Tony Awards: 5 Biggest Surprises

Tony Awards 2014 surprises Neil Patrick
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

As the culmination of a Broadway season with no clear frontrunner, the 2014 Tony derby was a little bit like the wild west, where all bets were off and anything could happen. So in a sense, every award announcement during the June 8 ceremony had an element of surprise.

But in the five weeks between the April 29 nominations announcement and the kudocast, the theater industry had begun to coalesce around a number of predictions and expectations for how the night would go. Here’s what stood out even in an anything-goes year in which nothing was certain.

1. “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” won the big prize.

In a way, the “Gentleman’s Guide” triumph wasn’t a surprise in the least — the tuner was, after all, the show with the most Tony nominations of the season (ten), and pundits had pegged it as one of the two most likely candidates for the new musical trophy alongside Carole King musical “Beautiful.”

But even if “Gentleman’s Guide” ultimately won over the Street with its sly humor and old-fashioned craft, there were plenty of compelling reasons to believe “Beautiful” would take the new musical Tony, which is generally acknowledged as the kudofest’s only award to hold significant sway at the box office.

Whereas many in the industry professed admiration for “Gentleman’s,” a lot of voters expressed real affection for King and her music, as well as for Jessie Mueller’s lead performance. Of the two titles, “Beautiful” is the crowdpleaser with an emotionally resonant hook, and a lot people ultimately vote with their hearts instead of their heads. Besides, with King’s broad appeal, “Beautiful” looks poised to be a big draw around the country, and it seemed logical the road contingent of Tony voters would want to fuel that demand with a major win. (With its run of soft sales, “Gentleman’s Guide” unequivocally needed the Tony most, but nobody checks the ballot box for the show that needs it; voters choose the one they feel deserves it.)

When you asked legiters to go with their guts and make a prediction, many of them said they thought “Beautiful” would be the musical to score the ceremony’s final prize. But all those guts were wrong.

2. Lena Hall of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” won for featured actress in a musical.

It’s not that legiters believed Hall (“Kinky Boots”) didn’t deserve the gong for her touchingly transformational turn as Hedwig’s puppy-dog sidekick, Yitzhak. It’s just that many in the industry had decided the award would go to Linda Emond, the respected veteran (“Death of a Salesman,” “Life x 3”) whose performance in “Cabaret” yielded her third Tony nom.

Instead voters went with first-time nominee Hall. Presented early in the ceremony, the award was one of the night’s first surprises, presaging a winning streak for “Hedwig” overall, as the tuner went on to collect the honors for musical revival, lead actor in a musical (for Neil Patrick Harris), and lighting design (Kevin Adams).

3. Jessie Mueller took the award for lead actress in a musical.

Okay, sure: If you had to pick only one odds-on favorite in the ultra-competitive category of lead musical actress, most legiters would have named Mueller, who first turned Broadway’s head in her 2011 debut in “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” and won universal raves for her perf as King in “Beautiful.”

But a lot of the industry thought this could have been the year for Kelli O’Hara, the “Bridges of Madison County” star who’s notched five nominations in her career but has no Tony show for it. Besides, by the time the lead tuner actress award was announced on Sunday night, “Bridges” had taken two awards — score and orchestrations, both for Jason Robert Brown. It seemed plausible, if only for a little while, that the tide of sentiment for the short-lived “Bridges” could have carried O’Hara to her win.

4. T.I. and LL Cool J rapped with Hugh Jackman.

The appearance of rappers T.I. and LL Cool J, who joined Tony host Jackman for a hiphop rendition of the opening number of “The Music Man,” didn’t even happen in Sunday morning’s dress rehearsal, when the sequence consisted solely of Jackman doing a speedrun through all the vocal parts of “Rock Island.” So the dual cameo was a surprise to even the insiders who attended the ceremony’s final dress.

The segment proved one of the Tonycast’s more controversial numbers. Attendees in the house at Radio City Music Hall tended to be charmed by the genre mashup, but much of the Internet rolled its eyes at what came off, to some, as a desperate attempt to make musical theater hip.

 5. “A Raisin in the Sun” collected a trio of trophies.

Critics raved about director Kenny Leon’s revival of American classic “Raisin,” and topliner Denzel Washington has driven audience demand skyhigh and box office ever upward. But “Raisin” was in a tight race for play revival against “Twelfth Night” and “The Glass Menagerie,” both widely beloved, as well as the highly respected staging of “The Cripple of Inishmaan.” Many pundits thought “Twelfth Night” would ultimately take the prize, and that Mare Winningham would earn the featured play actress kudo for her role in “Casa Valentina.”

But voters opted for spring opener “Raisin” rather than “Twelfth Night” or “Glass Menagerie,” which both bowed in the fall and have since closed. Sophie Okonedo scored the featured actress award (also beating out her castmate Anika Noni Rose in the category), and helmer Leon took the directing prize.

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  1. joyce herbster says:

    Who on earth does Kelli O’Hara have to kill to win a Tony? She’s the most talented actress on Broadway today!

  2. cadavra says:

    So two of the presumptive front-runners won, and this by you is a “surprise?”

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