Tony Awards Analysis: 'Gentleman's Guide,' 'Hedwig' Dominate 68th Annual Broadway Honors

Neil Patrick Harris in Hedwig - P 2014
Joan Marcus

Neil Patrick Harris in Hedwig - P 2014

Bryan Cranston, Neil Patrick Harris, Audra McDonald, Sophie Okonedo and Mark Rylance were among winners at the Tony Awards, presented at Radio City Music Hall in a ceremony hosted by Hugh Jackman.

NEW YORK – The 68th annual Tony Awards favored killing and comedy, handing top honors for best new musical to A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder in a nail-biter finish to what was perceived as a tight race against its chief competitor, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.

In a ceremony that spread the wealth rather than serving up an awards sweep to any single show, other top prizes went to Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way for best play, to Hedwig and the Angry Inch for best musical revival, and to A Raisin in the Sun for best play revival.

The dueling frontrunners for best musical provided a suspenseful face-off between a critical favorite admired for its originality, clever craftsmanship and delicious dark humor in one corner, and a commercial crowd-pleaser in the other. The song list for Beautiful is assembled out of Baby Boomer nostalgia bait – a jukebox selection lifted from the catalogs of King and her former husband and songwriting partner, Gerry Goffin, as well as that of their friendly hitmaker rivals Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, who are depicted as a kind of Fred and Ethel to King and Goffin’s Lucy and Ricky in the bio-musical’s book by Douglas McGrath.

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Despite its popularity, Beautiful had to settle for just two Tonys. Best actress in a musical went, as expected, to Jessie Mueller for her emotionally resonant turn as the earth mother singer-songwriter on her journey from Brooklyn to Laurel Canyon, and from an unhappy marriage to self-realization as a “natural woman,” to quote one of King’s pop evergreens.

Carole King, you have taught me so much,” said Mueller to the singer-songwriter who was in the house to cheer her on. “You teach me every night when I go up on stage.” Mueller was previously nominated for a featured actress Tony in 2012 for her Broadway debut in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. Beautiful also won a Tony for Brian Ronan’s sound design.

While that show has steamed ahead to gross $25 million since it opened in January and is shaping up to be the season’s legitimate sleeper hit, Gentleman’s Guide has been a more modest performer, with earnings to date of around $16.5 million despite opening two months earlier, in November. Only in the run-up to the Tony Awards ceremony since leading the pack with 10 nominations has the production begun playing to capacity houses.

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A more eccentric entertainment than Beautiful, Gentleman’s Guide was adapted from the same source material as the classic Alec Guinness Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, with a book by Robert L. Freedman, music by Steven Lutvak and devilishly clever lyrics by both. The British music hall-style operetta follows the murderous path of a disinherited commoner methodically eliminating every member of an aristocratic family that separates him from his noble birthright.

Unlike best musical winners of many past seasons that have pulled off a huge sweep, the show took just three other prizes – including Tonys for Freedman’s book, Broadway first-timer Darko Tresnjak’s direction and Linda Cho's costume designs. But Gentleman’s Guide stands to reap the most robust reward financially, getting a push at the box office to sustain the production and possibly extend its life on Broadway by a year or more.

“Steven Lutvak had an epiphany when he was 18 years old about this show, and he has been the singular driving force behind Gentleman’s Guide for years,” said exultant lead producer Joey Parnes. “This award belongs to him and Robert Freedman, who persevered in the face of incredible obstacles, and to Darko Tresnjak, whose vision is on that stage every night. The little engine that could, did.”

Equaling the Gentleman’s Guide haul in terms of numbers was Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the 1998 musical that navigated the tricky path to the bright lights of Broadway without sacrificing its scrappy downtown punk credibility and take-no-prisoners attitude. John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s concert-styled confessional of a transgender East Berlin rocker won best musical revival, as well as lead actor in a musical for Neil Patrick Harris’ fearless turn in the title role.

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“This is crazy-pants,” said Harris, a four-time Tony Awards host and a darling of the theater community, getting a well-earned taste of the experience on the other side of Broadway’s big night. “Playing Hedwig is an absolute joy. It has changed me and challenged me. It’s exhausting and I love doing it.”

In a year marked by multiple wide-open races, the Hedwig triumph was viewed as a walk – in gold go-go boots, fishnets and acid-wash denim. Michael Mayer’s electrifying production won four Tonys in all, including one for featured actress for the ecstatic Lena Hall in another gender-bending turn as Hedwig’s husband, whose resplendent drag transformation in the closing number mirrors that of the show’s protagonist. It also landed Kevin Adams his fourth Tony for lighting design, having previously won for The 39 Steps, Spring Awakening and American Idiot, the latter two also directed by Mayer.

Given that Harris is contracted to appear in Hedwig only through Aug. 17, the big question now is whether the star will extend his run in the sell-out revival or if the producers will be shopping for a marquee-name replacement. One name reportedly surfacing in discussions is Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

In two other widely expected Tony wins, Schenkkan’s political bio-drama All the Way took the trophies for best new play and for lead actor Bryan Cranston in his ferocious Broadway debut as President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The dense ensemble drama traces LBJ’s rise from vice president to the Oval Office following John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and his tenacious efforts to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act as the key to his re-election campaign that year.

“It’s a long time between drinks of water in this town, let me tell you,” said Schenkkan in his acceptance speech. The playwright was last produced on Broadway in 1993 with his Pulitzer winner The Kentucky Cycle.

With the limited engagement scheduled to close on June 29, the commercial impact of the best play Tony will be minor. However, the award provides a strong marketing boost for future productions. The Broadway run announced recoupment of its $3.9 million investment last week, shortly after celebrating its 100th performance.

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The stiffest competition for All the Way in the best play stakes was considered to be James Lapine’s adaptation of the beloved Moss Hart theater memoir, Act One. The production translated just one of its five nominations into a win, for Beowulf Boritt’s intricate set design. While that limited engagement is scheduled to close on June 15, Act One will be filmed for future broadcast on PBS as part of the Live From Lincoln Center series.

In a year marked by several wide-open races with no clear favorite, best revival of a play was among the hardest categories to call. That prize went to director Kenny Leon’s stirring remount of A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s modern classic about a Southside Chicago family looking to carve out a better life. The box-office smash stars Denzel Washington, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Anika Noni Rose and British actress Sophie Okonedo, who took home a featured actress Tony for her Broadway debut.

“Blimey,” said Okonedo. “I am loving it here in New York. I am loving it on Broadway. It’s beyond anything I could have imagined.”

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The win marked the third time in recent years that a Scott Rudin production has scored play revival honors, following August Wilson’s Fences (2010) and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (2012). Rudin is also repped on Broadway by the Tony-winning blockbuster hit musical, The Book of Mormon.

Leon also won best director of a play, pointing up the absence of Washington among the nominees by beginning his acceptance speech saying, “Wow. Denzel, Denzel, Denzel.”

Among the stellar field of contenders for best revival of a play, director John Tiffany’s exquisite reinterpretation of Tennessee WilliamsThe Glass Menagerie scored just a single win out of its seven nominations – for Natasha Katz’s lighting design. Like Adams, Katz is a three-time previous winner, for Aida (2000), The Coast of Utopia (2007) and Once (2012).

Williams' 1944 play about a deeply conflicted family living in a suffocating St. Louis apartment is a genuine oddity in Tony Awards history. Despite its undisputed status as one of the most important works in the American theater canon, and its six Broadway productions over the decades, including this one, the play had never before even been nominated for, let alone received a Tony. The 2014 win for lighting finally breaks that 70-year dry streak, albeit in a minimal way.

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Widely viewed as the frontrunner for revival honors, the hugely acclaimed import from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, Twelfth Night, failed to secure that prize. But the Elizabethan-style all-male staging of the romantic comedy won featured actor in a play for Mark Rylance’s sublime turn as the noblewoman Olivia, who flowers from somber mourning to lovestruck giddiness. Rylance is a two-time previous lead actor winner for Boeing-Boeing (2008) and Jerusalem (2011).

Twelfth Night also nabbed a Tony for Jenny Tiramani’s costumes. The production played in repertory with Richard III and became one of the must-see stage events of the 2013-14 season.

In other acting prizes, Audra McDonald scored a history-making win, taking lead actress in a play for her transformative turn as Billie Holiday in a boozy late-night concert toward the end of the legendary jazz vocalist’s life in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.

The record win is the sixth for the 43-year-old actress, making her the first performer ever to have received Tony honors in all four acting categories, outranking such theater royalty as Angela Lansbury and Julie Harris. McDonald previously had won featured actress in a musical in 1994 for Carousel and 1998 for Ragtime; featured actress in a play in 1996 for Master Class and 2004 for A Raisin in the Sun; and lead actress in a musical in 2012 for Porgy and Bess.

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“I want to thank my director Lonny Price for chasing me and saying, yes, you can play Billie Holiday when I thought he was out of his mind,” said a weeping McDonald. She wrapped up her speech with an impassioned shout-out to game-changing African-American women Lena Horne, Maya Angelou, Diahann Carroll, Ruby Dee and Holiday. Lady Day went two for two, bagging both of its Tony nominations by winning also for sound designer Steve Canyon Kennedy.

While the romantic musical drama The Bridges of Madison County was one of the season’s commercial casualties and failed to secure the lifeline of a best musical nomination, the recently closed show did receive two bittersweet consolation prizes. It won Tonys for composer Jason Robert Brown’s lush original score and orchestrations.

And while perennial Tony Awards bridesmaid Kelli O’Hara missed out on a lead actress win with her fifth nomination, the beloved musical-theater star may have another strong shot at the prize next year, if early reports that she is to headline a Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I are confirmed. Brown is also expected to be back in contention for the big prize next season with his musicalization of the 1982 screen comedy Honeymoon in Vegas.

While Disney’s Aladdin scored five nominations including best musical and is already shaping up to be a long-running family-friendly hit, the stage reincarnation of the 1992 animated feature walked away with just one Tony. That went to James Monroe Iglehart for his scene-stealing turn as the Genie, a high-energy performance that regularly stops the show with his “Friend Like Me” number, and then repeats the feat after intermission with “Prince Ali.”

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Hosting the ceremony for the fourth time, Hugh Jackman showed off his easygoing humor as well as his song-and-dance chops multiple times. In a hop-along prologue to the show inspired by a Bobby Van number from the 1953 musical Small Town Girl, he paused to jump rope with Broadway’s Rocky Balboa, Andy Karl, play piano with Mueller and share an elevator with erstwhile Tonys emcee Harris.

While a hip-hop Music Man riff with LL Cool J and T.I. was an eyebrow-raiser, Jackman was on safer ground trading his Wolverine claws for tap shoes. He joined the ensemble of the Harlem Jazz Age revue After Midnight on a rousing number that kicked off the CBS telecast, earning plum exposure for the best musical contender. That show nabbed its sole Tony win for choreographer Warren Carlyle.

A performance slot on the Tonys frequently leads to a box-office boost even for shows that fail to take home a trophy. Other productions that made strong use of their nationwide advertising push with well-staged numbers included Les Miserables; If/Then, showcasing breakout Frozen star Idina Menzel; Gentleman’s Guide, preceded by an onstage intro in which virtuoso lead Jefferson Mays quick-changed into three of his nine characters; Nick Cordero in Bullets Over Broadway; Sutton Foster in Violet; and Cabaret, led by Alan Cumming in the role that won him a Tony during the revival’s first time around, in 1998.

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Among the production numbers that highlighted the achievements of their Tony winners, the Rocky sequence amply illustrated the work of scenic designer Christopher Barreca, while Aladdin showed Iglehart at his best and the radiant Mueller was joined onstage by the cast of Beautiful as well as King herself in an upbeat segment that’s bound to sell tickets.

But the indisputable low-life highlight was a wildly insouciant Harris performing Hedwig’s “Sugar Daddy,” a raucous display that included teabagging Orlando Bloom, licking the glasses of Samuel L. Jackson, giving Sting a lap dance and taking a breather on Kevin Bacon’s knee before the star planted a kiss on the lips of his longtime partner David Burtka. (Watch the video below.)

Sting was one of a handful of performers to plug upcoming shows, singing a lovely folk ballad from his musical The Last Ship, which opens in the fall.

Finding an effective way to showcase the nominated plays invariably poses a challenge for a telecast that tends to be all about the musicals. But this year's awards show came closer than most past editions to solving that problem by having the playwrights themselves introduce well-chosen excerpts.

The Tony Awards cap off a financially robust season for Broadway. Grosses for May 27, 2013, through May 25, 2014, hit $1.27 billion, representing an increase of 11.4 percent over the previous year, with total admissions of 12.21 million. That news comes on the heels of stats for the 2012-13 season that show Broadway contributing nearly $12 billion in related spending to New York City’s economy, including a significant increase in tourist dollars.