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‘Shine the light’: Ariana DeBose talks hosting Tony Awards

June 9, 2022 GMT
Ariana DeBose attends the TIME100 Gala celebrating the 100 most influential people in the world at Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center on Wednesday, June 8, 2022, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
Ariana DeBose attends the TIME100 Gala celebrating the 100 most influential people in the world at Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center on Wednesday, June 8, 2022, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
Ariana DeBose attends the TIME100 Gala celebrating the 100 most influential people in the world at Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center on Wednesday, June 8, 2022, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
Ariana DeBose attends the TIME100 Gala celebrating the 100 most influential people in the world at Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center on Wednesday, June 8, 2022, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
Ariana DeBose attends the TIME100 Gala celebrating the 100 most influential people in the world at Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center on Wednesday, June 8, 2022, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — Tony Award host and theater veteran Ariana DeBose says this year’s telecast will spread its arms wider than just Broadway’s stars and celebrate the unsung heroes like understudies and swings who kept shows open during the pandemic restart.

“As the host of this particular Tony ceremony and as one of your own, I say to those people, ‘I promise you, I got you,’” she told The Associated Press. “There’s no way in the world that this Tony Awards will go by without us taking the time to shine the light.”

The Oscar-winning and Tony-nominated actress — who was once an ensemble member and understudy on Broadway — will for the first time host the three-hour awards show Sunday on CBS, helping hand out the top competitive Tonys.

“We’re going to have a lot of fun. I’m trying to keep it light, keep it joyful, say a little something that maybe we need to hear. But we’re celebrating,” she said. “It feels great. I am, in the words of Stephen Sondheim, ‘excited and scared.’”

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DeBose is quite familiar with the massive Radio City Music Hall stage. She’s performed during three previous telecasts including in “Summer,” “Motown the Musical” and “Bring It On: The Musical.”

“It is helpful, but I don’t think any of those times really compares to this one. I feel like I’m being tasked with driving the train a little bit,” she said. “I think, if I’m honest, I do feel the pressure. But it’s because I have skin in the game. It’s because I care.”

The season — with a whopping 34 new productions — represents a full return to theaters after nearly two years of a pandemic-mandated shutdown. DeBose calls it a roller coaster of a season with starts and stops.” The fact that the Tonys are even happening seems like a win.

“Thank goodness we’re going to have a Tonys that are live,” said playwright Lynn Nottage, nominated for the play “Clyde’s” and the musical “MJ.” “The theater feels like it’s been resuscitated, and the fact that we can have this big celebration just speaks to the resilience of the form and of the community.”

The telecast will have performances from this year’s Tony Award-nominated musicals, including “A Strange Loop,” “Company,” “Girl from the North Country,” “MJ,” “Mr. Saturday Night,” “Music Man,” “Paradise Square” and “Six.” The original cast members of the 2007 Tony-winning musical “Spring Awakening” will also reteam and perform.

At the last Tonys nine months ago, the winners were pulled from just 18 eligible plays and musicals and many of the competitive categories were depleted ones as Broadway experienced an 18-month shutdown. At that ceremony, Leslie Odom Jr. hosted a “Broadway’s Back!” celebration on Paramount+ for the second half of the four-hour show, with performances from the three top musicals.

The shows this time vying for hardware are an extremely varied lot, from a David Mamet revival to one by Paula Vogel, golden-age classics like “Funny Girl” to very current entries like “A Strange Loop.” There’s Stephen Sondheim’s gender-switched “Company” and a show celebrating Michael Jackson.

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Producers are once again using a larger show footprint thanks to streaming partner Paramount+, adding an extra hour before the three-hour main awards show to celebrate the creative Tony winners. Emmy Award-winners Darren Criss and Julianne Hough are hosting that hour which will be aired exclusively on the streaming network. Criss will open that portion with an original song.

“A Strange Loop,” a theater meta-journey about a playwright writing a musical, goes into the show with a leading 11 Tony nominations. Right behind with 10 nominations each is “MJ,” a bio musical of the King of Pop stuffed with his biggest hits, and “Paradise Square,” a musical about Irish immigrants and Black Americans jostling to survive in New York City around the time of the Civil War.

History could be made in a few categories.

L Morgan Lee of “A Strange Loop” is the first out trans performer nominated for a Tony; Adam Rigg, scenic designer of “The Skin of Our Teeth,” is the first out nonbinary designer nominated; and Toby Marlow, co-creator of “Six” is the first out nonbinary composer-lyricist nominated.

Camille A. Brown and Lileana Blain-Cruz are vying for best direction of a play and if either wins, she would be the first Black female winner in the category. If Marianne Elliott prevails in that category, she will be the first woman to accept three Tonys for direction.

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If playwrights Michael R. Jackson (“A Strange Loop”), Lynn Nottage (“MJ”) or Christina Anderson (“Paradise Square”) take home the Tony for best book of a musical, they would be only the second Black winner after Stew’s victory for “Passing Strange” in 2008. And Jiyoun Chang (“for colored girls”) and Yi Zhao (“The Skin of Our Teeth”) could become the first lighting designer of Asian descent to win a Tony.

And the Tonys may usher in the latest EGOT winner: Jennifer Hudson, who has an Emmy, Grammy and Oscar, could join that elite group if “A Strange Loop” wins best musical — she’s a producer.

Some sadness crept into the days before the Tonys as word that two stalwart musicals from the 2016-17 season — best musical Tony-winner “Dear Evan Hansen” and best musical nominee “Come From Away” — posted closing notices, a reminder that nothing lasts forever on Broadway. Another fan favorite, “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” also will close after some 500 shows.

Some of the stars expected on Sunday include Broadway royalty like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Chita Rivera, Bebe Neuwirth, Kelli O’Hara, Danny Burstein, Cynthia Erivo, Raúl Esparza, Bernadette Peters, Billy Porter and Nathan Lane. Some of the Hollywood stars will be Andrew Garfield, Bryan Cranston, Jessica Chastain, Laurence Fishburne, currently on Broadway in “American Buffalo,” Sarah Paulson, Paris Jackson and Zach Braff.

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DeBose said she was heartened by the fact that multiple Black artists were nominated in every single performance category. There are 16 Black performance nods out of 33 slots or 48%.

“I think the nominations are reflective that the Tony delegation has been listening. It’s an incredibly diverse group of nominees,” she said.

“I’m honored to be the person with the privilege to try and provide a moment of joy and true celebration for not only all the headliners and nominees, but for our community at large, which is something I think we really need right now,” she said.

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Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits