NEW YORK — Voters for the 61st annual Tony Awards Sunday night opted to leave the suspense to Tony Soprano, whose fate was being revealed in the Mob skein’s farewell episode at the same time Broadway’s highest honors were being handed out at Radio City.
Domination had been widely predicted for “Spring Awakening” and “The Coast of Utopia,” and the awards played out according to plan.
Edgy youth tuner “Spring Awakening,” about repressed German teens wrestling with their burgeoning sexuality, triumphed with eight Tonys. The haul included the top musical award, generally considered the only prize to prompt a significant ripple at the box office.
Tom Stoppard’s epic trilogy about the idealistic struggle and ultimate disillusionment of the 19th century Russian intelligentsia, “Utopia” took home seven awards, including best play, making it the most decorated play in Tony history. That honor previously was held in a six-Tony tie between “Death of a Salesman” in 1949 and last season’s “The History Boys.”The 2007 Tony crop concludes an unusually strong season in which the sector’s steady box office climb now places an annual tally of $1 billion firmly in sight. The year’s honorees also should help momentarily lay to rest charges that Broadway is hostile to challenging material.
With “Spring Awakening,” “Grey Gardens” and “Company” all taking top prizes, the musical honors in particular reflect a shift in the Rialto climate toward welcoming darker, more serious-minded fare after several seasons of crowd-pleasers like “Jersey Boys” and exuberant comedies such as “The Producers,” “Hairspray,” “Avenue Q” and “Monty Python’s Spamalot.”
The Tony bounty for “Spring Awakening” likely will turn up the heat to lock down film rights to the critically lauded rock musical, which seamlessly marries period drama with contemporary alt-rock, providing the characters with vibrant flights of self-expression. The tuner has been widely credited with breathing new vitality into the Broadway musical.
Adapted by composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist-playwright Steven Sater from the 1891 work by German dramatist Frank Wedekind, the show also scored trophies for Michael Mayer’s direction, Sheik’s score and orchestrations, Sater’s book, Bill T. Jones’ choreography, Kevin Adams’ lighting and featured actor John Gallagher Jr. as doomed problem student Moritz.
The show was transferred to the Rialto from Off Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company by a squadron of close to 30 producers (the folks onstage at Radio City accepting the big prize outnumbered the Rockettes), led by Ira Pittelman, Tom Hulce, Jeffrey Richards and Jerry Frankel.
While it’s a long way from the league of blockbusters like “Wicked,” “Spring” has grossed a healthy $13 million since opening in December.
Jack O’Brien’s production of “Utopia” for Lincoln Center Theater won for direction of a play as well as Bob Crowley and Scott Pask’s set designs, Catherine Zuber’s costumes and lighting design by Brian MacDevitt, Kenneth Posner and Natasha Katz.
The ensemble drama also landed nods for featured actor Billy Crudup as consumptive literary critic Vissarion Belinsky and featured actress Jennifer Ehle, who played three different roles in the trilogy, most memorably free-spirit Natalie Herzen in part two, “Shipwreck.” The Tony was Ehle’s second for a Stoppard play after landing actress honors in 2000 for the revival of “The Real Thing.”
This marks the fourth time Brit playwright Stoppard has taken the Tony for play, having previously won for “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” in 1968, “Travesties” in 1976 and “The Real Thing” in 1984.
“I feel a bit nostalgic because this year it’s 40 years since I first came here with a play,” said Stoppard. “It was a different planet in 1967, the Broadway theater. They had a little ashtray clamped to the back of every seat, and the author got 10% of the gross.”
“Utopia” marks the third win for O’Brien, previously honored for direction of a musical in 2003 for “Hairspray” and play in 2004 for “Henry IV.”
The trilogy also provided the third consecutive win for an LCT production for Zuber, who bagged frock honors in 2005 for “The Light in the Piazza” and 2006 for “Awake and Sing!”
A three-time past Tony winner, Crowley nabbed a double victory this year, bringing his total to five. The designer’s trophy for “Utopia” was paired with another for sets of a musical for his elaborate Edwardian storybook constructs in Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s “Mary Poppins.”
Despite its near sweep, “Spring Awakening” shared the musical spotlight with “Grey Gardens,” which walked away with three wins out of 10 nominations.
The show was adapted by Doug Wright, composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie from the cult Maysles brothers documentary about fallen American royalty living in flea-infested squalor in a Long Island mansion. “Gardens” won actress in a musical for Christine Ebersole’s dual-role turn as suffocating mother Edith Bouvier Beale in the 1940s first act and her emotionally entrapped daughter Little Edie in the ’70s-set act two. Ebersole previously won in 2001 for the revival of “42nd Street.”
“I left Hollywood when they told me I was over the hill,” she said. “And now I’m standing here with this most distinguished award for what I consider to be the role of a lifetime. I’m over the hill in the role of a lifetime! This is so encouraging.”
“Gardens” also earned Broadway vet Mary Louise Wilson her first Tony for featured actress as the elderly Edith, while costumer William Ivey Long won his fifth for his witty take on the Beales’ maverick fashion statements.
Revival honors went for play to “Journey’s End,” David Grindley’s slow-burn production of R.C. Sherriff’s 1929 drama set in the trenches of WWI; and for musical to John Doyle’s smart, pared-down reinterpretation of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s 1970 dissection of relationships and marriage, “Company.”
Perhaps the most glowingly reviewed production of the season overall, the nod to “Journey’s End” was bittersweet. It came just hours after the play’s final performance at the Belasco, having played to consistently poor houses since opening.
“Our dirty little secret is, in a hundred years this play has never been a commercial success,” said producer Bill Haber. “We knew that going into this. But we wanted to ask, is there not a better way for human beings to resolve conflicts than war?”
The award to “Company” was widely expected, in part as consolation to Doyle for losing out last year, when his critically beloved staging of “Sweeney Todd” was passed over for “The Pajama Game.”
One of the evening’s few surprises, David Hyde Pierce took the Tony for actor in a musical for his droll turn as a Broadway-loving detective on a backstage murder case in Kander and Ebb’s “Curtains.” The nod had been tipped to go to Raul Esparza for “Company” but serves as reparation after Pierce was shut out of nominations for “Spamalot.”
In other acting fields, stiffest competition was for best actor in a play, generally considered one of the most impressive shortlists in years.
As anticipated, Frank Langella bested Boyd Gaines, Brian F. O’Byrne, Christopher Plummer and Liev Schreiber. He took the prize for his balance of arrogance and vulnerability, molding a surprisingly human figure of disgraced former president Richard Nixon in Peter Morgan’s “Frost/Nixon.”
Quoting the play’s description of success in America, Langella gave perhaps the evening’s most humble and eloquent speech. This was his third Tony, having won in 1975 as featured actor, playing an anthropomorphized lizard in Edward Albee’s “Seascape,” and again in the same category for “Fortune’s Fool” in 2002.
While the production closed earlier in the season after a commercially unsuccessful Broadway run, Tony voters remembered Julie White with lead actress in a play honors for her acerbic turn as a no-holds-barred talent agent scheming to keep her gay client in the closet in Douglas Carter Beane’s comedy “The Little Dog Laughed.” Unconfirmed reports indicate White will reprise the role this year in a Los Angeles production. Her ecstatic acceptance speech was one of the ceremony’s funniest.
The Tony for special theatrical event was awarded to “Jay Johnson: The Two and Only,” an Off Broadway transfer also seen previously at the Atlantic, in which Johnson folds a recap of his own career into a history of ventriloquism.
While “Mary Poppins,” “Legally Blonde” and “A Chorus Line” came away with little or no Tony joy Sunday, the co-existence of this season’s musical winners with those high-octane commercial performers – which are less dependent on awards attention for box office success – points to the benefits of an increasingly diverse panorama of Broadway offerings.
Similarly, the blossoming of a production like “Utopia” far beyond its expected niche as an intellectual snob hit to become a bona fide cultural event speaks well of the state of New York theater’s commercial main stem.
While the Broadway climate remains restrictive for new work by untried American writers in particular, the awards to plays aimed at thinking audiences and to those not reliant on marquee names or slumming movie stars – “Frost/Nixon,” “Journey’s End” – supply further evidence that the Rialto still leaves a door open to quality drama, whatever the commercial challenges.
Given the origins of “Spring Awakening” at the Atlantic, “Grey Gardens” at Playwrights Horizons and “The Little Dog Laughed” at Second Stage, the 2007 Tonys also provide major validation for the Off Broadway community. “You are the true rock stars of New York theater,” said Gallagher of the Atlantic in his acceptance speech.
The nonprofit sector also was well represented by the prestige payoff for Lincoln Center Theater’s massive investment in “Utopia,” which closed last month after extending its limited engagement by nine weeks.
As previously announced, the regional theater Tony, which includes a $25,000 grant, went to Atlanta’s Alliance Theater. That nod was acknowledged in a performance by Fantasia Barrino from “The Color Purple,” the Broadway hit that originated at the Alliance.
“Spring Awakening,” Producers: Ira Pittelman, Tom Hulce, Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Atlantic Theater Company, Jeffrey Sine, Freddy DeMann, Max Cooper, Mort Swinsky/Cindy and Jay Gutterman/Joe McGinnis/Judith Ann Abrams, ZenDog Prods./CarJac Productions, Aron Bergson Prods./Jennifer Manocherian/Ted Snowdon, Harold Thau/Terry Schnuck/Cold Spring Prods., Amanda Dubois/Elizabeth Eynon Wetherell, Jennifer Maloney/Tamara Tunie/Joe Cilibrasi/StyleFour Prods.
Book of a Musical
“Spring Awakening,” Steven Sater
Original Score(Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theater
“Spring Awakening,” music by Duncan Sheik, lyrics by Steven Sater
Revival of a Play
“Journey’s End,” Producers: Boyett Ostar Prods., Stephanie P. McClelland, Bill Rollnick, James D’Orta, Philip Geier
Revival of a Musical
“Company,” Producers: Marc Routh, Richard Frankel, Tom Viertel, Steven Baruch, Ambassador Theater Group, Tulchin/Bartner Prods., Darren Bagert, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park
Special Theatrical Event
“Jay Johnson: The Two and Only,” Producers: Roger Alan Gindi, Stewart F. Lane & Bonnie Comley, Dan Whitten, Herbert Goldsmith Prods., Ken Grossman, Bob & Rhonda Silver, Michael A. Jenkins/Dallas Summer Musicals, Inc., Wetrock Entertainment
Leading Actor in a Play
Frank Langella, “Frost/Nixon”
Leading Actress in a Play
Julie White, “The Little Dog Laughed”
Leading Actor in a Musical
David Hyde Pierce, “Curtains”
Leading Actress in a Musical
Christine Ebersole, “Grey Gardens”
Featured Actor in a Play
Billy Crudup, “The Coast of Utopia”
Featured Actress in a Play
Jennifer Ehle, “The Coast of Utopia”
Featured Actor in a Musical
John Gallagher Jr., “Spring Awakening”
Featured Actress in a Musical
Mary Louise Wilson, “Grey Gardens”
Scenic Design of a Play
Bob Crowley and Scott Pask, “The Coast of Utopia”
Scenic Design of a Musical
Bob Crowley, “Mary Poppins”
Costume Design of a Play
Catherine Zuber, “The Coast of Utopia”
Costume Design of a Musical
William Ivey Long, “Grey Gardens”
Lighting Design of a Play
Brian MacDevitt, Kenneth Posner and Natasha Katz, “The Coast of Utopia”
Lighting Design of a Musical
Kevin Adams, “Spring Awakening”
Direction of a Play
Jack O’Brien, “The Coast of Utopia”
Direction of a Musical
Michael Mayer, “Spring Awakening”
Bill T. Jones, “Spring Awakening”
Duncan Sheik, “Spring Awakening”
Alliance Theater, Atlanta