CBS’ decision to present just three Tony Awards on its prime-time special The Tony Awards Present: Broadway’s Back! may have caused some hurt feelings in the Broadway community, but it resulted in an enormously entertaining special for the rest of us – a show that was jam-packed with music.
Much of the music in the first half of the show would have been familiar even to fans who think of “Dancing Queen” and “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” as great Broadway songs. It’s not (just) that the producers of Broadway’s Back had their eye on ratings: This year, for the first time in Tony history, all three nominees for best musical were jukebox musicals – Moulin Rouge! the Musical (which won), Jagged Little Pill and Tina! The Tina Turner Musical. So we heard highlights from all three of those shows – “Lady Marmalade,” Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” and “All I Really Want,” and a few of Turner’s signature hits, respectively.
In addition, David Byrne performed Talking Heads’ 1983 hit “Burning Down the House,” from David Byrne’s American Utopia, which won a special Tony Award.
And John Legend joined the cast of Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations to performed a pair of classics from that show which is set to return to Broadway on Oct. 16. The cast of that show also performed on the Tony Awards in 2019, when the show was nominated for 11 awards. They performed the show’s title song, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” that year, and again this year. But last time they didn’t have Legend in tow. His star power (and a quest for ratings) may explain the unusual repeat booking.
Those sequences were great, but they were all songs that originated in the world of pop — and, except for Byrne’s performance — they were basically cover versions. What made the show special was the chance to hear songs that originated on Broadway. Most pop fans nowadays have no idea how deep and rich that tradition is. This show served to remind them.
Here are five highlights from the show, which was held at the venerable Winter Garden Theater in New York:
It’s Sondheim’s world…: There were three reminders of Stephen Sondheim’s supremacy in the world of Broadway. Anika Noni Rose and Ben Platt sang a lovely version of “Move On,” from his 1984 show Sunday in the Park With George. A bit later, Norm Lewis and Kelli O’Hara sang “Somewhere” (which Sondheim co-wrote with Leonard Bernstein for 1957’s West Side Story) over the last part of the In Memoriam spot. And later still, Tituss Burgess and Andrew Rannells sang “It Takes Two” from his 1987 show Into the Woods. (The latter performance deserves special mention for the very casual way it depicted a same-sex, interracial romantic coupling.)
Leslie Odom Jr. scored as host and in three performances. Odom, who won a Tony five years ago for playing Aaron Burr in Hamilton, opened the show with a big production number and later performed two duets. He teamed with Josh Groban to sing “Beautiful City” from Godspell and with his wife Nicolette Robinson to sing “You Matter to Me” from Waitress. Groban, who co-hosted the Tonys three years ago with Sara Bareilles, got off a sly line prior to his duet with Odom: “Shall we just stand here so as to appear casual and unrehearsed?”
Power Teams: The show’s informal theme of star pairings really paid off in the home stretch as a series of pairs of stars reunited to sing songs from their classic Broadway shows. Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel sang “For Good” from Wicked. Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal re-teamed to sing “What You Own” from Rent. Audra McDonald (who hosted the 74th Tony Awards on Paramount+, which immediately preceded this special) and Brian Stokes Mitchell sang “Wheels of a Dream” from Ragtime: The Musical. (Stokes also sang “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha over another part of that long In Memoriam segment. It was longer than normal because the 73rd Tony Awards broadcast was nearly 28 months ago.)
Lin-Manuel Miranda recapped the two-hour-plus special in four minutes: The idea was to convey the improvisational spirit of Freestyle Love Supreme, which received a special Tony award. The show was a hit at the Booth Theatre in 2019-20. It grew out of an improvisational hip-hop comedy musical group started by Miranda and Anthony Veneziale in 2004 and directed by Thomas Kail. The performance here, complete with an on-screen countdown clock that let the audience in on the fun of seeing if Miranda and company would be able to pull it off, also included Wayne Brady, James Monroe Iglehart and more.
Legends don’t need to perform to make an impact: Before presenting the award for best musical, Chita Rivera and Andrew Lloyd Webber reminisced about being back in the Winter Garden Theater. Webber noted that his blockbuster Cats played there for 18 years (from 1982 to 2000). Rivera topped him by saying that exactly 64 years ago to the day — on Sept. 26, 1957 — West Side Story opened at the Winter Garden. She originated the role of Anita, and introduced the songs “America,” “A Boy Like That” and “I Have Love.”
The Tony Awards Present: Broadway’s Back! was produced in collaboration with Tony Award Productions, a joint venture of The Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing, and White Cherry Entertainment, the team behind the annual Tony Awards telecast. Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss were executive producers for White Cherry Entertainment. Weiss served as director.