This image released by Polk & Co. shows, from left, James Jackson Jr., Jason Veasey, Michael Lyles, Jaquel Spivey, L Morgan Lee, Andrew Morrison and Antwayn Hopper during a performance of "A Strange Loop" in New York. (Marc J. Franklin/Polk & Co. via AP)
NEW YORK (AP) — Darren Criss’ favorite night of the year has arrived. It’s the Tony Awards. “I’ll never shut up about the Tonys. I love the Tonys,” he says.
Criss will not only be watching the Tonys on Sunday, he’ll also be working. He’s co-host with Julianne Hough of a one-hour pre-Tony celebration at Radio City Music Hall, and he’s even written an original song about the show that he’ll perform, revealing “a bit of my nerdy proclivities.”
Criss and Hough will be handing out creative arts Tonys on Paramount+ and then pass hosting duties to Ariana DeBose for the main three-hour telecast on CBS from the same stage, live coast to coast for the first time.
The season — with 34 new productions — represents a full return to theaters after nearly two years of a pandemic-mandated shutdown. At the last Tonys nine months ago, the winners were pulled from just 18 eligible plays and musicals, and many of the competitive categories were depleted.
DeBose, the Tony-nominated theater veteran and freshly minted Oscar winner for “West Side Story,” said Broadway is due for a party.
“I feel like if there was ever the time, the time is now,” she said. “I think it’s a triumph to have simply made it to this point, to have made art and to have a show.”
The telecast will have performances from this year’s Tony Award-nominated musicals, including “A Strange Loop,” “Company,” “Girl from the North Country,” “MJ,” “Mr. Saturday Night,” “Music Man,” “Paradise Square” and “Six.” The original cast members of the 2007 Tony-winning musical “Spring Awakening” will also reteam and perform.
“A Strange Loop,” a theater meta-journey about a playwright writing a musical, goes into the show with a leading 11 Tony nominations. Right behind with 10 nominations each is “MJ,” a bio musical of the King of Pop stuffed with his biggest hits, and “Paradise Square,” a musical about Irish immigrants and Black Americans jostling to survive in New York City around the time of the Civil War.
The best actress in a musical frontrunners are Sharon D Clarke from the revival of “Caroline, or Change” and Joaquina Kalukango of “Paradise Square.” The best actor in a musical may come down to Jaquel Spivey from “A Strange Loop” versus Myles Frost as the King of Pop in “MJ the Musical.”
“The Lehman Trilogy,” Stefano Massini’s play spanning 150 years about what led to the collapse of financial giant Lehman Brothers, is the leading best new play contender, while David Morse in a revival of Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive” is the leading contender as best actor in a play. His co-star, Mary-Louise Parker, could become the first actor to receive consecutive Tonys for best actress in a play.
Producers are once again expanding the show thanks to streaming partner Paramount+, adding an extra hour before the three-hour main awards telecast to celebrate the creative Tony nominees in such categories as sound design and lighting. Often in the past, those acceptances were recorded earlier and shoe-horned into the telecast.
Criss and Hough — who each had roles this spring on Broadway — are hosting that first hour, which will be aired exclusively on the streaming network.
“I think they’ve recognized that a lot of the moments that have not made it to the public view were worth showing and worth presenting and worth giving the people who had these really amazing moments a bit of acknowledgment and recognition,” said Criss, who stars in a revival of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo.”
Hough, who made her Broadway debut with a role in the woman-only ensemble of the political comedy “POTUS,” has been impressed by the talent level of her peers.
“I always look at Broadway performers and creatives as like artistic athletes, because the ability and the tenacity and the discipline and the hard work and everything that’s put into it — as well as the artistry — is just beyond,” the “Dancing with the Stars” veteran said.
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