‘Billy Elliot’ scores big at Tony Awards

Musical nabs best tuner and 9 other kudos

In the biggest and most widely anticipated sweep of Broadway’s top kudos since “The Producers” devoured the competition eight years ago, “Billy Elliot” pirouetted away with 10 Tony Awards on Sunday night.

Its wins included the coveted prize for new musical, as well as lead actor to the three triple-threat teens alternating in the title role.

With clear favorites in each of the main races, the other three key production categories at the 63rd annual Antoinette Perry “Tony” Awards were only marginally more suspenseful.

Yasmina Reza’s box office smash “God of Carnage” won for new play, marking the second triumph in that category for the French playwright, lauded for “Art” in 1998. Both plays were adapted into English by Christopher Hampton.

The caustic comedy about two middle-class couples who unleash their snarling inner beasts over the course of a long evening of booze-fueled friction also scored actress honors for Marcia Gay Harden, as well as the prize for direction of a play to double-nominee Matthew Warchus.

Iconic counterculture tuner “Hair” took the nod for musical revival, providing vindication for originating producer the Public Theater, which was shut out of Tony glory in 1969 when the premiere production lost the musical award to “1776.”

“Peace now, freedom now, equality now, justice forever,” said euphoric Public a.d. Oskar Eustis, recounting how the org was founded 55 years ago “with the very simple idea that if the theater was going to matter, it had to be a theater for the people, and it had to talk about the things that mattered to the people.”

The revival’s success since opening at the Hirschfeld in March has silenced all those pundits who feared the magic of last summer’s Central Park staging would be lost when the show moved indoors. “Hair” has the distinction of being the only American show to win one of the top trophies this year.

In the season’s most competitive race, in which as many deserving shows were overlooked as were nominated, Alan Ayckbourn’s bittersweet comic trilogy about tangled relationships and unfulfilled lives, “The Norman Conquests,” landed the gold. Transferred to Broadway from London’s Old Vic, the production was also helmed by Warchus, the first director nominated twice in the same category since A.J. Antoon in 1973.

In the run-up to Tony night, gripes were aired about the early decision to relegate the play revival category to the untelevised seg, including comments from Old Vic a.d. Kevin Spacey, which may have influenced CBS to make a last-minute switch and include the award in the broadcast.

But the Tonys were dominated by “Billy Elliot,” the uplifting Brit import about a blue-collar kid in a strikebound 1980s Northern English mining town, whose dream of becoming a ballet dancer provides an avenue of escape from bleak reality.

Adapted from Universal’s 2000 film, the show became an overnight sensation in London in 2005 but skeptics initially wondered if its setting was too specifically British, its accents and regionalisms too impenetrable and its hard-line lefty politics too off-putting for American musical theater auds. Those doubts have been brushed aside since “Billy” hit Broadway to rave reviews in November. The show has been playing to capacity crowds since, regularly grossing north of $1 million per week, with a total cume nudging $40 million.

The Tony for musical has frequently been a face-off in recent years between a large-scale blockbuster and a more intimate, unconventional show. While “Billy” may have scored by straddling the two spheres with its combination of size and heart, the underdog contender this year was “Next to Normal,” an emotionally textured tuner about a bipolar housewife and her family’s struggle to stay together.

With 11 nominations against the 15 for “Billy,” “Normal” repped the ceremony’s strongest chance of an upset. It walked away with three awards, for lead actress Alice Ripley and for composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey’s score, which fuses pop, country and driving rock. It also shared the award for orchestrations with “Billy Elliot,” marking the first tie since 1993 and only the ninth in Tony history.

The score nod for “Next to Normal” left Elton John, a previous winner for Disney’s “Aida,” locked out of the “Billy Elliot” honors list. However, the pop legend has been in a similar position before with a hit show, when “The Lion King” took the top prize in 1998 but lost for score (and book) to “Ragtime.”

John graciously acknowledged the writers of “Next to Normal” later in the ceremony, perhaps alluding to his own rocky composing partnerships: “May you stay together and write many more musicals, and be loyal and true to each other.”

But in most categories, “Billy” proved tutu much for the competition, even if it ended up falling short of the record 12-trophy haul pulled by “The Producers” in 2001.

Stephen Daldry took home his second Tony (he also won in 1994 for “An Inspector Calls”) for directing a story he had also helmed onscreen. Other honors went to Lee Hall’s book (adapted from his own screenplay) and Peter Darling’s transporting choreography. Hall’s speech, dedicated to his father, was one of the most moving of the evening.

The show also yielded a popular joint win for lead actors David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik and Kiril Kulish (the only performers in Tony history to share a single nom for playing the same role) and one for featured actor Gregory Jbara as Billy’s widowed dad.

Capped off by a near-sweep of tech awards, the Tony victory adds to an already widely shared perception that “Billy” will be a Broadway fixture for some time to come, not to mention a formidable touring property. The wins also put wind in the sails of legit plans at Working Title Films, which recently announced its intention to retool another screen property, “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” for the stage.

Elsewhere in the awards, sentimental favorite Liza Minnelli surprised nobody by taking the special event Tony for her well-received return, “Liza’s at the Palace,” which beat out Will Ferrell’s box office powerhouse “You’re Welcome America. A Final Night with George W Bush.” Minnelli previously won acting Tonys for “Flora, the Red Menace” in 1965 and “The Act” in 1978, and a special award in 1974.

Geoffrey Rush’s Broadway debut as the clowning monarch pathetically humbled by his own mortality in Eugene Ionesco’s “Exit the King” earned him the crown for actor in a play. “I want to thank Manhattan audiences for proving that French existential absurdist tragicomedy rocks,” deadpanned Rush.

And Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” which made news recently as the destination of President and first lady Obama’s Manhattan date night, was repped by a featured actor win for Roger Robinson as African conjurer Bynum Walker. Robinson was previously nommed for another August Wilson play, “Seven Guitars,” in 1996. “Joe Turner” also scored lighting designer Brian MacDevitt his fourth Tony, having previously won for “Into the Woods,” “The Pillowman” and “Coast of Utopia.”

Featured actress in a musical went to Karen Olivo for her fiery turn as Anita in “West Side Story,” another show generating grosses of $1 million-plus per week in a season that has launched far more hits than the current economic malaise would suggest.

Warmest response from the Radio City crowd was for the featured actress in a play award to beloved Broadway vet Angela Lansbury, whose comic timing remains undiminished at age 83, communing with ghosts as Madame Arcati in the hit revival of Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit.”

“I am the essence of gratitude and happiness and joy,” said Lansbury. “Being back on Broadway and being with all you Broadway-ites is the greatest gift in my old age that I can possibly imagine.”

The Tony was Lansbury’s first for a non-musical role, following wins for “Mame” (1966), “Dear World” (1969), “Gypsy” (1975) and “Sweeney Todd” (1979). Lansbury now equals Julie Harris as the only performer to win five acting Tonys, though Harris retains the edge,
having added a lifetime achievement nod in 2002.

Lansbury also presented this year’s lifetime achievement award to Jerry Herman. The composer of such shows as “Hello, Dolly!,” “Mame” and “La Cage aux Folles” called the honorary Tony “the ultimate moment of my life.”

Host Neil Patrick Harris supplied plenty of relaxed charm, healthy irreverence and the obligatory sushi joke, piloting a ceremony that delivered on its promise to load up on musical numbers and performance excerpts — even if they did spark a few sound glitches. The push was especially notable in a celebratory 10-minute opening montage of songs from this year’s shows, with everyone from Elton John to Dolly Parton, Stockard Channing to Shrek, Liza Minnelli to, yes, even hair-metal relics Poison mobbing the stage.

Click here for the complete list of winners at the Tony Awards
Arrivals show up in tune at Tonys
Photo Gallery: Tony Awards arrivals
Photo Gallery: Tony Awards show, backstage
Backstage notes from the Tony Awards