Tonys Analysis: Why Did the Awards Break the Way They Did?
THR's awards analyst suggests that "Gentleman's Guide" benefited from being the most original nominee for best musical, while "Raisin in the Sun" was boosted over its toughest competition by the fact that it — unlike them — is still running.
NEW YORK – At the 68th Tony Awards on Sunday night, some shows won more and bigger prizes than others -- most notably, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, All the Way, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and A Raisin in the Sun -- but just about every major contender took home something, which, along with Hugh Jackman's strong hosting and a ton of great scenes from the nominated shows, made for a very fun evening … at least for this first-timer.
Here's why I think we ended up with the winners that we did.
A Gentleman's Guide won best musical over impressive competition -- the jazz revue After Midnight, the Disney adaptation Aladdin and the hit jukebox show Beautiful: The Carole King Musical -- because, I believe, it was indisputably the most original of the lot. It was inspired by the 1949 Ealing non-musical comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, but it featured an entirely original score, a funny and charming book and winning performances all around. Many, including me, thought that the baby boomers and road producers among the Tony voters could push Beautiful over the top, but, in the end, the Gilbert and Sullivan-esque period piece won the most coveted prize of the night -- plus best direction of a musical (Darko Tresnjak), best book of a musical (Broadway newcomer Robert L. Freedman) and best costume design of a musical (Linda Cho created costumes that are not only period appropriate but, fortunately for Jefferson Mays, who plays nine characters, can be slipped on and off in an instant).
Robert Schenkkan's All the Way emerged from a fairly thin field to claim the award for best play because the scope and gravitas of its subject matter -- Lyndon B. Johnson's quest to pass civil rights legislation -- exceeded that of its competition, which provided more intimate looks at the theater (Act One), a resort for transsexuals (Casa Valentina), the impact of a long-ago loss on a person's loved ones (Mothers and Sons) and an Irish-set romance (Outside Mullingar). Also, it possessed an ace in the hole: Bryan Cranston's outstanding Broadway debut , which was recognized with the best actor in a play Tony.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which was always the prohibitive favorite in the races for best revival of a musical and best actor in a musical (Neil Patrick Harris), took home not only those two prizes but also best featured actress in a musical (Lena Hall) and best lighting design of a musical (for Kevin Adams' creation of a believable rock concert vibe in the old Belasco Theatre), because it was, quite simply, the freshest -- in both senses of the word -- and most fun of the musical revivals. Nobody can quibble with the performances or music of Violet or Les Miz, but overall both raised issues -- the former for a thin story and strange creative choice not to show a scar, the latter for one that feels like it has already been told endlessly and perhaps better. Hedwig, meanwhile, is beyond compare.
(Both All the Way and Hedwig are limited engagements -- ending on June 29 and August 17, respectively -- and these accolades, plus the Hedwig performance on the show, will only further fuel the public's mad rush to see them.)
And, on a night that was largely dominated by favorites, the big upset winner in several categories was A Raisin in the Sun, Scott Rudin's revival of Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 classic, which held off the presumptive frontrunners Twelfth Night and The Glass Menagerie to win the prize for best revival of a play, and also took home best direction of a play (Kenny Leon) and best featured actress in a play (Sophie Okonedo, best known for her Oscar-nominated work in the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda). I have to believe that the fact that everyone saw Raisin -- because it was still running during Tonys voting, unlike Twelfth and Glass, and because people don't miss a chance to see Denzel Washington act in person -- made the difference here.
(Washington was not nominated and did not attend the Tonys, but he will remain with the play until its limited engagement comes to an end next Sunday.)
Even after all of the aforementioned honors were dished out, there were still tasty pieces of the pie remaining, and I think that voters made a conscious decision to spread them around as much as possible.
Beautiful is made by the performance of Jessie Mueller as Carole King, and she was awarded the best actress in a musical prize, presumably edging out The Bridges of Madison County's now five-time Tonys bridesmaid Kelli O'Hara (who may well be back in the running next year for a revival of The King and I). Additionally, the show's Brian Ronan won best sound design of a musical.
Meanwhile, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, a small, cabaret-style show, scored two wins of its own. Audra McDonald made history with her best actress in a play win -- becoming the first actress to win six competitive Tonys and the first to win at least one in each of the four categories that recognize actresses -- helped by the fact that she is playing a real and well-known person (the late Billie Holliday) in what is essentially a one-person show, and that, because of her show's strange categorization as a play rather than a musical, she was her category's only nominee who not only acted but also sang, and well. Additionally, Steve Canyon Kennedy was awarded best sound design of a play, not least because he, unlike his competitors, was up for a play that featured music.
And Twelfth Night was recognized for two of its most acclaimed elements. First, Mark Rylance, who topped a pair of his costars to win best featured actor in a play for his gender-bending turn as Olivia. At this point Rylance can probably walk onstage, cough and win a Tony, but he made a far stronger case in this acclaimed production, and undoubtedly benefited from having done it in repertory with Richard III, for which he was also nominated for best actor in a play. (If you're nominated for two shows in a single year, they often like to throw you at least one win!) And Jenny Tiramani was awarded best costume design of a play, having magnificently conquered the challenge of creating costumes for the Shakespearean classic in the very way in which they would have been created during Shakespeare's own era.
Other shows took home just one prize -- but, in most cases, that award recognized the show's most impressive component. Aladdin was celebrated in the form of its irrepressible Genie, James Monroe Iglehart. After Midnight had its moment when its choreographer-director Warren Carlyle won best choreography. Rocky's Christopher Barreca took home best scenic design of a musical (its boxing ring finale surely sealed the deal), while Act One's Beowulf Borrit won best scenic design of a play (its massive swiveling stage is certainly impressive). And Natasha Katz bagged The Glass Menagerie the award for best lighting design of a play, marking the first time that any incarnation of Tennessee Williams' landmark work has been honored with a Tony.
Perhaps the most bizarre thing of the evening: the obvious affection in the room for The Bridges of Madison County, which closed back in May after being denied a best musical nom by the Nominating Committee, but for which Jason Robert Brown won best original score and best orchestrations -- over A Gentleman's Guide -- tonight. I checked and can now confirm that no other show has ever won both of those prizes that was not at least nominated for best musical. So perhaps it's time for the Tonys Administration Committee to restructure the nominations process so that we end up with nominees that are more reflective of the tastes of the entire voting body, as opposed to just 33 individuals, as was the case this year.
For trivia geeks: amongst other shows that were not nominated for best musical, the only other best original score winners were Street Scene (1947, before the best musical category existed), Call Me Madam (1951, before best musical nominees were revealed), Gigi (1974) and Aida (2000) won only the former, and the only other best orchestrations winners were Kiss Me Kate (2000), Assassins (2004) and Sweeney Todd: The Demon of Barber Street (2006) won only the latter.
But, rather than griping about how things could be better -- which will always be the case -- let me take this opportunity to say that covering this year's Tonys race has been one of the most enjoyable and meaningful experiences of my career, and to thank some people for making it possible.
From THR, our editorial director, Janice Min, for allowing me to embed myself on Broadway for the six weeks leading up to tonight, and for supporting my efforts while here, most significantly by greenlighting the first THR Tonys roundtables and photo shoots; Jennifer Laski, THR's photo and video director, and her team -- especially Carrie Smith and Stephanie Fischette -- for making those roundtables and photo shoots happen; everyone else who offered support from Los Angeles, especially THR.com's editor Will Lee, his entire online team and executive editor Matt Belloni; and our tireless team here in New York, editor Ashley Lee, contributor Suzy Evans and especially chief theater critic David Rooney, who couldn't have been more generous when it came to sharing his immense knowledge and experience with a green but eager-to-learn rookie.
From Broadway, the small cadre of theater publicists who make this place run and who were so welcoming to me, as well as the talent they represent, who made watching 23 shows in little more than a month a pleasure.
And, most of all, you, for reading and watching and commenting and tweeting and generally sharing my enthusiasm for this expansion of our coverage.
There truly is no business like show business, and I hope to be back on Broadway next year to cover it all over again.