In an anything-goes Broadway season with no clear frontrunner, the gleefully homicidal musical comedy “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” scored four Tony Awards including the night’s top trophy for new tuner, while Robert Schenkkan’s historical-political drama about LBJ, “All the Way,” won the award for new play in a ceremony that saw major screen names Bryan Cranston and Neil Patrick Harris pick up acting trophies.
With so many of the year’s kudo races up in the air, the first batch of awards proved a scattershot list that honored a different show with each gong handed out. Still, pundits had called odds on most of the night’s honors, which led to a few surprises. One headturner came early, when Lena Hall of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” scored the featured musical actress laurel instead of the predicted Linda Emond of “Cabaret.”
Other awards played out largely as expected, including the night’s starriest wins. Cranston notched lead actor in a play for his turn in “All the Way” and Harris of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” nabbed the gong for lead actor in a musical.
SEE ALSO: Tony Award Winners 2014 — Full List
Hall’s win was the first of four for “Hedwig,” which also picked up honors for musical revival and lighting design (Kevin Adams). That tally tied “Hedwig” with “Gentleman’s Guide,” which snagged awards for book, direction (Darko Tresnjak) and costume design (Linda Cho).
The Denzel Washington-toplined production of “A Raisin in the Sun” won three awards, including play revival, featured play actress (Sophie Okonedo) and direction (Kenny Leon), while titles including “Beautiful,” “Twelfth Night,” “All the Way” and “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” notched two each.
Audra McDonald, who won the featured actress in a play award for her performance as Billie Holiday in “Lady Day,” made history when she became the first thesp to win a Tony in all four acting categories. With six Tonys on her mantle, McDonald has now tied Julie Harris as the winningest actor in Tony history.
After last year’s splashy opener with 150 performers from across Broadway, the 2014 telecast’s curtainraiser had a much tighter focus as Jackman hopped from the red carpet through the auditorium, down to the basement, through the wings and back to center stage in what amounted to an all-access tour of Radio City.
The choice not to compete with last year’s over-the-top kickoff seems understandable, and all that bouncing certainly looked to be a calisthenic challenge. But from an audience perspective it felt a little thin, especially since the entire sequence was a nod to a Busby Berkeley number from a 1953 movie-musical, “Small Town Girl,” that even avid legiters might not know.
The kudocast’s closing number, too, came off as underpowered, even as the night’s winners gathered onstage and Jackman enlisted the entire auditorium to join him in the bounce. Still, Jackman’s a beloved presence on Broadway, commanding a goodwill from the audience that he fueled with two original tunes serenading the nominees for leading actress in a play and in a musical, as well as with entertaining sequences with the audience during commercial breaks.
SEE ALSO: Tony Awards Show (PHOTOS)
Eliciting a sniffier response from some observers was the addition of rappers LL Cool J and T.I. to Jackman’s cheerful speedrun through all eight parts of the opening number of “The Music Man.”
The Broadway industry considers the nationally televised Tonycast its most prominent annual marketing opportunity, which leaves producers hustling and jostling for broadcast time for Tony segs, which can often cost each production somewhere in the range $250,000.
This year the ceremony’s prime first slot — after the opening number and before the first commercial break — went to what is arguably the Broadway musical that needs a box-office lift the most: “After Midnight,” the critically lauded Tony nominee that has generally logged middling sales since it opened in the fall. The upbeat sequence led with the show’s forthcoming guest stars Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight, alongside past guest Fantasia Barrino, all singing “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” prior to a full-cast mashup of the Cotton Club revue’s most memorable moments, intended as a kind of live movie trailer for the show itself.
The biggest money-in-the-bank segs, however, came from “Aladdin” — spotlighting its showstopping genie number “Friend Like Me” (featuring James Monroe Iglehart, who later that night scored the featured musical actor trophy); from musical revival winner “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” with hard-rocking tune “Sugar Daddy” sending star Harris clambering into the house for some raucous audience interaction; and from “Beautiful.”
The latter brought out Carole King, whose attendance at the musical in April has had a significant effect at the box office, to give an ICYMI summary of her backstory with the production, which won her over despite her initial trepidation. King, who holds major sway with the boomer auds who make up Broadway’s prime ticketbuying demo, further cemented her seal of approval when she joined lead performer Jessie Mueller — who portrays King in a turn that won her the lead musical actress gong – in a full-cast rendition of “I Feel the Earth Move.”
In general, the night’s musical numbers highlighted each show’s biggest selling points, with the sequence from “Rocky” featuring little singing but lots of glitzy staging, complete with a boxing ring and a cheering onstage crowd. “If/Then” went the opposite route, with an intimate solo showcasing the 11 o’clock number of topliner Idina Menzel, whose stint in the tuner has helped it post impressive numbers for a new property with no pre-established brand equity.
Neither “Rocky” nor “If/Then” were nominated for the top new musical award, but both got performance slots on the telecast anyway, as did “Bullets Over Broadway” (which presented its tapdancing-gangster sequence “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do”). It had once been a longstanding tradition that the Tonys would spotlight only the season’s nominated shows, but in recent years the ceremony’s producers have opted to open up the lineup to include other current offerings as well as the older titles with which national viewers would be more likely to be familiar than the newer productions that make up the awards races.
The 2014 Tony ceremony also tipped its hat to the future of Broadway, as Sting appeared to promote his upcoming musical “The Last Ship” with a tune that established the northern-England flavor of the tale but little sense of what the song might look like in a musical-theater context. Jennifer Hudson, meanwhile, appeared in what seemed an out-of-place promo for the Harvey Weinstein-produced “Finding Neverland.” (Hudson won’t be appearing in the tuner, set for a regional engagement later this year at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass.)
The performance number from “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” proved emblematic of what has made the well-received musical a tough sell for broad audiences. The love-triangle tune “I’ve Decided to Marry You” would seem to appeal most to those with a more rarefied appreciation of the song’s craft and of the theatrical conventions quoted by the tune. The production’s easiest hook, however — Jefferson Mays’ comic exertions in nine different roles — was relegated to an amusing but too-brief intro punctuated by quick changes.