Broadway celebrated its biggest night of the year Sunday with the 69th annual Tony Awards, at Radio City Music Hall in New York. As far as Broadway seasons go, this was a good one, full of daring new plays, little-seen revivals (not a “Gypsy” in sight!), and a spate of fresh, promising musicals. The night’s top two honors, Best Play and Best Musical, went to two small productions that rode early critical acclaim and strong word of mouth to awards season success. Best Play went to "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” a play about a teenaged math genius with Asperger’s syndrome; Best Musical went to “Fun Home,” a show based on Alison Bechdel’s bestselling graphic memoir about growing up gay with a closeted gay father.
Such rarely-trod terrain dominated the awards themselves, with voters rewarding productions that were challenging and a little off-kilter. For Best Musical, “Fun Home” beat out the more traditionally stunning “American in Paris,” a mashup of George Gershwin standards with breathtaking choreography. But the season’s freshness wasn't reflected in Sunday's broadcast, particularly in the bulk of the musical performances.
The Tony Awards show is the theater world’s one night a year to showcase to a wider audience and maybe win a few new converts. That’s typically evident in the hosts, who tend to be Broadway stalwarts with some level of recognition in TV and movies. There aren’t a lot of those: hosting duties have been passed around between Neil Patrick Harris and Hugh Jackman for most of the past decade. Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming were up to the task, crooning their way into commercial breaks, pulling off a few good gags, and making light of their relatively marginal fame beyond the stage. “We’re both available for movies,” Ms. Chenoweth chirped at movie mogul Harvey Weinstein (in attendance on behalf of “Finding Neverland, a critically reviled but commercially successful new musical).
“At very reasonable rates, as you know,” Mr. Cumming chimed in.
Still, the show went insular early on: The opening monologue included a medley of well-known, but by no means universal, show tunes. After the opener, a heavily referential number from the new musical farce “Something Rotten!,” the next two performances were classic fare from “The King and I" and “Our Town.”
It was the sort of telecast that, if happened upon by someone who held certain negative notions of musical theatre, did little to change them – the lengthy dance breaks, barn-busting act one finales, brass-heavy scores, and singing with more volume than meaning were all out in full force. Those show-stopping numbers (and nearly every show picked its busiest, loudest number for the telecast) met with varying levels of success: “An American in Paris” and “On the Town” were particularly gorgeous, the latter a classic showcase of Jerome Robbins ballet. “The King and I,” which won for best musical revival, put up a thoroughly competent medley of “Getting to Know You” and “Shall we Dance?” The clunkers of the night came from “Gigi,” which essentially put up a very poor man’s version of the “On the Town” number (but set in France!) and “Finding Neverland,” whose Act 1 finale, “Stronger,” sounded like a reject from an Olympics closing ceremony in 1998.
“Fun Home,” meanwhile, offered up a welcome break from all the razzle-dazzle with the best (and quietest) performance of the night with “Ring of Keys,” a ballad of muddled, nascent sexuality sung by 11-year-old Tony nominee Sydney Lucas. The number was introduced by actress Jennifer Grey and her father, Broadway legend Joel Grey, who recently announced he is gay. It was the emotional high of the night, and I almost turned on Chenoweth and Cumming when they cut off the applause for Ms. Lucas with a terrible "E.T". joke (“Fun Home” sounds like “phone home,” get it?)
The acceptance speeches, which can be a mixed bag at a show like this (theater people don’t have quite as many handlers and publicists as film and TV stars), were gracious and sincere. Ruthie Ann Miles, winner of best featured actress in a musical for her role in “The King and I,” read her speech (starting with a panicked call to “please recycle”) off her iPhone. Michael Cerveris, who won best actor in a musical for playing the closeted, suicidal father in “Fun Home,” carried a necktie worn by the late inspiration for his character and made a plea for the Supreme Court to recognize gay marriage in one of the few political statements of the night.
The most joyous speech of the night, though, came from Broadway veteran Kelli O’Hara, who finally won a Tony on her sixth nomination for playing schoolteacher Anna in “The King and I,” beating out formidable competition from Chenoweth in “On the Twentieth Century.” The relief in the room, and from O’Hara herself, was palpable. "I love what I do and I don't need this, but now that I have it, I've some things to say," she said, to a standing ovation. "My parents who are sitting next to me for the sixth time, you don't have to pretend it's OK this time."
On the whole, it was a huge night for women in theater: "Fun Home’s" composer Jeanine Tesori and playwright Lisa Kron are the first all-female team to win the award for best score in a musical. "We stand on the shoulders of other women who came before us," Tesori said. Kron also won best book of a musical, and the the prize for best direction of a play went to Marianne Elliott for "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time."
For a full list of last night’s winners, click here.