The Tony Awards had few surprises this year, but lots of memorable moments. Hugh Jackman hosted the awards (Broadway's highest honor) before a live audience of thousands at Radio City Music Hall and a television audience of many millions across the globe.
A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder took the biggest prize of the night, Best Musical. "The little engine that could, did," producer Joey Parnes shouted from the stage as he nearly exploded with happiness.
Parnes painted his show as an underdog, and in many ways this win (and the show's three others) comes as a major vindication. After opening in November, Gentleman's Guide suffered anemic ticket sales during one of the worst winters in recent memory. "This winter felt like Valley Forge," the show's star, Jefferson Mays, said in an earlier interview.
"We've had 37 straight sold-out performances since the Tony nominations were announced," Parnes boasted before the press while clutching his Tony. He can expect that box-office boost to continue if history is any indication.
Still, this win comes as no surprise. Gentleman's Guide was widely favored to take home Best Musical this year after the nominations were announced, knocking contenders like Bullets Over Broadway and The Bridges of Madison County out of the running. Of the four nominees, Gentleman's Guide is the only show with an entirely new book and score. Tony voters sent a strong message to producers everywhere tonight: Give us something new and smart.
As expected, Audra McDonald took home her sixth Tony Award. She won Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, making her the most decorated actress in Broadway history, and all at the young age of 43. She now holds a Tony Award in every acting category for which she could be nominated. "I'm overwhelmed. I don't know what else to say," a visibly moved McDonald told the assembled press.
Meanwhile, perennial bridesmaid Kelli O'Hara went home empty-handed again, having been nominated for her leading role in The Bridges of Madison County. This marks her fifth nomination with no wins.
O'Hara was edged out by Jessie Mueller, who won for her portrayal of Carole King in Beautiful — The Carole King Musical. This was Mueller's second nomination (after an acclaimed performance in the 2011 revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever) and first win. Mueller emerged as an early favorite in a very tough field and managed to maintain that luster in the month between the nominations and awards: She won the Drama Desk Award last week.
Similarly, Drama Desk winner Neil Patrick Harris won for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical for Hedwig and the Angry Inch. He was widely favored to win, having hosted the Tony Awards four times. Voters rewarded him for his loyalty and a memorable performance as the East German transsexual rocker, Hedwig Robinson. In accepting his award, he took a moment to recognize his costar, Lena Hall, saying, "I share this with you...but not really."
Of course, he doesn't need to share. Hall won in her own right for her breakout performance as Yitzhak, Hedwig's Yugoslavian male lover. "I went out and watched men walk around the streets of New York City," Hall said, explaining how she played such a convincing man, and added, "I studied my boyfriend a lot." Hall was equal parts tears and smiles as she looked into the camera and beamed "Friendship is magic," referencing the popular rehash of My Little Pony.
That moment led directly into a performance from Disney's Aladdin, in which friendship is quite literally magic. Appropriately, the cast performed the showstopping "Friend Like Me." James Monroe Iglehart, who plays the Genie, worked up a sweat and proved why he earned his Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. (He took home the Drama Desk Award last week, too.) Wearing a tuxedo with blue gem-bedazzled lapels (a not-too-subtle shout-out to Aladdin costume designer Gregg Barnes), Iglehart accepted his Tony while dancing around the stage like a charismatic preacher in a "praise shout."
British actor Mark Rylance was nominated in both male acting categories, for his leading role in Richard III and his featured role as Olivia in Twelfth Night. Both shows ran in repertory as part of the Broadway debut for the London-based Shakespeare's Globe. He won for the latter, his third Tony Award. In stark contrast with his previous highly poetic acceptance speeches, he gave an earnest and lucid tribute to Sam Wannamaker, the American actor who created the modern incarnation of Shakespeare's Globe. It proved to be one of the more surprising moments of the night. "I thought you might be expecting it," Rylance responded when asked about his customary nonsensical acceptance speeches.
Also known for his erratic behavior at awards shows, Hollywood actor and director Clint Eastwood was on hand to announce both directing awards. He gave a rambling plug for his upcoming film adaptation of Jersey Boys before mangling the name of Best Director of a Musical Darko Tresnjak (Gentleman's Guide), suggesting (with the help of John Travolta) that Hollywood personalities are constitutionally opposed to rehearsing the names of people they're expected to introduce before an audience of millions of television viewers (especially when those people are from the theater). For his part, the Yugoslavian-born Tresnjak gave heartwarming thanks to his 87-year-old World War II veteran mother.
Kenny Leon won for Best Director of a Play for his revival of A Raisin in the Sun. Raisin also won for Best Revival of a Play, providing for one of the few moments of suspense in the broadcast. (With the acclaimed productions of The Glass Menagerie and Twelfth Night also nominated, this was an especially tough category to call.)
"Yes! Yeeessss," Leon screamed from the press room when Sophie Okonedo won the Tony Award for Featured Actress in a play for Raisin. "That girl works harder than anyone," he enthused, quickly adding, "Yes, Denzel was snubbed." Washington was not nominated for his leading role in the play.
That award ultimately went to Bryan Cranston (TV's Breaking Bad), who is currently starring as President Lyndon B. Johnson in Robert Schenkkan's historical drama All the Way, which also won the award for Best Play. Schenkkan has already written a sequel to All the Way titled The Great Society, which is set to make its world premiere at Oregon Shakespeare Festival next month. Would Cranston reprise his role as our 36th president if the new play came to Broadway? "I would never say never," Cranston responded, quickly adding, "It almost feels like when you just had a baby and people ask if you're going to have another."
Adding to the earlier wins by Hall and Harris, Hedwig and the Angry Inch won for Best Revival of a Musical. While this seemed the likeliest outcome for industry-watchers, the idea that this show would even make it to Broadway seemed like a long shot when it first opened off-Broadway at the Jane Street Theater in 1998.
"My friend said I was committing career suicide by performing drag and rock and roll," said writer and original Hedwig John Cameron Mitchell, explaining, "Broadway was very different then." Broadway is still conservative by theatrical standards, but the fact that this show is now playing to sold-out crowds at the Belasco Theatre is an indication of just how far the goal posts have moved on the Great White Way.
Mitchell is currently working on a sequel to Hedwig with original composer Stephen Trask. "It's much weirder than the first one, so we're going to have to wait another fifteen years for it to be on Broadway again." Considering how much Tony love Hedwig received tonight, it may not be quite that long.