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The 2022 Tony nominations mark a historic shift on Broadway

The announcement of the 2022 Tony nominations was one for the history books. Not just because the Tony Awards themselves are hitting their milestone 75th year. And not just because the nominations were announced in May for the first time in three years.

'A Strange Loop' is the most Tony-nominated show of the season. (Photo: Marc J. Franklin)

The announcement of the 2022 Tony nominations was one for the history books. Not just because the Tony Awards themselves are hitting their milestone 75th year. And not just because the nominations were announced in May for the first time in three years. Multiple nominees made history when hosts Joshua Henry and Adrienne Warren read their names on May 9.

L Morgan Lee of “A Strange Loop” is the first out trans performer to be nominated for a Tony. Adam Rigg, scenic designer of “The Skin of Our Teeth,” is the first out agender designer nominated. Toby Marlow, “SIX” co-creator recognized for Best Original Score, is the first out nonbinary composer-lyricist nominated. Lileana Blain-Cruz and Camille A. Brown are the second and third Black women to be nominated for Best Direction of a Play. (Liesl Tommy was first in 2016 for “Eclipsed.”) Seven performers were nominated as Leading Actor in a Play, the first time the category has seen that many nominees since 1958. Lynn Nottage — already a pioneer of Pulitzer Prize history as the first and only woman to have won twice — is the first writer nominated for penning a play and a musical in the same season, earning nods for Best Play (“Clyde’s”) and Book of a Musical (“MJ”).

“I feel happy to represent,” laughs Nottage. “I’ve likened this to running the creative equivalent of an iron woman, right? There has been a lot of work and training that has gone into allowing me to have the stamina to actually make it through not only COVID, but putting up three pieces of work [also off-Broadway’s “Intimate Apparel” opera] during the most difficult moment in theater history. I had incredible collaborators who were passionate and supportive and whom I could lean on.”

Indeed, theater has been through it. A full 15-month shutdown for all of Broadway — from the March 12, 2020 closing (on what would have been opening night for “SIX”) until “Springsteen on Broadway” reopened on June 26, 2021 — including loss of life, loss of income, loss of identity. Many shows didn’t know if they’d return or even have their first outing.

Anna Fleischle’s now Tony-nominated set for “Hangmen” was thrown out in March 2020 and entirely rebuilt for the production currently running at the Golden Theatre. Tony-nominated “SIX” lighting designer Tim Deiling remembers not knowing if the show would be able to come back. Yet only in hindsight, the closure was an unanticipated silver lining to many a Broadway artist and production.

“As a company, you don’t have as much time to kind of develop rapport and relationships with people, and so this two-year period, we very much as a company took advantage of that,” says first-time nominee Michael Oberholtzer of “Take Me Out.” “That kind of camaraderie and naturalism that is conveyed in the production, frankly, I attribute to all that time.”

“I was still trying to develop what my vision was,” says Brown, nominated for her direction and choreography of “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf,” of where she was in 2020. “It gave me the opportunity to really have a process and create and vibe and build what the show [would be].”

Not to mention the present-mindedness ignited in every artist who returned. “We have a beautifully heart-centered director in John Rando, who never missed an opportunity to be like, ‘Whoa, we are back in a rehearsal room.’ ‘Whoa, we are back in a theater staging a show.’ ‘Remember when we didn’t know if we’d ever come back?’” remembers Shoshana Bean, who earned her first nomination for her turn in “Mr. Saturday Night.” “There was a gratitude checkpoint at every stop along the way.”

“I promise never again to take it for granted,” sighed Warren Carlyle, who earned his fourth nomination with his choreography for “The Music Man.”

The care and safety enacted in rehearsal rooms across the Main Stem bared that out. “I think some of that was reflected in the work you saw on the stage, that there was real community building that was done,” says Nottage.

“There was so much invisible work that got done during COVID that has made the return better,” Nottage adds, including “the fact that there was more diversity, there were more women’s voices onstage. There was an unprecedented number of Black playwrights represented — both dead and alive.”

Black artistry, overall, is well-represented on the 2022 Tonys ballot. “You can’t just bring on one person and expect them to fix all the problems,” says lyricist Masi Asare, nominated for “Paradise Square.” “There has to be an understanding that people will come in cohorts.” And cohorts there are.

There are multiple Black artists nominated in every single performance category (three of five featured actors in a musical, two of six featured actresses in a musical, three of six featured actors in a play, four of six featured actresses in a play, two of five leading actors in a musical, two of five leading actresses in a musical, two of seven leading actors in a play, three of five leading actresses in a play).

“It always has significance, but, you know, I feel like five great actors were nominated [in my category] as well,” says Jared Grimes, who holds the sole nomination for “Funny Girl.” “It’s both. It shouldn’t be a thing. We shouldn’t be like, ‘Oh man, there’s more Black people nominated this year.’ No, it should be that the nominating committee felt like there were performances that they wanted to recognize and it just so happens that three of the individuals are African-American; that’s how the chips should always fall.”

And yet, marking the significance can be a way to manifest that this is the way the chips will fall. After all, not only do Brown and Blain-Cruz’s nominations expand the number of Black women nominated for Direction of a Play from one to three, but both women are making their Broadway directorial debuts. “I hope that it signals a shift and a move toward changing what was formerly the paradigm,” says Blain-Cruz.

In fact, 68 nominees are first-timers, and of those, 40 are nominated for their Broadway debut. What’s worth noting is the range of experience. Blain-Cruz, nominated for her direction of “The Skin of Our Teeth,” worked her way up through multiple productions at Lincoln Center Theater before making it to Broadway’s Beaumont; Marlow and Lucy Moss started “SIX” as a university project. The entire “SIX” creative team (Marlow, Moss, co-director Jamie Armitage, costume designer Gabriella Slade, choreographer Carrie-Anne Ingrouille, orchestrator Tom Curran, lighting designer Deiling and sound designer Paul Gatehouse) are first-time nominees — and “SIX” marks the Broadway debut for all but Gatehouse. Christina Anderson, co-book writer for “Paradise Square,” studied under Nottage, who is also nominated this year with her teacher, fellow Pulitzer winner Paula Vogel. Actors Ron Cephas Jones (“Clyde’s”), Jesse Tyler Ferguson (“Take Me Out”) and Bean are industry veterans, yet nominated for the first time. Jaquel Spivey (“A Strange Loop”) and Kara Young (“Clyde’s”) are brand-new.

In the words of Brown, you just need to “believe in and trust and really get behind people.”

This crop of nominees also boasts more women and people of color in design categories, such as first-time nominees Palmer Hefferan for Sound Design of a Play (“The Skin of Our Teeth”), Yi Zhao for Lighting Design of a Play (“The Skin of Our Teeth”) and Sarafina Bush for Costume Design of a Play (“for colored girls…”), previous nominees Emilio Sosa for Costume Design of a Play (“Trouble in Mind”) and Jiyoun Chang for Lighting Design of a Play (“for colored girls…”), as well as former costume design winners Toni-Leslie James (“Paradise Square”) and Paul Tazewell (“MJ”). The nominations are so spread out that only five plays went without recognition and not a single eligible musical was shut out.

These nominations may signal to producers that “Broadway” and critically deserving work has different faces. “What it really shows is there is room for everybody,” says lyricist Amanda Green, nominated for “Mr Saturday Night.” “A good story is a good story. Good art is good art.”

“Broadway audiences are a big enough arena that I think there can be audiences that want different things,” says Barbara Whitman, lead producer of “A Strange Loop,” which garnered the most nominations of any production with 11. “Some people want to take their kids to see ‘Lion King,’ which is fantastic. And some want to see a heavy play, ‘Macbeth’ or something classic. And some people want to have the kind of thought journey that they’ve never seen before like you have with ‘A Strange Loop.’

“What’s really great for producers to see is that shows that are different can be successful on Broadway,” she continues. “Hopefully, knock on wood, ‘Strange Loop’ will run for years and encourage more people to say, ‘We can make this work.’ Because we, as an industry, need to make it work.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the gender identification of designer Adam Rigg, who identifies as agender.