“A Strange Loop,” an irreverent, sexually frank work about Blackness and queerness took home the best new musical crown at the Tony Awards on Sunday, as voters celebrated Broadway’s most racially diverse season by choosing an envelope-pushing Black voice.
Michael R. Jackson’s 2020 Pulitzer Prize drama winner is a theater meta-journey — a tuneful show about a Black gay man writing a show about a Black gay man. Jackson also won for best book. Many of the night’s other Tonys were spread over several productions.
The victory of a smaller, more offbeat musical against more commercial offerings continues a recent trend, as when the intimate musical “The Band’s Visit” beat the big brand-musicals “Frozen,” “Mean Girls” and “SpongeBob SquarePants” in 2018 or when “Hadestown” bested “Tootsie,” “Beetlejuice” and “Ain’t Too Proud” a year later.
“A Strange Loop” beat “MJ,” a bio musical of the King of Pop’s biggest hits, for the top prize, although the other Jackson musical nabbed four Tony Awards including for best choreography. Myles Frost moonwalked away with the award for best lead actor in a musical for playing Michael Jackson, becoming the youngest solo winner in that category. “Mom, I made it!” he said.
“MJ” represents the 22-year-old Frost’s Broadway debut as he plays Jackson with a high, whispery voice, a Lady Diana-like coquettishness and a fierce embrace of Jackson’s iconic dancing and singing style. “Heal the world,” Frost said from the stage, channeling Jackson.
Joaquina Kalukango won the Tony for best leading actress in a musical for her work in “Paradise Square,” a show about Irish immigrants and Black Americans jostling to survive in New York City around the time of the Civil War. Earlier in the night, she blew the house down with a stunning performance of the musical’s “Let It Burn.”
Host Ariana DeBose kicked off her portion of the show in a sparkling white jumpsuit and wide-brimmed hat, dancing and singing to the song “This Is Your Round of Applause,” which mashed up shards of musical theater favorites, like “Chicago, “The Wiz,” “Evita,” “Rent,” “Hair,” “Cabaret,” “Hairspray” and “West Side Story,” the movie remake for which she recently won an Oscar.
Still panting while welcoming viewers, she told the crowd that this was the season “Broadway got its groove back.”
Phylicia Rashad won best featured actress in a play for “Skeleton Crew.” The Dominique Morisseau play is about blue-collar job insecurity set in a Detroit auto stamping plant. “It’s wonderful to present humanity in all its fullness,” Rashad said.
And the Tonys ushered in the latest EGOT winner: Jennifer Hudson, who has an Emmy, Grammy and Oscar, and joined that elite group Sunday when “A Strange Loop” won best musical — she’s a producer.
The season was marked by the embrace of seven Black playwrights, from contemporary writers like Dominique Morisseau, Keenan Scott II and Antoinette Nwandu, to underappreciated historical playwrights like Alice Childress and Ntozake Shange. DeBose said Broadway was more representative.
DeBose celebrated the Black voices and onstage talent — as well as noting that two Broadway theaters were being renamed for Black icons James Earl Jones and Lena Horne — saying that The Great White Way was now a nickname “as opposed to a how-to guide.”
DeBose also hailed the heroic efforts of understudies, swings and standbys to keep shows going throughout pandemic spikes, noting that she and many other Tony nominees had once been unheralded understudies and swings. After the cast of “Six” performed, DeBose noted that one was a fill-in at the last minute.
Having been freed of handling the technical awards, the main telecast had a less frantic, more airy feel. DeBose was an assured, funny and versatile host, one who roamed the seats, sat in Andrew Garfield’s lap, danced with Sam Rockwell and prompted Laurence Fishburne to do a Daffy Duck imitation. She closed the show with a medley of the musical nominees, at one point making “MJ” part of the Dylan show: “You’ve been hit by/A rolling stone.”