The Tony Awards seem to be turning into a time machine permanently stuck in the year 1949. Last year, a revival of “Death of a Salesman” topped the 53rd annual Tony tally, and this year, at Sunday night’s 54th awards, “Kiss Me, Kate” — which, like “Salesman,” won five Tony awards in ’49 — was the big winner, taking home five more awards, the most of any production.
In addition to winning the coveted musical revival prize, “Kate’s” prizes were for costumes, orchestrations, lead actor Brian Stokes Mitchell and director Michael Blakemore, who took home a history-making second award for directing best play winner “Copenhagen.”
Among new musicals, “Contact” was the big winner. Susan Stroman took home the night’s first award for her choreography on the show (besting her own work on “The Music Man”). She got the evening off to an emotional start by dedicating it to her late husband, Mike Ockrent, who died in December. It was her third Tony (she previously won for choreographing “Crazy for You” and “Show Boat”).
Despite the controversy surrounding its inclusion in the category (“Contact” lacks an original score and is performed to recorded music), the show came out on top in the best-musical sweepstakes, and also won prizes for its featured stars, Boyd Gaines and Karen Ziemba.
But Tony voters spread other prizes among the season’s diverse field of new musicals; Disney’s “Aida” tied “Contact’s” second-best tally of four prizes. The show’s star, Heather Headley, won the actress-in-a-musical award, amid a particularly strong field, and the show’s lighting designer Natasha Katz and set designer Bob Crowley also were honored for their work.
Most significantly, Elton John and Tim Rice were honored for their score for “Aida.” But neither composer John nor lyricist Rice turned up to collect the award — perhaps pointedly, since the musical’s exclusion among the nominees in the best musical category was widely perceived as a major snub. (Or maybe they doubted their chances to win, for the same reason.) The award for best book of a musical, another category in which “Aida” wasn’t nominated, went to Richard Nelson for “James Joyce’s The Dead.”
Blakemore’s dual awards marked the first time in Tony history that a director was honored with both the musical and play prizes in a single year (although George C. Wolfe, Trevor Nunn and Jerry Zaks, for instance, have won both awards in separate seasons).
His novel victory was just the most prominent reminder that Broadway continues to be successfully colonized by the British. Other Brit winners included the London-originating production of Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing,” which took home the play revival prize, beating out a homegrown “Moon for the Misbegotten” that was considered its chief competition. “The Real Thing’s” stars, Stephen Dillane and Jennifer Ehle, also won awards in their categories, besting competition from “Moon” stars Gabriel Byrne and Cherry Jones, among others. (“Moon” did take home a single nod, for featured actor Roy Dotrice.)
“Copenhagen,” which won a third prize for featured actress Blair Brown, is also a U.K.-originating play, and “Aida’s” John, Rice and Crowley also upped the quotient of Brit winners.
Ehle’s actress-in-a-play win was perhaps the evening’s biggest surprise, in a hotly contested field that included her mother, Rosemary Harris. Although born in the U.S., Ehle has made her career exclusively in England, and has the accent to prove it, as she illustrated when accepting her award, saying, “What a homecoming!”
Among the most significant shows to go home empty-handed was the revival of Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man,” which won nary a trophy for its eight nominations, second only to “Kiss Me, Kate’s” tally of 12. Also blanked were the new musicals “Swing!” (six noms) and “The Wild Party” (seven). The latter show has struggled at the box office after receiving mixed reviews and was widely expected to close up shop if it didn’t take home any major prizes. Among plays, the hot-ticket revival of “True West” (four noms) and Claudia Shear’s “Dirty Blonde” (five noms) were left out of the winners circle.
Return to respectability
After last year’s ragged show, this year’s presentation was a more polished affair, and was once again hosted by Rosie O’Donnell, who mostly played straight man to wisecracking sidekick Nathan Lane. Nevertheless, the CBS portion of the telecast began awkwardly, with a pathetic medley desperately attempting to give Broadway some mass-audience legitimacy by emphasizing the fact that a few rather minor TV stars started out in Broadway musicals. (“Gee, that funny girl from ‘Will & Grace’ was once in a Broadway musical — let’s go see ‘Copenhagen’!”)
Inside the auditorium, O’Donnell and Lane tossed off a seemingly endless series of jokes aimed at the notorious parsimoniousness of producers Barry and Fran Weissler. Finally, when the show came in a few minutes early, they let the public in on the joke (Fran who? they were surely asking in Peoria), cracking that the Weisslers were prepping road tours of the shows “Guy and Doll,” “Cat” and “Grand Hotel 6.”
But it was Dame Edna who, early on in the proceedings, surely got the last laugh. Presenting an award in the PBS portion of the telecast, she grandly described herself as “the only Broadway show to be closing voluntarily” — words to cause some wincing in the days ahead, as the fallout from the awards is felt on Broadway.