Tony Awards 2024 Best & Worst Moments, Snubs And Surprises – Review

No awards show makes it to the end without a few surprises, and tonight’s Tony Awards on CBS had a whopper: It went off without a hitch.

The Pluto TV pre-show, not so much. But more on that in a bit.

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With Ariana DeBose returning to host for the third time, the 77th Annual Tonys was like a how-to for awards shows, with nearly all of the performances by the Best Musical nominees (and the year’s Best Play winner Stereophonic) showcasing each production at its best. (Which one fell a bit short? Read on.)

DeBose kicked things off with a made-for-the-show musical number, sounding terrific even if a performance from one of the actual Broadway shows might have been a wiser option. DeBose has said this will be her final Tony hosting gig, at least for a while, and she’ll be missed: She knows how to hold the spotlight, and she knows how to hand it off.

The ceremony, which looked gorgeous in Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater (a first-time venue for the Tonys), moved along at a terrific clip, with acceptance speeches concise without seeming rushed, more than a few poignant moments (and even more tears shed, and that’s just from Jonathan Groff), and some exceptional and unexpected wins to go along with the exceptional and expected ones.

Here’s my take on tonight’s high points, surprises and, of course, some of the lows. Thankfully, the former outnumbered the latter.

  • Alicia Keys and Jay-Z kicked the show into high gear with a rousing rendition of her “Empire State of Mind,” even if Jay-Z’s appearance didn’t appear to be actually taking place in the same venue; it looked like he was outside Lincoln Center, and maybe even pre-taped. Still, to TV viewers it likely mattered little: Hell’s Kitchen couldn’t ask for a better showcase to get it noticed coast-to-coast.

  • Jeremy Strong, winning for his leading performance in An Enemy of the People, thanked, among others, the ushers and staff at Circle in the Square. He didn’t mention how those very ushers efficiently handled climate protesters when the group Extinction Rebellion interrupted a preview performance some months back. But those who knew, knew.

  • Stereophonic‘s Will Brill beat out two of his cast mates – Eli Gelb and Tom Pecinka – for the Featured Actor/Play trophy, and graciously asked them, and the play’s Best Featured Actress nominees Juliana Canfield and Sarah Pidgeon, to stand and share in the moment. As I wrote in my Predictions column, I’d have given Pecinka the slight edge here, but we’re talking hairsplitting. The entire cast is phenomenal.

  • Kara Young, the first actress of color to score Tony nominations in three consecutive years, won tonight for her Featured Role/Play performance in Purlie Victorious, and her acceptance speech was as charming as her Purlie performance was hilarious. She thanked the late greats Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, who, respectively, wrote and originally starred in the play decades ago, and gave a sweet Fathers Day shout-out to her dad Klay Young, a longtime server at New York’s Rainbow Room where Kara’s 2022 nomination for Clyde’s was announced. Even sweeter was her mention of her great-grandmother Hazel, who “made it a point to come to Purlie Victorious two weeks before she transitioned.”

  • Both the tribute to the late, great Chita Rivera and the In Memoriam sections were beautifully handled, with Brian Stokes Mitchell, Bebe Neuwirth and Audra McDonald joined in the former by DeBose (who did a fine rendition of Rivera’s signature song “America” from West Side Story). The In Memoriam segment should be studied by every awards show producer from here on in: Put a fine performer onstage (tonight’s was Nicole Scherzinger, singing “What I Did For Love” from A Chorus Line), but make sure to show the big, unobscured pictures of the folks you’re honoring so everyone at home can see them.

  • Stereophonic playwright David Adjmi gave props to Playwrights Horizons, the Off Broadway non-profit theater that first staged the play. In fact, tonight was pretty much a tribute to the city’s non-profs, with Playwrights Horizons, Second Stage and Manhattan Theatre Club responsible for birthing an inordinate number of nominees, including Stereophonic, Jaja’s African Hair Braiding, Mary Jane, Prayer for the French Republic and Mother Play.

  • The musical numbers: The performances from the casts of The Outsiders, The Who’s Tommy, Suffs, Merrily We Roll Along, Illinoise, Water For Elephants and, to a slightly lesser extent, Stereophonic gave everyone watching a good idea of what theatergoers have been talking about for months. Stereophonic‘s “Masquerade” was too abbreviated, and Pete Townshend could have stuck around longer on “Pinball Wizard,” but by and large the numbers did what they’re supposed to do.

  • Appropriate‘s Sarah Paulson gave a nice shout-out to her chief rival for Best Leading Actress/Play, acknowledging Mother Play‘s “great Jessica Lange”; and Merrily director Maria Friedman spoke for many when she addressed the late Stephen Sondheim to tell him “Merrily‘s popular!”

  • Hell’s Kitchen‘s Maleah Joi Moon, at 21 the night’s youngest Tony nominee, took home the trophy for Lead Actress/Musical in what was, aside from Maria Friedman’s loss to Danya Taymor, the ceremony’s biggest surprise, and a welcome one.

  • Merrily‘s Jonathan Groff and Daniel Radcliffe were shoo-ins for the Leading Actor and Featured Actor/Musical trophies, but their tearful acceptance speeches and clear affection for one another were among the night’s sweetest moments.

And now, for the worst moments of the night:

  • Act One, the Tony pre-show, kicked off 90 minutes before the ceremony proper, but I can’t be the only one who figured out at least several minutes too late that Pluto TV’s streaming site is not the same as the Pluto TV TV channel. If you’re going to put a significant portion of the evening – 11 awards were announced on the pre-show – on a barely watched destination like Pluto, at least make it easy to get there.

  • The opening number. All respect to Ariana, but the show did her no favors handing her a lackluster new song (composed by Next To Normal‘s Tom Kitt) to kick off the show. The number came off as weirdly generic, as if it were designed to open any and every awards show.

  • Fortunately, most of the musical numbers were much better, “most” being the operative word. The big exception: Cabaret. Not only did the revival’s producers keep Gayle Rankin away from the mic — I mean, doesn’t Cabaret sorta belong to Sally Bowles? — but Eddie Redmayne’s herky-jerky performance as the Emcee (he sang “Willkommen”) seemed even more, shall we say, eccentric with TV cameras in his face than it does at the August Wilson Theatre. I’m very curious to know how it played to the uninitiated;.

  • Some of the camera angles didn’t serve other shows well either, particularly the performance by the cast of Stereophonic. Part of the play’s visual appeal is observing the fictional Fleetwood Mac-like band’s recording session all in one big, encompassing wide shot, no close-ups necessary. Tonight’s presentation was not as off-putting as seeing Redmayne under a microscope, but that’s not saying a lot.

As for snubs, not many really, though I suppose Maria Friedman’s loss could be considered as such. And while Hell’s Kitchen won only two of its 13 categories, the victories were two of the most memorable of the night: Maleah Joi Moon and Kecia Lewis for Leading Actress & Featured Actress in a musical. I’d have liked Illinoise to take more awards (and its sole win, for Justin Peck’s beautiful choreography, was announced on the Pluto TV pre-show), but for a dialogue-free dance production, the show’s presence on tonight’s broadcast was pretty much a triumph in itself.

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