Puppet tuner bests 'Wicked'

This article was updated at 8:37 p.m.

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NEW YORK — A clan of perky puppets wrestled Broadway’s airborne witches to the ground Sunday night, as the small-scale musical “Avenue Q” scored one of the most remarkable upsets in Tony Awards history by taking home the coveted prize as the season’s best musical.

Virtually all the Tony touts had predicted “Wicked,” a splashy riff on “The Wizard of Oz,” would take the top honor, while “Avenue Q” would have to content itself with prizes for score and possibly book. In the end it won all three trophies, becoming the big story of a generally predictable night.

The upset for “Avenue Q” will have Tony watchers reading the tea leaves to discern whether it betokens a new era in which shows with edgier themes and less traditional formats will continue to gain ground on more traditional Broadway musicals.

Two years ago, the cheerily old-fashioned, big-scaled “Thoroughly Modern Millie” won the big prize while the book and score awards went to “Urinetown.” This year Tony voters were more consistent in their affections.

Industry mavens also may be wondering whether “Avenue Q’s” cheeky, aggressive but good-spirited Tony campaign had anything to do with the final outcome. Look for more forthright Oscar-style campaigning in future years that don’t feature a runaway favorite.

As if to top its triumph, among the musicals strutting their stuff on the CBS telecast, “Avenue Q” came across best — which really shouldn’t have been a surprise, because the show itself is a spoof of kids’ TV shows.

Going by the numbers, it was the Roundabout Theater Co.’s acclaimed revival of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s “Assassins” that had the killer night, winning a total of five Tonys, the most of any show in a ceremony that doled out honors with an even hand. Both “Avenue Q” and “Wicked” won three each, with “Wicked” being honored for Idina Menzel’s leading performance (something of a surprise) as well as its sets and costumes.

The spreading of the Tony wealth befit a season with no clear winner in either the commercial or critical sweepstakes — no “Producers” or “Hairspray,” to cite the two most recent such juggernauts.

As expected, Doug Wright’s “I Am My Own Wife” was named best play of the season. This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, the solo play about a German transvestite trumped last year’s Pulitzer honoree, “Anna in the Tropics,” among other plays. The production’s cast of one, Jefferson Mays, won the leading actor prize in what was considered a particularly strong field; he beat previous Tony winners Kevin Kline and Christopher Plummer, among others.

The big night for “Assassins” included a key win for musical revival. Joe Mantello took home his second Tony in as many years as director of a musical (he won last season for directing the play “Take Me Out”). Featured actor Michael Cerveris (he played Booth) and the show’s lighting designers, Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, also were honored, as was Michael Starobin for his orchestrations.

Mantello wasn’t the only repeat winner from last year: He and Jack O’Brien merely switched places this season, with O’Brien, last year’s musical winner for “Hairspray,” moving over to take the play directing prize for Lincoln Center Theater’s production of “Henry IV,” which also was honored as the best play revival of the year.

Among the acting trophies, Menzel’s win was the biggest surprise — really the only one. The category was considered one of the toughest, and most Tony touts predicted a win for Tonya Pinkins for “Caroline, or Change,” or possibly Donna Murphy in “Wonderful Town.”

“Caroline, or Change,” with six nominations, won just a single award, for Anika Noni Rose in the featured actress category, for her breakthrough perf as the title character’s spirited daughter.

Phylicia Rashad’s win as the leading actress in a play, for “A Raisin in the Sun,” was a Tony first; no black woman had taken home that prize before. (Rashad almost seemed to be going for a second with her grand acceptance speech.)

Rashad’s co-star Audra McDonald took home her fourth career Tony, as featured actress in a play (McDonald has one more in that category, for “Master Class,” and two additional nods as featured actress in a musical for “Carousel” and “Ragtime.”) A month before her 34th birthday, McDonald is closing on the record five acting Tonys held by Julie Harris and has equaled the tally of theater legend Angela Lansbury.

Perhaps the most easily predicted win of the night was host Hugh Jackman’s as actor in a musical for “The Boy From Oz,” the Peter Allen biotuner. In addition to Mays, the other winning actors were Cerveris and Brian F. O’Byrne, who played a serial killer in Bryony Lavery’s “Frozen.”

As a telecast, this year’s Tonys wasn’t the snappiest of award shows. It opened on an appealing if odd note, with host Jackman high-kicking his way through “One Night Only” from “Dreamgirls,” accompanied by the three girl-group trios currently on Broadway (from “Caroline, or Change,” “Hairspray” and “Little Shop of Horrors”). They were subsequently joined by, apparently, everyone on Broadway who wasn’t actually in the audience, with the Anatevkans from “Fiddler on the Roof” looking downright bizarre as they stood on the sidelines singing the disco pastiche number while Rockettes cavorted glitzily beside them.

Unfortunately, Jackman’s later, pelvis-twisting number from “Boy From Oz,” replete with lewd interplay with Sarah Jessica Parker, came across as rather messy — and tacky, too. Most of the other musicals fared better, though, as always, the simpler presentations tended to come across more cleanly, notably Pinkins singing her big aria from “Caroline, or Change.” (The inclusion of Tony Bennett and Mary J. Blige, singing “Lullaby of Broadway” and “What I Did for Love,” respectively, in their distinctive styles, seemed a little random.)

The Tonys’ ongoing search to find a proper way to showcase the play and play revival nominees certainly will go on: The decision to have Brian Stokes Mitchell and Laura Linney standing by odd assortments of gewgaws meant to represent the nominees while giving brief descriptions of the plays was a trifle bizarre (there was a little suitcase and a stuffed animal from “Frozen,” a wee dining table and chairs for “The Retreat From Moscow”; go figure).

But there were bright spots: Cute interplay between Jackman and Rod from “Avenue Q” (on the arm of John Tartaglia, of course); the positively freakish pairing of presenters LL Cool J and Carol Channing (or a very skinny drag queen wearing the late Swifty Lazar’s eyeglasses); Martin Short’s witty speech: “A musical is only as good as its director; same goes for the CIA”; “Directing a musical is not easy, but if you cast it properly, there’s usually someone in the chorus who is.” A theater-biz in-joke found Donna Murphy trying to give nightclub fliers to Shubert topper Gerald Schoenfeld, Jujamcyn’s Rocco Landesman and (why?) Liz Smith in the intro to the “Wonderful Town” number.

And the telecast concluded on an up note, as everyone involved with “Avenue Q” swamped the stage of Radio City in their excitement, leaving presenter Nathan Lane looking bewildered, Tony at the ready, waiting for someone to take the thing off his hands.

And the winners are…

MUSICAL
“Avenue Q”

PLAY
“I Am My Own Wife”

BOOK OF A MUSICAL
Jeff Whitty, “Avenue Q”

ORIGINAL SCORE
Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, “Avenue Q”

REVIVAL OF A PLAY
“Henry IV”

REVIVAL OF A MUSICAL
“Assassins”

LEADING ACTOR IN A PLAY
Jefferson Mays, “I Am My Own Wife”

LEADING ACTRESS IN A PLAY
Phylicia Rashad, “A Raisin in the Sun”

LEADING ACTOR IN A MUSICAL
Hugh Jackman, “The Boy From Oz”

LEADING ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL
Idina Menzel, “Wicked”

FEATURED ACTOR IN A PLAY
Brian F. O’Byrne “Frozen”

FEATURED ACTRESS IN A PLAY
Audra McDonald, “A Raisin in the Sun”

FEATURED ACTOR IN A MUSICAL
Michael Cerveris, “Assassins”

FEATURED ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL
Anika Noni Rose, “Caroline, or Change”

SCENIC DESIGN
Eugene Lee, “Wicked”

COSTUME DESIGN
Susan Hilferty, “Wicked”

LIGHTING DESIGN
Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, “Assassins”

DIRECTOR OF A PLAY
Jack O’Brien, “Henry IV”

DIRECTOR OF A MUSICAL
Joe Mantello, “Assassins”

CHOREOGRAPHY
Kathleen Marshall, “Wonderful Town”

ORCHESTRATIONS
Michael Starobin, “Assassins”

SPECIAL TONY AWARD
James M. Nederland for Lifetime Achivement in the Theatre

REGIONAL THEATRE TONY
Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park

Awards by production
5 – “Assassins”
3 – “Avenue Q”
3 – “Wicked”
2 – “Henry IV”
2 – “I Am My Own Wife”
2 – “A Raisin in the Sun”
1 – “The Boy from Oz”
1 – “Caroline, or Change”
1 – “Frozen”
1 – “Wonderful Town”

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