Who is Chris Harper, and why is he paying everybody’s salaries? The question may have crossed your mind watching last night’s Tony Awards, where enough winners thanked “Chris Harper, who pays my salary” (or, as one British winner translated it, “who pays my wages”) to warrant a drinking game. To those in the know, it was Broadway’s favorite new in-joke. Last month, at a post-show talk back at the revival of “Company,” the indomitable Patti LuPone dressed down an audience member for not following mask protocol. “I pay your salary,” the spectator objected. “Bullshit!” LuPone snarled back. “Chris Harper pays my salary.” A recording of the exchange made it to Twitter, and a meme was born.
Hours into the seventy-fifth annual Tony Awards, the world finally met Chris Harper, the lead producer of “Company.” Accepting the award for Best Revival of a Musical, Harper, a genial, bald British fellow, turned to LuPone—who had won a featured-actress prize earlier in the evening and given an emphatic speech during which no audience members were harmed—and said, “Patti, it’s an honor to be the person who pays your salary.” To those playing along with vodka Stingers at home: drink to that.
The moment captured something essential about this year’s Tonys. Whereas last year’s ceremony captured a Broadway limping back from oblivion, with nominated shows that had been wiped out by the pandemic shutdown, last night’s edition, like the theatrical season it honored, was high-spirited and fun, though not without bruises. Many winners thanked understudies and swings, who kept shows alive when actors fell out with COVID. Marcia Gay Harden, before presenting an award to Phylicia Rashad (“Skeleton Crew”), announced that some hundred and fifty of Broadway’s COVID safety managers were present. (The camera cut to them in the balcony—masked, unlike the A-list crowd below.) The “ER” actor Anthony Edwards, introducing a number from the Bob Dylan jukebox musical “Girl from the North Country”—which stars his wife, Mare Winningham—recalled the night he went on, script in hand, during a cast shortage.
Like last year, the broadcast was split in two. A first hour, euphemized as “Act One,” streamed on Paramount+ and covered the categories deemed less eye-catching. It also included a lifetime-achievement prize for Angela Lansbury, over whose relegation to the warmup hour I was ready to open up a LuPone-size can of rage. But Lansbury wasn’t in attendance, so fine. The hour, both brisk and sedate, was hosted by Darren Criss and Julianne Hough, whose cheerleader pep seemed to grate even on themselves. “My mouth is so dry my lips are literally sticking to my teeth!” Hough said, stretching her bright-red lips into a pained smile, after their opening number, a schmaltzy ditty written by Criss.
The pace and pizzazz ramped up when the show also began airing on CBS and Ariana DeBose took over the hosting duties. Everyone knows that DeBose is a huge talent; she won an Oscar three months ago for playing Anita in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of “West Side Story.” But not every gifted performer can host an awards show. DeBose, at thirty-one, made it look like she had done it a thousand times: she was gung ho but not ingratiating, relaxed in her own skin, and seemed to be having a blast. Her opening number, in which she appeared in a white bodysuit, a bedazzled top, and a wide-brimmed hat—Fosse meets Futurism—was poppy and contemporary, even as she mashed up decades of songs from past Best Musical winners. “I’m so proud to be hosting the first Tony Awards since Broadway got its groove back,” she said, setting the tone of easygoing virtuosity. Later, she shimmied into the audience and got Laurence Fishburne to do his Daffy Duck impression. “Rad,” she told him. Who knew?
As DeBose observed early on, the night reflected a more inclusive Broadway. “I feel like the phrase ‘Great White Way’ is becoming more of a nickname, as opposed to a how-to guide,” she cracked. By then, Toby Marlow had already become the first openly nonbinary Tony winner, for co-writing the score of “Six.” And the Featured Actress in a Musical race contained the first openly transgender nominee in an acting category, L Morgan Lee (“A Strange Loop”), pointing to a future in which gender breakdowns at awards shows may become untenable. But the biggest sign of a Broadway catching up to the here and now was the triumph of “A Strange Loop,” which won Best Musical. The show, which announces itself as a “big, Black, and queer-ass American Broadway show,” is the madly metatheatrical, cranky-soulful, nearly-twenty-years-in-the-making work of Michael R. Jackson, who accepted his Tony for Best Book of a Musical in a resplendent magenta robe. “We talk a lot about representation. I’m all about representation, but let’s make sure we are staying on our grind,” Jackson said, adding, “Never settle. Just do your best.” It was a good, ornery reminder to push past the back-patting “progress” of awards shows, and was complemented later in the night, when Deirdre O’Connell, the star of Lucas Hnath’s sui generis “Dana H.,” won the leading-actress prize and dedicated her victory to self-doubting future Broadway creators, calling it a “little sign to you from the universe to make the weird art.”
The writer of “A Strange Loop” was not the only Michael Jackson represented at the Tonys, thanks to “MJ.” The musical won four awards, for its lighting and sound design, its choreography (by Christopher Wheeldon, who also directed), and its star, Myles Frost, who evoked the King of Pop when he arrived in sequinned shoulder pads and cool shades. Frost’s rendition of “Smooth Criminal,” in which he moved like mercury, more than proved the worthiness of all four wins. But it’s possible to feel bowled over by the show’s craft and queasy about all that went unspoken about its subject—in the musical and at the Tonys. Watching “Smooth Criminal,” I thought back to an earlier number, from “The Music Man,” starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster. The hit revival didn’t make out with any Tonys, but it represented itself well with its tap-and-trombone-heavy finale. “The Music Man” is about its own sort of smooth criminal, and about how show business can dazzle us into a willing blindness.
For the most part, though, the evening’s joys were less fraught. Billy Crystal, who knows his way around an awards show, did his Borscht Belt shtick from “Mr. Saturday Night,” enlisting Samuel L. Jackson to sing “Yiddish scat.” (“Say ‘Oy!’ ”) Joaquina Kalukango shook Radio City Music Hall to the rafters with “Let It Burn,” her eleven-o’clock number from “Paradise Square”; when she won Best Leading Actress in a Musical, not long after, her speech was just as raw and emotive. A cavalcade of nice British folks accepted prizes for “The Lehman Trilogy,” which won Best Play. Two actors specializing in exuberant gay neuroses won featured-actor awards: Jesse Tyler Ferguson, as a baseball-mad accountant in “Take Me Out” (which also won Best Revival of a Play), and Matt Doyle, as a groom with cold feet in “Company.” (Chris Harper pays his salary, too.) And a cast reunion of “Spring Awakening,” the breakthrough indie-rock musical from 2006, made the case for Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s score all over again.
All in all, this year’s Tonys made a persuasive sales pitch for Broadway without watering itself down or drowning itself in nostalgia. Despite COVID hurdles, stunted tourism, and overtaxed understudies, Broadway really does seem to have its groove back, and the work on display felt fresh and forward-looking. If there was a reason to look backward, it was an important one: the loss of Stephen Sondheim, who died last fall. The tribute to him was surprisingly low-key, but it did its job. Between verses of “Children Will Listen,” sung by Sondheim’s preëminent muse, Bernadette Peters, were clips of the master talking about teaching, about how art is a form of teaching. Broadway is what Sondheim made it, but the magnitude of his influence points in unexpected directions. After all, the opening number of “A Strange Loop” includes a direct homage to the opening number of “Company”—pioneering show tunes written decades apart but performed on the same night. Art travels in a strange loop. ♦