'Billy Elliot' tops Tonys

9:03 PM PST 06/07/2009 by Andrew Salomon, Back Stage, AP

Wins 10 awards, including best director and best musical

"Billy Elliot," the tale of a young boy rising from the ashes of a hardscrabble coal-mining town to soar as a ballet dancer, nabbed 10 Tony Awards Sunday, including best musical.

The night provided a fitting punctuation mark to a Broadway season noted for defying expectations and overcoming arduous circumstances.

"We opened during a difficult time, in November," said Elton John, who wrote the show's music. "But it's a story of winners and survivors."

That was also the story of Broadway in 2008-09. Faced with the worst economic downturn in eight decades, the nation's premier theater showcase managed to set a record at the box office and find enough investors to stage 43 productions, the most in a quarter century.

Blockbuster musicals such as "Billy Elliot" played a major role in that success, as did star-studded plays such as Yasmina Reza's "God of Carnage," which took home the award for best play and two other Tonys -- for best actress (Marica Gay Harden) and best direction (Matthew Warchus). In addition to Harden, the play featured Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis and James Gandolfini, who were also nommed for the top acting awards.

If there was an element of unlikely triumph in the storyline of "Billy Elliot," there was also an air of inevitability to its Tony victory. It earned a record-tying 15 noms and was the consensus favorite before the ceremony. Still, there was no guarantee it would be as well received on Broadway as it has been.

"Bringing a musical to Broadway from England is like bringing coals to Newcastle, which is where I come from," said Lee Hall, who won the Tony for best book and who wrote the film upon which the show is based. "It's what you do best. To be received like this is kind of fantastic."

Another unlikely victor was "Hair," which won for best musical revival. In December, its producers only had half of the needed $6.5 million capitalization. Through the intercession of Jeffrey Richards and Jerry Frankel, Broadway heavyweights who produced six shows this season, it managed to open. It has received strong critical praise and is doing well at the box office.

"We were trying to raise the money at the point that the economy was falling apart," said Andrew Hamingson, one of the producers. "We called Jeff and Jerry and asked them if they wanted to partner with us. It was a resounding yes. It was a difficult time and we got through it."

"The Norman Conquests," which won for best revival of a play, also was no sure bet. "It's really, really hard to raise money in this climate for a trilogy of plays," said producer Sonia Friedman, "particularly ones that star six British actors who aren't television or film stars."

In addition to best music, Billy won for best actor, which was shared by the three boys who played the title character: David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik and Kiril Kulish; best featured actor (Gregory Jbara); best director, Stephen Daldry, who also directed the film; choreography (Peter Darling); and five others for design.

The Tony for best actress in a musical went to Alice Ripley in "Next to Normal," the show about a mother with bipolar disorder that also won best score. Best featured actress in a musical went to Karen Olivio for her turn as Anita in "West Side Story."

"Billy Elliot" could be poised for greater success -- a national tour is likely, and it could return to its original incarnation on film -- just as "The Producers" and "Hairspray" came full circle. Whether it can run for at least six years as "The Producers" did, however, depends on the producers' ability to find multiple sets of three young actors to share the role.

"Billy Elliot" didn't provide the only tale of success in the face of challenging odds.

Angela Lansbury copped her fifth Tony (best featured actress in a play) for her turn as Madame Arcadi in a revival of Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit." With the award, Lansbury tied Julie Harris for the record for most acting awards.

"Who knew that this time in my life I should be presented with this award," said Lansbury, 83, upon receiving the trophy. "I can't believe I'm standing here. This is the greatest gift in my old age that I could possibly imagine. Thank you for having me back."

Roger Robinson earned his first Tony, for his turn as Bynum in "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," the second installment of August Wilson's 10-play cycle on the African American experience in the 20th century. Among the many he thanked was his mother, still alive at 98, "who raised seven children singlehandedly, encouraged me that I could do anything in this world."

Later in the press room, Robinson noted the irony of "Joe Turner" playing at the Belasco Theatre, Broadway's second-oldest venue, which has a separate, outside entrance for the balcony, the only place African Americans were once allowed to sit. On May 30, among those sitting in the prime orchestra seats were President Obama and his wife.

"August Wilson would have appreciated that irony also," Robinson said. "Only in America could that happen."

Among the funniest moments came when host Neil Patrick Harris tweaked Jeremy Piven, the star of HBO's "Entourage," who left a revival of "Speed-the-Plow" after only two months due to an alleged bout of mercury poisoning. Before the award for best actor in a play, Harris ate some sushi with chopsticks and quipped: "This gives me so much energy. I feel as if I could eat it every day and do show after show after show."

The winner of the best actor award, Geoffrey Rush, carried on with the humorous tone in his acceptance speech, holding a lighter aloft and saying, "Thank you Manhattan audiences for proving that French existential absurdist tragicomedy rocks."
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