Intellectual 'Awakening' at the Tonys
Empty"The Coast of Utopia," the epic play about 19th century Russian intellectuals agitating for political change, and "Spring Awakening," the rock musical about 19th century German teenagers yearning for sexual freedom, burst forth at the 61st annual Tony Awards on Sunday. The pair won the most trophies in their respective categories, including best play and best musical.
"Utopia," Tom Stoppard's trilogy that encompasses "Voyage," "Shipwreck" and "Salvage," earned seven Tonys, breaking the record of six awards set by the original production of "Death of a Salesman" in 1949 and most recently matched by "The History Boys" in 2006. "Awakening" earned eight awards, the most for any musical since 2001, when "The Producers" set the record with 12.
"I did not know that," Stoppard said at news conference after he was informed of his play's historical turn. "I would have been more than happy to have equaled the record of a great, great playwright like Arthur Miller, and of my contemporary Alan Bennett."
It was the fourth Tony for Stoppard, a native of Czechoslovakia who has been a British citizen for most of his life. He has earned awards for "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" (1968), "Travesties" (1976) and "The Real Thing" (1984).
"Company," John Doyle's revival of the Stephen Sondheim and George Furth classic, was named best revival of a musical. "Journey's End," R.C. Sherriff's 1928 play about World War I, was named best revival of a play.
David Hyde Pierce pulled off the upset of the night when he was named best actor in a musical for his turn as a show-loving Boston police detective in "Curtains"; Raul Esparza, who is playing the commitment-phobic Bobby in "Company," was considered the front-runner. It was the first Tony for Pierce, who won four Emmys in 11 seasons on "Frasier."
"I didn't expect to win," Pierce said. "I was surprised I wasn't more together, but this award meant a lot more to me than I realized."
The least shocking news of the night came when Christine Ebersole was named best actress in a musical for her dual turns as Big Edie and Little Edie Beale in "Grey Gardens," the adaptation of the Maysles brothers' cult documentary. The award for Ebersole, her second, was considered a foregone conclusion when producers announced that the musical would move to Broadway from off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons. Her castmate, Mary Louise Wilson, was named best featured actress in a musical.
In the play category, Frank Langella ("Frost/Nixon") and Julie White ("The Little Dog Laughed") earned the top acting awards, while Billy Crudup and Jennifer Ehle of "Utopia" won the featured acting awards, added to the play's record-breaking haul. It was the third Tony for Langella, the second for Ehle, and the inaugural one for Crudup and Julie White.
It is not every year that Broadway welcomes a three-part epic with such an intellectual reach, something that "Utopia" director Jack O'Brien readily acknowledged.
"I mean, it's stupefying," O'Brien, who won for best director of a play, said afterward at a news conference. "The most moving thing to me (was) … the fact that Lincoln Center just said, 'Yes, we're going to do this.' That company — you have no idea what they've done, what they've done for each other. They gave up not only a year of their lives but a year of their livelihoods."
Indeed, the play was populated by some of the bigger names in film, including Crudup and Ethan Hawke, who was nominated for best featured actor.
Crudup said it was not difficult to commit a year to the project. "And if I've missed any work while doing this, could you please tell me what it is?" he said.
"Awakening," based on the 1891 Frank Wedekind play, opened less than a year ago off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater and has become the surprise smash that could populate Broadway for years to come thanks to its hard-driving pop-rock score by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik.
"I think we got lucky timing-wise, with what's happening in this country politically," Sheik said. "People were ready for something that dealt with real issues and had real teeth. They're turning the tide away from hypocrisy and foolishness."
Said John Gallagher Jr., who won the Tony for best featured actor in a musical: "This time last year, we were searching for a better closing song, better light cues, better everything. We just wanted to get through the invited dress. That was our dream."
The financial implications for winning a Tony are mixed. "Awakening" is likely to break the bank, not only on Broadway and on tour but internationally as well. "Utopia" has a far less certain future, though Stoppard said afterward that a Russian-language version of the play has been in rehearsal for the past 18 months in Moscow and could open in October. There also might be a production in French.
Andrew Salomon is the news editor of Back Stage East.