In such an unprecedented time for the arts it seems bizarre that there would be theatre awards to be handed out, and yet the 2020 Tony Award nominations were announced on 15 October. With Broadway being completely closed down since March, there has hardly been a season to reward so nominations were scarce to say the least. Most notably, the 2020 Tonys saw for the first time only one actor, Aaron Tveit, put forward for the Best Actor in a musical category.
This is also the first year that all of the nominees for Best Musical have been jukebox musicals. Moulin Rouge, Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, and Jagged Little Pill all use music from popular culture or from the discography of a specific artist. Consequently, the award for Best Original Score is guaranteed to go to a play this year for the first time in Tony history.
While it goes without saying that this year’s circumstances aren’t quite what we are used to, it is not the first time that the Tonys have been a little unusual.
In 1983, Cats swept the Tonys, winning, among others, Best Book of a Musical. The award was given to T. S. Eliot who had written the poems that earned him the nomination more than 44 years before. Eliot died in 1965 and thus he was given the award retrospectively for the first time in Tony history. The second was in 1996 when Jonathan Larson posthumously won multiple creative categories for Rent.
The 35th Tony Awards in 1985, was such a quiet year on Broadway that several categories were dropped entirely, including Best Actor in a Musical, Best Actress in a Musical and Best Choreography.
1995 saw only two nominees for Best Actress in a Musical. The Broadway season had not been shortened for any reason; the Tony voters merely felt that only two women had displayed sufficient excellence in their field to warrant a Tony nomination. Glenn Close won the award for her performance in Sunset Boulevard, one which many would agree has indeed gone down in history for its calibre.
Often, in the Tonys strange history, musicals that we consider classics controversially did not win Best Musical: West Side Story lost out to The Music Man; Grease was beaten by a musical adaptation of Two Gentlemen of Verona; and Miss Saigon lost out to the since forgotten The Will Rogers Follies.
It’s safe to say that although this year is entirely untypical for live theatre, the Tonys’ strange approach to its 2020 awards is nothing out of the ordinary.