NEW YORK – Demonstrating yet again that the Broadway musical is diversifying away from traditional spectacle to embrace more idiosyncratic fare, the intimate Irish folk-rock chamber piece, Once, won in eight categories, including the most coveted prize of best new musical at the 66th Annual Tony Awards, presented Sunday at the Beacon Theatre.
Other major winners in what was a more suspenseful ceremony than usual, with many key races lacking a clear frontrunner, included Clybourne Park, Death of a Salesman and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, while Newsies , the musical that was neck and neck with Once in predictions, did not go empty-handed
Bruce Norris’ sly satire on race and how we talk about it, Clybourne Park, took home a sole Tony, but one that counts – best new play. Norris already had scored the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for his work, which had premiered at Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons the previous year.
Among the more anticipated wins, Mike Nichols’ record-breaking staging of Death of a Salesman landed two Tonys including play revival, with Nichols nabbing his seventh Tony for direction (in addition to one as producer). He acknowledged this was not his first time accepting an award on the Beacon stage, confessing that he had won a pie-eating contest there when it was his childhood movie theater. He choked up and was bleeped during his speech while honoring the work of his cast.
Having won best play honors for its 1949 premiere, Arthur Miller’s tragedy of the common man subsequently went on to become the only drama to win two best revival Tonys – for the 1984 staging with Dustin Hoffman and in 1999 with Brian Dennehy. This year’s third win in that category further consolidates the play’s elevated position in the Broadway history books.
“This play does the rarest thing a play can do,” said Nichols. “It gets truer as time goes by.”
Shepherded by lead producer Scott Rudin, the revival was one of the major successes of the season. It grossed a whopping $12.9 million during its limited 16-week engagement, breaking the house record at the Barrymore Theatre eight times and setting a new high for premium ticket prices in its final week of $499 a pop.
Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s 1971 show, Follies, had been widely expected to take the prize for musical revival. But in one of the ceremony’s genuine surprises, that nod went instead to The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. The divisive production was considered the underdog in the race, despite amassing ten nominations. Given that Sondheim sparked controversy with his vocal criticism of radical early plans for the Gershwin revival, the unexpected awards upset might be interpreted as a slap to the Follies composer.
Also honored for Porgy and Bess was perennial Broadway favorite Audra McDonald, winning lead actress in a musical for her lusciously sung and devastatingly acted turn as drug-addled Bess, the Catfish Row floozy attempting to turn her life around in the classic American folk opera.
McDonald had previously won four featured actress Tonys, for the plays Master Class (1996) and A Raisin in the Sun (2004), and musicals Carousel (1994) and Ragtime (1998). But this marked her first in a lead category. Returning to Broadway after a few years’ absence while appearing as a series regular on ABC’s Private Practice, she joins the privileged circle of performers with five Tonys, alongside veterans Julie Harris and Angela Lansbury. (Harris maintains the edge, however, having added a special lifetime achievement award to her haul.)
In other performance awards, Steve Kazee won for lead actor in a musical for his heartsick, guitar-strumming Dublin busker in Once. Giving the evening’s most emotional speech, Kazee acknowledged the tremendous support of his fellow cast members in dealing with the loss of his mother to cancer this past Easter.
Relative newcomer Nina Arianda claimed her star-is-born moment, taking lead actress in a play for her role as an enigmatic figure who shows up on a stormy night for an audition in David Ives’ kinky backstage two-hander, Venus in Fur.
“Sir, you were my first crush,” said an ecstatic Arianda to presenter Christopher Plummer, referencing his role in The Sound of Music.
Arianda was catapulted onto the radars of theater pundits when she starred in Venus in Fur to great acclaim at Off Broadway’s Classic Stage Company in 2010. The production was one of a number of successful transfers consecrated with Tonys this year, showing that New York’s second-tier stages, as well as the country’s regional theaters, remain a viable testing ground for mainstream exposure.
Debunking the unwritten rule that comedy is never taken seriously at awards time, master farceur James Corden took lead actor in a play honors for his hilarious work as ringmaster of Brit import One Man, Two Guvnors. That award had been widely tipped to go to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s sorrowful interpretation of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.
Also in the comic vein, Christian Borle, a co-star on NBC’s Broadway-themed drama Smash, beat out Andrew Garfield as the conflicted son Biff Loman in Salesman for featured actor in a play. Borle won for his mustache-twirling turn as Black Stache, the nefarious pirate who would become Captain Hook, in the Peter Pan origin play Peter and the Starcatcher. Of its nine nominations, that production also took home four Tonys in design categories.
Sole winner for Jon Robin Baitz’s acclaimed play about a politically fractious California family with a closet full of secrets, Other Desert Cities, was featured actress Judith Light. The television veteran has cemented her status as a respected member of the New York theater community in recent seasons. Baitz’s play initially had been favored to win the top prize. But insiders believe the Lincoln Center Theater production was at a disadvantage since it bowed early in the season and is scheduled to close soon, as opposed to the fresher Clybourne Park, which opened in April.
Featured actress in a musical went to beloved veteran Judy Kaye as a moralizing Prohibitionist who becomes a gin-soaked party girl, literally swinging from the chandelier in the Gershwin confection, Nice Work If You Can Get It. Kaye had previously won in the same category in 1988 as Carlotta in The Phantom of the Opera. “I guess chandeliers have been very, very good to me,” said Kaye. Her co-conspirator in Nice Work, Michael McGrath, also won for featured actor for his role as a wisecracking bootlegger.
While it missed the top prize, ceding to Once, Disney’s surprise hit Newsies won a long-awaited original score Tony for composer Alan Menken, alongside lyricist Jack Feldman. While Menken’s songs and scores for Disney movies such as The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast have put eight Oscars on his shelf, this is his first Tony win. The show also won for choreographer Christopher Gattelli’s athletic dance moves, some of the most energized work from a male ensemble seen on Broadway in years.
With a current cumulative gross of $10.8 million and a considerable advance, the revamp of Newsies, the 1992 big-screen Christian Bale flop, is shaping up to be a major hit for Disney Theatrical. Originally planned as a regional and amateur-licensing vehicle, it jumped to Broadway following a well-received run at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse last fall. The move was initially announced as a two-month limited engagement, but was extended on the basis of instant audience traction and strong grosses; it has since been switched to an open-ended run.
But the big winner of the Tony ceremony was Once, the small-scale musical adaptation of Fox Searchlight’s microbudget 2007 sleeper hit about the unrequited love between a dispirited Dubliner and a Czech musician. While Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova’s songs contained insufficient new material to be eligible for original score, the show won the all-important prize for best musical. That should contribute significantly to pump its current box office total of $9.4 million and keep it playing for some time to come.
Irish playwright Enda Walsh won best book for the show, imaginatively adapted from writer-director John Carney’s screenplay. John Tiffany won for direction of a musical, while Martin Lowe was acknowledged for his exquisite orchestrations, played by an accomplished cast of actor-musicians. Originally staged at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., and then at Off Broadway’s New York Theater Workshop (the birthplace of Rent), the musical also collected a number of design awards.
Its triumph with the top prize continues the increased acceptance on Broadway of unconventional shows that expand the musical-theater vernacular, alongside such recent productions as Spring Awakening, In the Heights, American Idiot, Next to Normal, Fela! and Grey Gardens. Once has announced a national tour to kick off in summer 2013.
Fronting the ceremony for the third time, Neil Patrick Harris confirmed his credentials as one of the most assured emcees of the Tony Awards, alongside such highly regarded repeat hosts as Lansbury and Hugh Jackman.
Currently filming Les Miserables in London (the trailer for which ran during a commercial break), Jackman initially had not been expected to attend the ceremony. But a change of plans allowed him to swing by and pick up a special honorary Tony Award for his contributions to the Broadway community as a performer and humanitarian. During his smash stint this season in the revue Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway, the stage and screen star was a tireless fundraiser for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
Fans hoping for some sparring along the lines of Harris and Jackman’s “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better” faceoff from the 2011 telecast were disappointed. But Harris added several choice bits to his personal collection of golden Tony moments.
Notable among them was an amusing opening number by songwriters David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger called “What If Life Were More Like Theater” that featured Amanda Seyfried, Patti LuPone as a lawn-mowing neighbor, Jesse Tyler Ferguson as an over-eager understudy, Mary Poppins and Little Orphan Annie, who was promptly told by Harris to “go find your parents.”
Harris also riffed on the increasing proliferation of movies being turned into musicals, suggesting such mashups as “The Towering Inferno No Nanette,” “Field of Dream Girls,” “The Exorcister Act” and “My Left Footloose.”
After hinting in advance interviews that the well of jokes about Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark was tapped out last year, Harris descended upside-down after a commercial break. “Any concerns I had about this Spider-Man rig failing have been overshadowed by the searing pain in my junk,” he said, prompting a big laugh from Garfield, the new big-screen Spider-Man, in the audience.
Arguably, however, Harris’ best contribution was a funny closing song about the perpetual awards show host’s conundrum of being out of time.
A complete list of 2012 Tony Award winners follows:
Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris
Book of a Musical
Once by Enda Walsh, based on the film written and directed by John Carney
Newsies, music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman
Revival of a Play
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
Revival of a Musical
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
Lead Actor in a Play
James Corden, One Man, Two Guvnors
Lead Actress in a Play
Nina Arianda, Venus in Fur
Lead Actor in a Musical
Steve Kazee, Once
Lead Actress in a Musical
Audra McDonald, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
Featured Actor in a Play
Christian Borle, Peter and the Starcatcher
Featured Actress in a Play
Judith Light, Other Desert Cities
Featured Actor in a Musical
Michael McGrath, Nice Work If You Can Get It
Featured Actress in a Musical
Judy Kaye, Nice Work If You Can Get It
Direction of a Play
Mike Nichols, Death of a Salesman
Direction of a Musical
John Tiffany, Once
Christopher Gattelli, Newsies
Martin Lowe, Once
Scenic Design of a Play
Donyale Werle, Peter and the Starcatcher
Scenic Design of a Musical
Bob Crowley, Once
Costume Design of a Play
Paloma Young, Peter and the Starcatcher
Costume Design of a Musical
Gregg Barnes, Follies
Lighting Design of a Play
Natasha Katz, Once
Lighting Design of a Musical
Jeff Croiter, Peter and the Starcatcher
Sound Design of a Play
Darron L. West, Peter and the Starcatcher
Sound Design of a Musical
Clive Goodwin, Once
Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre
Emanuel “Manny” Azenberg
Special Tony Awards
Actors’ Equity Association
Isabelle Stevenson Award
Regional Theatre Tony Award
Shakespeare Theatre Company, Washington, D.C.