Ariana DeBose kicks off 2024 Tony Awards and Jeremy Strong wins first big acting award

28 Broadway shows received at least one Tony nomination, including "Hell's Kitchen," "Merrily We Roll Along," "The Notebook," "Appropriate," and "Mary Jane"

Ariana DeBose kicks off 2024 Tony Awards and Jeremy Strong wins first big acting award

Alicia Keys electrified the Tony Awards on Sunday, teaming up with superstar Jay-Z on their hit “Empire State of Mind” and belting a hip-hop love letter to their shared hometown of New York at the top of the telecast.

Keys appeared at the piano on the stage of the David H. Koch Theater in Lincoln Center as the cast of her semi-autobiographical musical “Hell’s Kitchen” was presenting a medley of songs and then began singing her and Jay-Z’s 2009 smash. She then left the stage to join the rapper on some interior steps to wild applause.

Host Ariana DeBose kicked off the telecast with an original, acrobatic number and Jeremy Strong took home the first big award of the night as Broadway's biggest party opened its arms to hip-hop and rock fans.

Strong, the “Succession” star, landed his first Tony for his work in the revival of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 political play “An Enemy of the People.” The theater award for best lead actor in a play will sit next to his Emmy, Screen Actors Guild Award and Golden Globe.

The play is about a public-minded doctor in a small town who discovers the water supply for the public spa is contaminated. But his efforts to clean up the mess pit his ethics against political cowards and the media, leaving his family suffering. Among the people Strong thanked were the ushers and front of house staff who put up with him.

“This play is a cry from the heart,” he said.

DeBose, a three-time host, started with a nod to “Chicago” by holding up a newspaper with the headline, “She’s Back!!!” and then jumping into the original song “This Party’s for You,” which had a disco vibe with hip-hop elements and multiple acrobatic lifts.

The song was a cheer for those who sacrifice for their art and she took a gentle swipe at other entertainment types: “You’ll learn that film and TV can make you rich and make you famous. But theater will make you better.” She ended the song with a dramatic backward fall from a pillar.

On the pre-show, the play “Stereophonic” and the musical “The Outsiders” each took two technical Tonys. "Stereophonic" won sound design for Ryan Rumery, while David Zinn’s work on the show won best scenic design of a play. “Stereophonic,” a play about a Fleetwood Mac-like band recording an album over a turbulent, life-changing year, went into the night with a leading 13 Tony nominations, tied with “Hell's Kitchen”

“The Outsiders,” a gritty musical adaptation of the classic American young adult novel, also won two pre-show Tonys: best sound design for Cody Spencer and best lighting design for Hana S. Kim and Brian MacDevitt.

“Suffs” won the Tony Award for best book of a musical and Dede Ayite’s work on “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding” won best costume design of a play. Jonathan Tunick won best orchestrations for “Merrily We Roll Along” and Linda Cho earned the Tony for best costume design for a musical for “The Great Gatsby.” The best choreography award went to Justin Peck for “Illinoise.”

The awards cap a Broadway theater season that had something for everyone — fun musicals like “Back to the Future,” sweeping romance in “The Notebook,” political rallying cries like “Suffs” and intimate ensembles like “Mother Play” and “Appropriate.” Filipinos took center stage in “Here Lies Love" and autism was explored in ”How to Dance in Ohio."

“I think it has been a year of real flexibility. I also think Broadway is in a time of transformation,” said DeBose in an interview days before the show. “A total of 36 productions opened on Broadway this season alone and each one spoke to a very different audience. I do believe that we are learning, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ So we are continuing to find our voice and who Broadway wants to be.”

DeBose has said she expects the show to move “like a Broadway show” — in other words, briskly and with scene changes in front the audience. “We want to give you a full Broadway experience,” she said.

Nicole Scherzinger will anchor the “In Memoriam” section and the late Chita Rivera will get a separate tribute from Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Bebe Neuwirth.

Two shows shared the most nominations with 13: a piano prodigy’s coming-of-age in “Hell’s Kitchen” and the back-and-forth struggles to create a rock album in the play “Stereophonic.” They are competing in different categories, best new musical and best new play.

Of the 26 competitive categories, two are virtual locks: “Stereophonic,” a critical and box office triumph, and “Merrily We Roll Along,” the Stephen Sondheim- George Furth musical that flopped when it premiered on Broadway in 1981 but is the strong favorite for best musical revival.

A case could also be made that ”Appropriate," Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ play about a family reunion in Arkansas where everyone has competing motivations and grievances, will comfortably earn the best play revival award.

Looking to beat “Hell’s Kitchen” for the top new musical crown are “The Outsiders,” an adaptation of the beloved S. E. Hinton novel and Francis Ford Coppola film; “Illinoise,” the dance-heavy, dialogue-less stage adaptation of Sufjan Stevens’ 2005 album “Illinois”; “Suffs,” based on the American suffragists of the early 20th century; and “Water for Elephants,” which combines Sara Gruen’s 2006 bestseller with circus elements.

Hoping to knock down “Stereophonic” are “Mother Play,” Paula Vogel’s look at a mother and her kids spanning 1964 to the 21st century; “Mary Jane,” Amy Herzog’s humanistic portrait of a divorced mother of a young boy with severe health issues; “Prayer for the French Republic,” Joshua Harmon’s sprawling family comedy-drama that deals with Zionism, religious fervency and antisemitism; and “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding,” Jocelyn Bioh’s comedy about the lives of West African women working at a salon.

The leading actress in a musical race is between veteran Kelli O’Hara in “Days of Wine and Roses” and “Hell’s Kitchen” newcomer Maleah Joi Moon. On the play side, Sarah Paulson from “Appropriate” is expected to win the best lead actress trophy over a challenge by Jessica Lange in “Mother Play.”

On the men's side, former “Hamilton” standout Leslie Odom Jr. from “Purlie Victorious” is up against “Succession” star Jeremy Strong in the revival of “An Enemy of the People,” while Jonathan Groff is the favorite to win on the musical side for “Merrily We Roll Along,” competing against Eddie Redmayne in “Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club” and Brian d’Arcy James from “Days of Wine and Roses.”

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

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More on the Tony Awards: https://apnews.com/hub/tony-awards

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