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Sept. 25, 2021, 10:34 a.m. EDT

What to watch for at this weekend’s unusual Tony Awards: Fewer nominees, but more intrigue

Charles Passy

Befitting its very theatrical nature, the Tony Awards ceremony usually offers its share of drama. But this year’s presentation honoring Broadway’s best, set for Sunday night, adds a layer of the bizarre to the proceedings.

Begin with the fact that the 2021 awards are honoring shows from the 2019-20 season — meaning in some cases productions that opened two years ago. The ceremony was actually scheduled to take place in June 2020, but the pandemic brought Broadway to a halt in March 2020 — and almost all theaters remained closed until just a few weeks ago . So, the Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing, the two industry groups behind the Tonys, made the call to postpone the awards until now.

All of which also explains the unusual nature of this year’s ceremony, which will be presented in two parts on Sunday, live from New York. The first, a streaming presentation on Paramount+ starting at 7 p.m., is the traditional awards program, with Audra McDonald serving as this year’s host. The second, called “Broadway’s Back,” on CBS starting at 9 p.m., is a concert-style affair, emceed by Leslie Odom, Jr., heralding the industry’s return. During the latter event, winners in the big three categories — Best Play, Best Revival of a Play and Best Musical — will be announced.

If that’s not confusing enough, here are some more things to consider…

The best musical contest

Because the 2019-20 season was cut short and many musicals hadn’t yet opened or played for enough time to be considered Tony eligible, the slate of nominees is a small one, with just three productions: “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” a splashy show based on Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 movie; “Jagged Little Pill,” a socially-conscious tale of contemporary life featuring songs from the Alanis Morissette album; and “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” a biographical affair about the rock legend. Most Tony prognosticators give the edge to “Moulin” — it may be a bit gaudy, but that’s kinda the point: The show celebrates Broadway at its fun-loving, over-the-top best.

The best play contest

Jeremy O. Harris’ “Slave Play,” a searing examination of racial and sexual relations, is the likely favorite here. The drama earned 12 nominations — the most for any play in Tony history. But it could face some competition from Matthew López’s “The Inheritance,” a two-part work examining gay life in America.

The one sure thing

If ever there was a performer who seemed assured of winning a Tony, it’s Adrienne Warren for her career-defining turn as Tina Turner in the “Tina” musical. The closest competition she might face in the best leading actress-in-a-musical category is Karen Olivo for her work in “Moulin.” But adding to this year’s Tony weirdness is the fact that Olivo announced during the pandemic she wouldn’t be returning to the show because of various industry issues.

An actor competes against himself

Because of the small number of musicals vying for awards, it was inevitable that many of the acting categories would be thin on nominees. But in the case of the best leading actor-in-a-musical category, it’s a contest of…one. Aaron Tveit, the male star of “Moulin,” is the sole nominee . But it’s still technically a contest: Tveit must receive approval of 60% of Tony voters to win the honor.

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