NEW YORK — Overcoming death-defying odds — modest ticket sales, little-known stars, and limited appeal to tourists — “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” won the Tony Award for best musical Sunday night, in a ceremony that stood out for spreading the wealth around among many shows. As for performers, one reigned supreme: Audra McDonald made history by winning her sixth prize for acting, the most ever.
McDonald’s portrayal of a broken-down Billie Holiday, in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” was one of several Tony victories that honored real-life figures. Jessie Mueller won best actress in a musical for the persevering title character in “Beautiful: The Carole King Story,” while Bryan Cranston (Walter White in “Breaking Bad”) won best actor as the irascible Lyndon B. Johnson in Robert Schenkkan’s “All The Way,” which also took the Tony for best play.
Those prizes weren’t especially surprising, nor was the award for best actor in a musical to Neil Patrick Harris, a sitcom star and four-time Tony broadcast host, in the change-of-pace title role in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” A resonant production of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” took prizes for best revival of a play, best supporting actress (for Sophie Okonedo) and director Kenny Leon. In those major categories it bested the recent revival of “The Glass Menagerie,” which did win the first Tony (for best lighting) in the history of all seven Broadway productions of the Tennessee Williams classic.
Harris, as Hedwig, delivered one of the most rousing numbers of the CBS telecast, singing “Sugar Daddy’ while roaming the audience, licking Samuel L. Jackson’s eyeglasses and giving a lap dance to Sting. After an energetic hop through Radio City Music Hall in homage to a 1950s movie, the show’s host, Hugh Jackman, stayed largely in lady-killer mode, serenading the best actress nominees and dancing with those from the musicals.
The best musical win for “Gentleman’s Guide” was more difficult to predict, as the show, a sly operetta, was locked in a tight race among Tony voters with the crowd-pleasing “Beautiful” for the one prize that typically boosts the box office. Joey Parnes, the lead producer of “Gentleman’s Guide,” spoke for his dozens of investors (many of whom were crowded on stage with him) when he declared, “The little engine that could — did!”
“Gentleman’s Guide” ended up with four prizes, including for its its director (Darko Tresnjak, artistic director of the Hartford Stage Company in Connecticut, in his Broadway debut) and its book (by Robert L. Freedman).
Ultimately, though Tony voters went for the show with comic verve and an original score rather than the jukebox musical, they anointed the relative newcomer, Mueller, over a field of veterans like Sutton Foster and Idina Menzel.
After thanking God and her parents, Mueller paid homage to King, with whom she performed “I Feel the Earth Move” just moments earlier. “You teach me so much every night as I try to go through what you went through and come out of it with kindness and love and forgiveness and a pure heart,” Mueller said to wide applause.
The other major ovation of the night — a lengthy, standing one — came for a weeping McDonald for her sixth victory, which also included becoming the first performer to win Tonys in all four acting categories. Her previous five Tonys had tied her with Julie Harris, who had a sixth special Tony honoring her theater career.
McDonald’s win is all the more extraordinary because she is only 43, a relatively brief career that she credited to her parents for ignoring doctors’ recommendation to medicate her hyperactivity during childhood. Her parents encouraged her to act instead, she said.
She went on to pay tribute to “all the shoulders of the strong and brave and courageous women that I’m standing on,” naming Lena Horne, Ruby Dee, and others, especially Holiday. “You deserve so much more than you were given when you were on this planet,” she said of the singer, who died at 44.
Cranston, one of the few Hollywood stars nominated for a Tony this year, seemed awestruck by his victory, peppering his speech with “oh my goodness,” “oh dear,” and “oh lordy.” “Schenkkan, the play’s author, was more wary, noting that his last Tony nomination came in 1994 for “The Kentucky Cycle.”
“You go a long time between drinks of water in this town,” said Schenkkan, who lost the Tony but won a Pulitzer Prize for that earlier play.
In all, seven musicals and six plays won at least one Tony Award, compared with four musicals and six plays last year. “Gentleman’s Guide” and “Hedwig” received the most awards, four, a relatively small number, while the three awards for “Raisin” was the most of any play.
Other acting awards went to Mark Rylance for playing a woman, the giddy countess Olivia in “Twelfth Night,” and Lena Hall for playing a man, the bedraggled singer Yitzhak in the musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” It was Rylance’s third Tony; he previously won for lead roles in “Jerusalem” and “Boeing-Boeing.” Hall’s win augured a good night for “Hedwig,” which later won best musical revival. She used her acceptance speech to thank virtually everyone working on the show and family — including “my soon-to-be-born niece.”
James Monroe Iglehart, who won a best featured actor Tony for the musical “Aladdin,” stopped by the press room and elaborated on his “praise shout” he made accepting his award. “The praise shout was not planned,” he said. “If it’s planned, it’s not real. I had to give praise because my mama told me to keep God first and blessings would happen.” Also, he added, “The Tonys is the most dignified awards show and I wanted to un-dignify it a little.”
Speaking of not too dignified, Iglehart said he will not be having dinner at a fancy restaurant tonight. He and his wife are going to hit McDonald’s. It keeps him humble, he said. Then “we go back to our house and we kick it with our cats and this lets us know that this is still real life.”
Leon, the best director in a play, began his acceptance speech by naming one of his stars — “Denzel, Denzel, Denzel” -Denzel Washington, who missed out on a Tony nomination (though he won in 2010 for “Fences,” which Leon also directed). Okonedo thanked, among others, the lead producer of “Raisin,” Scott Rudin, for believing that “a Jewish Nigerian Brit could come over the pond and play” Ruth Younger, one of the great female roles in American theater.
While many winners are still running on Broadway, one musical, “The Bridges of Madison County,” was 2-for-2 in Tonys midway through the ceremony despite closing last month due to poor ticket sales. Jason Robert Brown won for best orchestrations and then for best score for “Bridges,” which was one of the few nominees not represented by a production number on the CBS telecast. (Each Broadway show’s producers have to pay five- and six-figure sums for these numbers; those for “Bridges” lost millions of dollars when the musical closed.)
“I hope you enjoyed that intro because that’s all the music you’re going to hear from ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ tonight,” said Brown, a past Tony winner for “Parade,” referring to the music that played before he accepted the best score Tony. (He went on to thank several people.)
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The Tonys ceremony Sunday differed from years past in its lack of clear front-runners in several major categories. In some cases this was good: The races for best play revival and for best actress in a play and in a musical allowed for some surprises because, rather than one obvious choice, there were so many strong contenders.
But in other top races, like for best musical and best play, the nominees didn’t fire up many voters.
The Tonys ceremony itself had more of a ratings-driven, commercial-entertainment feel than in some recent telecasts. The telecast was set to include numbers from two shows that weren’t part of the 2013-14 season, an unusual but not unprecedented move. One of those shows, “The Last Ship,” is opening on Broadway in the fall; Sting, who wrote the score, performed a song. (The broadcast also touted a forthcoming musical based on the life of other pop music performers, Gloria and Emilio Estefan.)
The other show, “Finding Neverland,” is opening this summer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but has no official Broadway plans; the song from “Neverland” was to be performed by Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, who is not a part of the “Neverland” cast. The Hudson performance — which received the prime 11 o’clock number spot in the CBS telecast — was engineered by Tonys executives and Harvey Weinstein, the movie mogul who is making his debut as a lead theatrical producer with “Finding Neverland.”
The Tonys were determined by a pool of more than 800 voters, about 70 percent of whom usually cast ballots. (Many of the others decline to vote because they did not see many shows.) The voters are a mix of theater producers, directors, designers, actors and tour operators, some of whom have financial and personal interests in the outcomes.