The Tony Awards are going to be a bit different this year.
Delayed by the continuing pandemic, Sunday’s in-person ceremony will recognize shows that opened — and, in many cases, closed — long ago. The official after-party is canceled. And most of the prizes will be presented on a streaming service, so the televised portion of the evening can focus on marketing Broadway.
But there is a solace for theater-lovers. Two familiar faces will be at the helm of the four-hour event at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theater: Audra McDonald, who has won more competitive Tonys than any other performer, and Leslie Odom Jr., who vaulted from “Hamilton” (for which he won a Tony) to Hollywood.
They have their work cut out for them. Award shows have generally fared poorly during the pandemic, and the theater community is on edge as the industry seeks to recover from a devastating shutdown.
In separate interviews, McDonald and Odom said they saw their roles as helping Broadway recover — reminding America that theaters are reopening, while celebrating artists and mourning those lost during the pandemic.
“I want to be a part of whatever we can do to get the word out that Broadway is back,” said McDonald, who is hosting the first two hours, starting at 7 p.m. Eastern time and streaming on Paramount Plus. During that portion, most of the awards will be bestowed.
Odom outlined a similar goal for his part of the evening, a two-hour show starting at 9 p.m. Eastern that will be broadcast on CBS. Primarily, it will be a concert, but it will also feature the awards for best musical, best play and best play revival. “I hope that we can remind people of the power of live performance,” Odom said, “which is a challenging thing to do on a television, but it’s what we’re tasked to do, and it’s our best hope in this moment.”
The two hosts are at different stages of their careers. McDonald, 51, is a six-time Tony winner who has been described as the queen of Broadway; she is the only performer to have won an award in every acting category. She is again a nominee this year, for the play “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.” Odom, 40, wowed audiences as a charismatically ambitious Aaron Burr in “Hamilton,” then pivoted to screen work in Los Angeles and scored two Oscar nominations for “One Night in Miami.”
McDonald brought up another aspect of their selection. They are both Black, which is noteworthy given that the last 11 Tony ceremonies have been hosted by white people. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had hosts of color up there,” McDonald said. “It models something, seeing two hosts of color representing theater and the Tonys.”
Neither revealed any details about the evening. Will McDonald sing? “It’s post-2020,” she said. “Expect anything at all times.” And Odom? “My first words were use me up,” he said. “However I can help — if it’s a pie to the face, or singing a ‘Hamilton’ tune, whatever is of use, ask and allow me.”
They pledged to honor the work done on shows staged during the truncated 2019-20 season, even as they remind viewers that Broadway has reopened. “It’s been so long that these nominees have waited, and to let them have their prom night is what I want to do,” McDonald said. “I want to make it about them and their accomplishments.”
Broadway, Odom said, is “going to be OK, in time, but I don’t know how much time,” adding: “This is a tough spot we’re in, and I don’t want to be cavalier about what we’re facing. But in the end, there are young writers and performers all over the world trying to write with an urgency and a relevancy and a potency that gives theater new life and reminds us of its necessity.”
Both said that they believed the traditional “in memoriam” segment of this year’s awards ceremony — the first Tonys night since June 2019 — would be especially important, with over 680,000 deaths from the pandemic so far in the United States alone.
“Beyond making sure that we put on a great show for America, I also want to make sure that we get that ‘in memoriam’ section right, because we’ve lost so many, and we’ve been away for so long,” Odom said. “That’s a cloud hanging over the evening. There’s so many that we’ve lost from the theater, and we’ve lost a great deal of our audience as well.”
For McDonald, those losses are personal. Among those who died of coronavirus complications was the playwright Terrence McNally, a longtime mentor, collaborator and friend. (He was a writer of three shows in which she starred: “Master Class,” “Ragtime” and “Frankie and Johnny.”) She said she is also mourning the deaths, since the last Tonys ceremony, of the actors Nick Cordero, who also died of Covid, as well as Zoe Caldwell and Rebecca Luker.
“Among the difficult things is that we haven’t been able to mourn them properly, because we haven’t been able to have gatherings,” she said. “That’s something else the pandemic has taken away. I think it will be an emotional moment in the show to recognize the great loss we’ve all suffered.”
McDonald and Odom have been concerned about racial justice in America, and said that the issue would be on their minds during the Tonys.
“I’m excited about the fact that there’s so much Black work being represented on Broadway this season, and I’m hopeful that there will be more awareness and more action toward making things more diverse and equitable, and making it more of an anti-racist space,” said McDonald. Last year, she co-founded Black Theater United, which recently negotiated an agreement with industry leaders that included a pledge to end the practice of hiring all-white creative teams.
“We need to make sure the Broadway we left is not the Broadway we return to,” McDonald said, “but that it is a better place.”
Odom said that a team of writers has been working on how to balance the show’s tone. “We have music and dance and great writers and a slew of talent, and we want first and foremost to entertain folks,” he said. “But beyond that, the show needs to come out of the truth of where we are. We need to honor this moment that we’re in, and deal with it honestly.”
Neither McDonald nor Odom saw many of the nominated shows, but they did both see “Slave Play,” Jeremy O. Harris’s daring exploration of slavery’s lingering legacy, which, with 12 Tony nominations, has the most nominations of any play in the awards’ history. McDonald said that the play “rocked me to my core.” Odom called it “a hard watch” and said, “there were parts I didn’t recognize, but the big lesson for me is when a younger person is speaking, and there is something you don’t recognize, that means it’s something for you to investigate.”
Now that Broadway is reopening, Odom said, he wants to see “Pass Over,” Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s existential drama about two Black men trapped on a street corner. He’d also like to visit “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” (to catch Adrienne Warren’s Tony-nominated performance); “Hamilton” (to see the new cast); and “The Lion King.”
McDonald, who saw “Tina” before the pandemic hit, said that she plans to wait a few months before joining audiences on Broadway because her 4-year-old daughter is not yet eligible for a vaccine. “I’m being super-careful about where I go and what I do right now,” McDonald said. “But as soon as she is vaccinated, I will get back out there as an audience member.”
As for when they will return to Broadway as performers, Odom said, “I’m on the hunt.”
“I’m looking for old great plays and musicals that haven’t been revived, and I’m meeting new fantastic writers and exciting young composers when I can,” he said. “I do expect it to happen.”
McDonald already has her next role lined up, although she wasn’t ready to discuss details. “I won’t get on the stage this season,” she said, “but I look forward to getting onstage next season.”