Melissa Harris-Perry: Thanks for sticking with The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Now, as we've been talking about, the 75th Tony Awards are happening this weekend at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The shows in contention include the musical Six, which imagines the wives of Henry VIII, performing a concert to tell their stories.
Cast recording (excerpt from Six): Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived. And tonight, New York City, we are...Live!
Melissa Harris-Perry: This season included a revival of Stephen Sondheim's 1970 musical Company. Although this version start a woman in the leading character's role.
From Broadway, first reopened in fall of 2021, seven of the new plays were produced or written by Black playwrights. It was a notable change for the theater industry, but one that was viewed with a bit skepticism by Maya Phillips, critic-at-large for the New York Times. Maya celebrated the new works when we spoke last August, but she also noted this is an industry dominated by white artists. I checked back in with Maya to see how this season shaped up.
Maya Phillips: It has been a great, really, really packed season. It was iffy at first in the fall because we were seeing a lot of shows doing delays and postponements, and then we felt like it was steady, mass mandates change, vaccine requirements change from theater to theater, and then in the spring, it was just like a day loose of shows, because everything that was delayed from COVID, and then, of course, there have been a lot more cancellations and postponements, so it felt like we just had ebbs and flows over the past several months.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How Broadway do financially? Did those ticket sales when it all started finally rolling in? Did that make up? I mean, so much had been lost during the pandemic era.
Maya Phillips: No, it was tough, like Broadway was definitely feeling some of those losses, and unfortunately, it really affected some of the new shows, and especially unfortunately, a lot of those new shows where the new Black works or new works featuring people of color or by people of color. They ended up shutting down early, and that's really unfortunate that this was the big shot for Broadway and the ticket sales just weren't there because people weren't feeling safe, things were shutting down. It was just madness.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That question of Black artists on Broadway had really been the first moment in the context of the pandemic when Broadway had been able to respond to the Movement for Black Lives that had also emerged at the very height of the first summer of the pandemic. There was a sense that that maybe there could be, and I dislike this word, I think it's overused reckoning, but some space made, some way of thinking really differently about Blackness in particular in the context of the Great White Way. We just talked about some of the shows closing up, but in general, as we look back now, how much of a inroad were artists able to make?
Maya Phillips: I think overall it was great to see those shows on stage in general. We don't see that many Black artists on stage in Broadway. We just don't. The fact that we started with Pass Over, and that was a really fantastic work, but unfortunately, it was just a blip on the radar, and as I was saying, they got their moment in the spotlight, but then ultimately what happens to them, because ticket sales weren't there, because of the circumstances, and so now what happens are we going back to a mostly white season with mostly traditional works? I really don't want us to take a step backwards now.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What does reliably sell tickets on Broadway these days?
Maya Phillips: The big tourist attractions, honestly, because there's always going to be people going to see Wicked. There's always going to be people at Chicago, even the newer stuff, like Waitress and Hadestown, and whatnot, but that's not going to be the same as, say, like Dana H, which came out, and it was a beautiful work of theater, beautiful, and yet, it's not the typical thing you would see. I feel like you think of Broadway and you don't necessarily think of a story about a kidnapping and assault. [chuckles] That's not really like the happy go lucky, like let's get a matinee and go to juniors afterwards. [laughs]
Melissa Harris-Perry: No, I do think of the big musical that you can take. Let me take my olds and my youngs, and all my people too, or maybe we're going to girls night out or something, and I want to leave singing, and that's pretty different.
Do you think then, because these decisions that are made about what we'll then see in subsequent seasons. Some of that has to do with the sense of how one would attribute maybe not failures, but maybe somewhat under performances, not in terms of the quality of the performance, but the real bottom line questions. Do you think the producers will look at this and say, "Okay, this was an extraordinary, unprecedented moment within still a public health crisis," or will they say, "See, you just can't really get a more diverse group of playwrights and audiences, so let's go back to our standard fair."
Maya Phillips: I would hope that they would think the former, but I am cynical enough that I would believe that they would say the latter, and it's just so easy to just like grab another celebrity who's like, oh, they're off of their next Marvel movie. Let's throw them on stage, and see if they can sing and dance. [chuckles] That's really cynical of me, but that was the situation.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I was like, whoa, that escalated quickly into a very dark place.
All right. We're talking Broadway with Maya Phillips. Back with more in just a moment.
Back now with Maya Phillips, critic-at-large for the New York Times. We're talking Broadway for the Tony's weekend. Presumably, this is part of what awards can do is to acknowledge extraordinary performances even if the bottom line isn't always there, so what are some of your favorite shows that were nominated or are nominated this year?
Maya Phillips: I think we do have a lot of the standards, like the expected nominees, but the ones that I really love. I love Six. I think that it's a fun musical. I think that is clever. I also, of course, love A Strange Loop. I think that really pushes the boundaries of what we expect to see on Broadway, and of a musical in terms of language, in terms of content, and in terms of the performances. The performances are great. We had Caroline, or Change. We had The Lehman Trilogy, like there's a lot of like solid picks in this group of nominees that I'm really happy about.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to us about Six, just for folks who don't live in New York, and maybe aren't familiar with this really kind of great moment.
Maya Phillips: Oh yes. Six is a musical about the six wives of Henry VIII, and the various ways that their marriages ended, usually in death, a lot of beheadings.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.
Maya Phillips: Survived, yes. [laughs] Don't make me start singing, Melissa, because people don't need to hear that from me. [chuckles] Yes, I love that sound check, and it's supposed to be a singing competition, and they're competing over who has the worst story and the most tragedy. It's fun because they are inspired by pop idols today. There's inspiration from Beyonce, and you get a little bit of Miley Cyrus and you get some Rihanna, and it's just so catchy and the glamor that you expect from Broadway, but in a way that feels innovative and fresh.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. Are there any productions you didn't like but have been nominated?
Maya Phillips: How much time do you have? [laughs]
Melissa Harris-Perry: Plenty. Let's do it. Meet me in petty corner, we'll spend some time. Let's go.
Maya Phillips: I really was not a fan of MJ. I thought it was just basically a very fancy karaoke night with not very much substance. I wasn't a fan of The Music Man. I thought it was fine but again, very dated musical. We didn't really need it. I don't know if Funny Girl got any nominations, perhaps it didn't, but I also wasn't a fan of that. [laughs] Take Me Out, also I wasn't a huge fan, but I thought that Jesse Williams' performance was very good. Again, I'm going to stop there. [chuckles]
Melissa Harris-Perry: Right, stop there. It's interesting though, just in that moment, as you were talking about Jesse Williams. Were there any performances you saw where there were great performers who were trapped maybe in less than terrific plays or musicals?
Maya Phillips: Yes, of course. I mean, that always happens, and I always feel really bad for these performers. I would say that-- What is a good example? I'm not a huge fan of American Buffalo. I think that, obviously, there's a lot of drama there with the playwright has not things that he said in the news and some conservative views, but I think that also there's a bit of misogyny and a bit of iffy politics in the piece, despite the good writing. Despite the good performances, Sam Rockwell in that play is fantastic. He's just amazing to look at.
Also, I'm not a huge fan of Girl From The North Country, but I think Mare Winningham is an amazing performer. Same in Mr. Saturday Night, Shoshana Bean. I thought the show is very dated. Billy Crystal's jokes were very dated [chuckles], but Shoshana Bean, she can carry a note. [chuckles] Thank goodness for her.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's talk about what happens when you leave Broadway. Some are staying on Broadway, but then they're also touring, and we can have our insider perspective on a lot of these things, but some things just end up doing really well out there on tour. Any that you expect from this season shows to really make it in Poughkeepsie?
Maya Phillips: [laughs] I mean, I don't even know what people in Poughkeepsie like.
I can't speak without that, I don't know. I'm sure that like I'm saying with Six, I'm sure that will travel many places. That's an easy musical to pick up and do elsewhere. I think A Strange Loop will still keep going. There's a couple of others, too, but I think that there are a good many picks this season that could do really well.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let me ask this. The Tony's as an actual awards show, is it worth watching?
Maya Phillips: This is a funny thing. I never watched the Tony's before. I had this position. I think it's good to have an official recognition of these artists. Artists always deserve praise for what they do. They're hard workers. They do great work. I think that it's so narrow. I think that there's such a specific idea of what is success in terms of these award shows, and I'm not just talking Tony's. I think this applies to Oscar's and Emmy's, and any kind of award show. It's always a very narrow lens.
Sometimes, the voters, you don't know who the voting crowd is. Sometimes there's obvious biases, and also you're missing out on a whole lot of fabulous theater off-Broadway. New York Theater isn't just Broadway. In fact, that like a lot of the really great stuff is happening off-Broadway. To have a night of celebration, it's great that we're celebrating theater. It's great that we're celebrating artists, but there's so much more there.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Maya Phillips, critic-at-large for the New York Times. Maya, thank you so much.
Maya Phillips: Thank you.
[musical excerpt from A Strange Loop]
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's the show folks, but one more thing before we go. While I was chatting with Maya Phillips, she mentioned A Strange Loop. Well, you can check out our podcast for a conversation we had with Michael R. Jackson, the playwright and composer of that most-nominated show of the year. As always, the podcast is available wherever you get audio.
[musical excerpt from A Strange Loop]
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