Maybe Usher can finally quit his day job.
A Strange Loop — Michael R. Jackson’s deconstructionist portrait of a musical theater artist as a young, Black, insecure gay man — was named best musical at the 75th Tony Awards tonight. A former Lion King usher, Jackson spent nearly two decades working on his sacred-cow-slaughtering show about a “Disney ushering, broke-ass middle-class politically homeless normie leftist Black American” aspiring composer-lyricist.
The innovative musical was developed by an independent producer, Barbara Whitman, and the nonprofit companies Playwrights Horizons, Page 73 Productions and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Co. At Radio City Music Hall, Whitman said she dreams her grandson “will grow up in a world where stories like A Strange Loop are told on stages everywhere, all of the time.”
Another underdog winner provided the evening’s biggest shock: Deirdre O’Connell, a celebrated actor whose long and extraordinary career has been spent primarily Off-Broadway and in regional theaters, won for lead actress in a play, Dana H. She doesn’t utter a word in the drama — which closed after a brief run and may not have been seen by most Tony voters — but her lip-synching wowed critics and audiences alike.
The ascension of Strange Loop is a hopeful sign about the future of Broadway, even with the theater district mired in a depression. Grosses in the abbreviated season, which started in earnest in the fall and ended on May 22, were $845 million, less than half of 2018-19’s record $1.83 billion. Flops abound.
Upon accepting the Tony for best book of a musical, Jackson, now 41, said he started writing his show when he was 23 and living in Jamaica, Queens. “I felt unseen, I felt unheard, I felt misunderstood. And I just wanted to create a little life raft for myself as a Black gay man to try to get though the day.”
His Pulitzer-Prize-winning work won the most important award but it wasn’t a sweep. Another experimental musical, a gender-bending revival of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s 1970 dark comedy about marriage and relationships, Company, won for musical revival and for Marianne Elliott’s direction, featured actress Patti LuPone, featured actor Matt Doyle and Bunny Christie’s scenic design. In addition there was a Sondheim remembrance with Bernadette Peters singing “Children Will Listen” from Into the Woods, which is being revived this summer.
Six, about the wives of Henry VIII, won for Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow’s irresistible pop score and Gabriella Slade’s costumes. The show is a lean, global money machine. People familiar with the Broadway production said it long ago recouped its $5 million capitalization. Scheduled to open on March 12, 2020 — the day Broadway went dark — it averaged weekly operating profit of $390,000 in its first 10 weeks after returning this fall, according to papers filed with the office New York Attorney General Letitia James.
Producer Kevin McCollum appeared delighted with Six‘s win for score. Mrs. Doubtfire, another pandemic-postponed musical he produced, which had one nomination, for lead actor Rob McClure, closed at a loss on May 29.
Paradise Square, the Garth Drabinsky-produced new musical that may be losing as much money each week as Six is making, had a coup with its lead actress, Joaquina Kalukango, the show’s sole winner. Myles Frost, whose uncanny mimicry of pop star Michael Jackson is front and center in MJ, won for lead actor in a musical. MJ also won Tonys for Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography and sound and lighting design.
As expected, Stefano Massini and Ben Power’s The Lehman Trilogy won for best play; Sam Mendes’ direction and best actor Simon Russell Beale, edging out his two co-stars, Adrian Lester and Adam Godley; and lighting and scenic design.
Take Me Out, produced by Second Stage, was named best play revival and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who plays a business manager in Richard Greenberg’s play, won for featured actor. The Manhattan Theatre Club production of Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew won for featured actress Phylicia Rashad, but its revival of Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, which closed on Sunday, was blanked, despite a host of glowing reviews. Ditto for Mr. Saturday Night, the acclaimed musical comedy starring Billy Crystal with songs by Jason Robert Brown and Amanda Green. It’s grossing far less than the 2013 revival of Crystal’s one-man show 700 Sundays. Nevertheless, Crystal’s partially improvised number from Mr. Saturday Night had the uncommonly diverse audience at Radio City cheering the schtick.
Host Ariana DeBose, a Hamilton alum who won an Academy Award for West Side Story, praised Broadway for its unusually inclusive season. “I feel like the phrase ‘Great White Way’ has become more of a nickname as opposed to a how-to guide,” she said.