Tony Awards: Why Broadway Is Cheering Wins by 'Fun Home,' Kelli O'Hara (Analysis)

THR's awards analyst breaks down the results from Sunday night's ceremony at Radio City Music Hall.
The 'Fun Home' team accepting the best musical Tony Award

The best-attended and highest-grossing season in Broadway history came to a close at Sunday night's 69th Tony Awards, where several results — especially the best musical and best actress in a musical honors — seemed to provide an emotional release for members of the New York theater community and resulted in joyous standing ovations.

Fun Home, a low-budget production about a young girl's sexual awakening as a lesbian and her closeted gay father's anguish — subject matter of a sort that had never been addressed as frankly on the Great White Way, where it hits close to home for many — walked away with the most coveted of Tony awards, the one for best musical.

The show worked its way up from an Off-Broadway proscenium stage to an in-the-round Broadway house, and became one of the most critically-acclaimed shows of the season. Even so, numerous industry insiders expressed delighted disbelief on Sunday night that such a show — and such an outcome — was now possible.

Inspired by the graphic memoir of Alison Bechdel, Fun Home came into the night tied for the most overall nominations — 12 — with ballet-centric An American in Paris, a critical and commercial smash that was thought to have at least as good a shot at claiming the prize for best musical, the only one for which a Tony win has been shown to have major financial rewards. (A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder would not still be running if it had not won last year.)

In the end, Fun Home won five prizes, including for best actor in a musical for Michael Cerveris and best original score, which had never been won by a team of women prior to Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron's victory. Paris won four awards, most notably for best choreography for Christopher Wheeldon, who also directed the show.

The category's other two nominees could claim victories of their own. Musical-comedy Something Rotten!'s cast performed the telecast's opening number (which tends to be a boon at the box-office), and past winner Christian Borle took home best featured actor in a musical for his portrayal of William Shakespeare (edging out costar Brad Oscar, among others). As for dark comedy The Visit, the product of collaboration between numerous Broadway legends that took 14 years longer than expected to get to Broadway, being at the Tonys at all was a big win.

The only result that was received at the ceremony with as much excitement as Fun Home's big win — namely, a standing ovation — was the best actress in a musical win for The King and I star Kelli O'Hara. As everyone in the theater community was well aware heading into the evening, this was the popular leading lady's sixth nomination in 11 years — her fourth nom for a show directed by Bartlett Sher and her third for a show performed at Lincoln Center — but she had yet to win.

She may have never faced stiffer competition than she did this year. Her category included Kristin Chenoweth, who studied under the same voice teacher, and Chita Rivera, still going strong 65 years after her Broadway debut. Many tipped the race for Chenoweth, suggesting that nobody else had the vocal range or physical comedy chops to do what she does in On the Twentieth Century, or Rivera, reasoning that she would win as an acknowledgement of her entire career. But they both had something working against them: they had won before — Chenoweth in 1999, Rivera in 1984 and 1993.

Also working in O'Hara's favor this year was her association with a production that people flat-out adore, unlike last year when she was nominated for a great performance in a show that sharply divided people, The Bridges of Madison County. This latest revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic landed as many noms (nine) as its two fellow nominees for best revival of a musical combined (Comden and Green's On the Town and On the Twentieth Century), and it ended up winning that race, O'Hara's and two others. Its best costume design of a musical victory was widely expected; fewer anticipated that Ruthie Ann Miles would prevail in the best featured actress in a musical race. Miles, only the second actress of Asian descent ever to win a Tony (24 years after Lea Salonga won for Miss Saigon), beat out three actresses from Fun Home, who may well have split the votes of that show's supporters.

Meanwhile, in something of a Cinderella story, or at least a 42nd Street story ("You're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!"), Alex Sharp, a 25-year-old who a year ago was graduating from Juilliard and had neither an agent nor a manger, won the best actor in a play prize — over the likes of The Elephant Man's Bradley Cooper — for his work in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. (His performance is so physically demanding that the show became the first non-musical to land a choreography nom in 23 years.)

The production, an adaptation of a best-selling novel about a young boy with a developmental disability who works to solve a crime for which he has been falsely accused, also claimed prizes for best play (widely expected after it swept the precursor awards), best director of a play (Marianne Elliott, who won the same award four years ago for War Horse and was the only female director in the running this year), best scenic design and best lighting design, tying Fun Home's tally for the most wins.

Like The Curious Incident and epic period piece Wolf Hall: Parts One & Two, which received more noms than any other play this season (eight) but ended up winning just one (best costume design of a play), Skylight and The Audience — both directed by Stephen Daldry — came to Broadway following acclaimed runs on London's West End.

The former, which won best revival of a play (it is the category's only nominee still running), marks producer-extraordinaire Scott Rudin's second consecutive win in the category after last year's A Raisin in the Sun. For the latter, Helen Mirren won best actress in a play (becoming only the second person, after Lila Kedrova, to win an Oscar and then a Tony for portraying the same person/character) and Richard McCabe won best featured actor in a play (his win was far less assured than hers).

Annaleigh Ashford, the young Wicked and Kinky Boots alum, won best featured actress in a play for playing a kooky ballerina-wannabe in a long-closed revival of You Can't Take It with You, accounting for that show's only win. Going home empty-handed were Constellations, Disgraced, The Elephant Man, Gigi, Hand to God, The Heidi Chronicles, The Last Ship, On the Town, On the Twentieth Century, This Is Our Youth, The Visit and two shows that closed following performances on Tonys day: Airline Highway and It's Only a Play.

And so the curtain falls on Broadway's 2014-2015 season. But don't despair, the curtain has already risen on the 2015-2016 edition: An Act of God opened on May 28; The Color Purple was promoted at an event on June 2; and the arrival of Hamilton, an Off-Broadway phenomenon making the jump to the big-time (kind of like Fun Home), is just around the corner on August 6.

After all, the show must go on!

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