run of Jack Thorne's adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, which went on to break box office records at the Lyceum for three consecutive weeks during the 2019 holiday period, won all four design awards categories. It was an unexpected sweep for the now-closed production, considering eight different productions were represented among those four categories. Winning for their designs of the Matthew Warchus-helmed production were lighting designer Hugh Vanstone, sound designer Simon Baker, and scenic and costume designer Rob Howell. Also notable: Due to the pandemic, none of the London-based designers were in attendance at the Winter Garden. (For those who missed the Broadway run, A Christmas Carol will visit five U.S. cities this holiday season with two simultaneous productions.) Moulin Rouge! also managed the same sweep for its equally breathtaking designs. Winning for the design of the stage adaptation of Baz Luhrmann's film: Derek McLane for Best Scenic Design, Catherine Zuber for Best Costume Design, Justin Townsend for Best Lighting Design, and Peter Hylenski for Best Sound Design.
Best Original Score of a… Play
Yes, we knew going into the awards ceremony that all five nominated scores were written for plays (as opposed to musicals), but it is still remarkable that the winner for Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre was Christopher Nightingale for Jack Thorne’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol. It was another of the evening’s history-making wins, the first time the Best Original Score winner did not hail from a musical. Tony winner Nightingale previously shared an excerpt from his score and offered details of his inspiration here.
Slave Play Upset
The Broadway premiere of Jeremy O. Harris’ provocative drama Slave Play made history in October 2020 when it received 12 Tony nominations, the most any play had ever garnered in the history of the Tony Awards. Despite the nominations and the fact that the critically acclaimed play had previously earned Harris the Rosa Parks Playwriting Award, the Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award, The Lotos Foundation Prize in the Arts and Sciences, and the 2018 Paula Vogel Award, the Broadway production failed to win any Tonys at the September 26 ceremony. Slave Play, which follows three couples as they navigate the complexities of race, history, gender, and sexuality in 21st-century America, will get the chance to thrill audiences on the West Coast as part of Center Theatre Group's new season at the Mark Taper Forum. In fact, the entire creative team from the Broadway production, including Tony-nominated director Robert O'Hara, will reunite for the engagement.
Charles Fuller Wins for A Soldier's Play
This year’s Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play went to Charles Fuller for the Broadway premiere of A Soldier's Play. Per a ruling from The Tony Awards Administration Committee announced in 2019, living writers of shows new to Broadway, but considered revivals, are included as part of the nomination. (Mart Crowley won for the 2019 revival of The Boys in the Band the first year the rule was instituted.) In accepting the award, Tony winner Kenny Leon, who received his third Tony nomination for directing the 1944-set play, said, "No dis to Shakespeare, no dis to Ibsen, to Chekhov, to Shaw. They’re all at the table. But the table got to be bigger. We need the late, great Melvin van Peebles sitting at the table. We need Ntozake [Shange] sitting at the table. We need our young people to learn about all of our amazing writers in this land that we are standing on tonight, this Native American land. So we need to hear all of the stories. When we hear all of the stories, we are better!” The Negro Ensemble Company debuted A Soldier's Play in November 1980. The play, which follows an officer's race against his white leadership to unravel the crime of a Black sergeant's murder, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Play and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. An Oscar-nominated film adaptation, entitled A Soldier's Story, was released in 1984, and the Fuller work is now being adapted into a limited TV series. David Alan Grier, who won this year's Tony for Best Performance By an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play, will star in and executive produce the project.
Matthew Lopez Becomes First Latine Tony-Winning Playwright
It was a great night for The Inheritance, Matthew Lopez's Olivier–winning exploration of gay history, which won Tonys for the aforementioned Smith, actor Andrew Burnap, director Stephen Daldry, and the top prize of Best Play for Lopez, the first Latine playwright ever to win that award. Loosely inspired by E. M. Forster’s Howards End, the two-part play is set in New York City a generation after the HIV/AIDS crisis of the ‘80s and ‘90s as a group of gay men struggle to connect to the past and maintain a sense of history. In his speech, Lopez recognized “three queer men” who paved the way for his success: Forster, Terrence McNally, and Miguel Pinero, “the first Puerto Rican playwright to be produced on Broadway, who opened the door for me and who allowed me the opportunity to become a writer.” Lopez added, "This is the 74th Tony Awards, and yet I am only the first Latine writer to win in this category. I say that not to elicit your applause but to highlight the fact that the Latine community is underrepresented in American theatre, in New York theatre, and most especially on Broadway. We constitute 19 percent of the United States population, and we represent about two percent of the playwrights having plays on Broadway in the last decade. This must change."
The full, 2-part Tony Awards ceremony is available to stream on Paramount+.