Moulin Rouge! swept the board at the 2021 Tony awards, picking up 10 trophies during a ceremony that also acted as a celebration of the return of Broadway.
The adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 Oscar-winning musical, which reopened on 24 September, became the first Australian-produced show to win a Tony for best musical, beating Jagged Little Pill and Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.
Moulin Rouge!, which was nominated in 14 categories, also picked up the award for best actor in a musical (Aaron Tveit), as well as best scenery, costume, lighting, sound, choreography, orchestration and direction in a musical.
“It feels a little odd to me to be talking about one show as ‘best musical’,” producer Carmen Pavlovic said in her speech. “I feel that every show of last season deserves to be thought of as best musical.”
The awards come amid the official reopening of Broadway, after an unprecedented downtime as a result of the pandemic which also led to a cancellation of the 2020 ceremony.
Matthew Lopez’s Broadway transfer of his emotional seven-hour Aids drama The Inheritance was named best play, making him the first Latino writer to win this award, and Stephen Daldry won his third Tony as best director after winning the same award at the Oliviers in 2019. Daldry dedicated the win to the many men who lost their lives during the crisis. Star Andrew Burnap also beat out Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Hiddleston to win best leading actor in a play.
Mary-Louise Parker won best leading actress in a play for The Sound Inside, her second Tony award.
The Tonys, which have historically rewarded predominantly white actors and white creatives, reflecting an industry that has been overwhelmingly lacking in diversity, featured a slightly more diverse set of nominees than usual.
Adrienne Warren was named best leading actress in a musical for Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, and David Alan Grier won his first Tony for best actor in a featured role in a play for A Soldier’s Tale, which was also named best revival. Slave Play, which entered the night with 12 nominations, left the night empty-handed.
Co-host Audra Macdonald, who was also nominated for best leading actress in a play, spoke about recent changes in the industry which will lead to “more awareness, action and accountability”, which in turn will lead to more equity. In the 2017-8 season, 85.5% of directors, 61% of actors and nearly 80% of show writers were white, according to a report by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition. Groups and initiatives have been formed in the last year to push for more equality, and this season there are seven plays by Black writers – a record for Broadway.
There was also a special Tony handed to the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, a group dedicated to dismantling the systems that perpetuate racism through the power of storytelling. “Moving forward requires calling out,” said director Britton Smith in his speech. Later in the evening, BAC members Amber Iman and Adrienne Warren came on stage to speak about the importance of fighting back against “systems of oppression”, and the role that art has to play.
Lauren Patten won the Tony for best actress in a featured role in a musical for Alanis Morissette show Jagged Little Pill, playing a character that has recently been at the centre of controversy. Patten’s character was originally gender nonbinary in the Boston iteration, but was changed to female for Broadway. A growing backlash recently led to an apology from the producers.
In her speech, Patten said “we are in the middle of a reckoning”; she said she has engaged in conversations that were “full of honesty, empathy and a respect for our humanity”. Diablo Cody, who won the best original screenplay Oscar for Juno in 2008, also won for best book of a musical for Jagged Little Pill.
Other winners included 90-year-old Lois Smith for her role in The Inheritance, becoming the oldest performer to win an acting Tony; and Danny Burstein for his featured role in Moulin Rouge!, his first award after seven nominations. Technical awards were mostly won by A Christmas Carol and Moulin Rouge!
The truncated Broadway year – that saw theatres shuttered at the start of the pandemic – meant that only 18 plays and musicals were eligible compared with 34 in 2019. This led to the category for best leading actor in a musical only having one nominee and one winner: Aaron Tveit for Moulin Rouge!
Unlike other recent awards ceremonies, such as the Emmys, audience members were required to wear masks for the duration of the show, in line with theatre protocol in New York. They were also required to show proof of vaccination, and only two winners at a time were allowed on stage. The night saw a standing ovation for an in-audience Chuck Schumer for helping the return of live theatre.
Sunday night’s ceremony was split between Paramount+ and CBS, as yet another attempt to boost subscribers for the recently rebranded streaming platform. The majority of awards were handed out in a two-hour streaming special before a switch to the network for a performance-heavy final section, billed The Tony Awards Present: Broadway’s Back!, with just three trophies remaining.
The night included appearances from stars including Jennifer Holliday singing And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going from Dreamgirls, and David Byrne performing Burning Down the House from American Utopia, which also picked up a special award.
Moulin Rouge! The Musical is expected to play on London’s West End from 12 November. Plans for its Australian premiere at the Regent Theatre, Melbourne are still unknown, but producers are hoping for a November opening.