New musical “Memphis” walked away with the top tuner Tony Sunday night in a win that seems destined to prove a boon to a show that’s been a steady, although not spectacular, B.O. performer — but will likely prompt some observers to declare the triumph of commerce over art.
“Red,” which led the pack of winners with six trophies, scored the award for new play, while “Memphis” notched a total of four wins.
“La Cage aux Folles” snagged the tuner revival trophy, with Denzel Washington-topliner “Fences” nabbing play revival at a ceremony hosted by “Will and Grace” alum and current “Promises, Promises” star Sean Hayes.
August Wilson revival “Fences” also led the acting pack, with Washington and co-star Viola Davis winning both lead thesp trophies in play categories. Also upping the celeb quotient for the evening was Catherine Zeta-Jones, who picked up lead tuner actress for the revival of “A Little Night Music” and Scarlett Johansson taking featured play actress for “A View from the Bridge.” “La Cage” star Douglas Hodge scored the musical actor laurel.
The starry list of winners was drawn from a celeb-heavy pool of nominees, pointing to the increasingly heavy traffic between Hollywood and the Rialto. Presenters with mainstream appeal also were tapped, ranging from Daniel Radcliffe (soon to be back on the Main Stem in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”) to Paula Abdul, who handed out the kudo for choreography.
The dominance of both “Memphis” and “Red” was established early in the evening, as the pre-televised portion of the ceremony kicked off with a hat trick of wins for each production — score (David Bryan and Joe DiPietro), book (DiPietro) and orchestrations (Bryan and Daryl Waters) for “Memphis” and set (Christopher Oram), lights (Neil Austin) and sound (Adam Cork) for “Red.” The play also picked up an acting kudo for featured thesp Eddie Redmayne.
Consolation prize for “Fela!” was the choreography kudo for choreographer-helmer Bill T. Jones. Tuner also won musical design awards for sound and costumes.
Pundits have in recent weeks positioned the new tuner race as a contest between the commercial appeal of “Memphis,” David Bryan and Joe DiPietro’s 1950s-set feel-good outing about a DJ who helps propel African-American music onto the radio, and the artistically adventurous “Fela!,” the unconventional bio-tuner of Nigerian musician, activist and Afrobeat creator Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
Both productions had their enthusiasts among legiters in a season that yielded no clear award frontrunner. But “Memphis” was seen as having the edge as a more traditional tuner that could play well to auds in touring venues across the country.
“Fela!” would have seemed likely to attract more votes from critics. But with press barred from Tony voting for this season, the fourth estate couldn’t support the show.
“Red,” John Logan’s play about painter Mark Rothko, had largely been expected to snag the play award. With modest production needs and only two actors, the script seems a sure bet to show up frequently on regional stages in the future.
Hayes — although never given material as witty as some of the sequences penned for last year’s host, Neil Patrick Harris — seemed right at home in role of emcee, showing off impressive chops on the piano (but notably refraining from singing).
With his performance in “Promises, Promises” a focal point in the controversy surrounding the recent Newsweek article arguing gay men can’t convincingly play straight, the actor got his acknowledgement of the piece — and his rebuttal — out of the way early, engaging in a hot-and-heavy hetero liplock with “Promises” co-star Kristin Chenoweth soon after the opening.
Kudocast’s opening number seemed designed to entice home viewers to stick around via a medley of the showtunes they were most likely to recognize. It came at the end of a season that repped a confirmation of the artistic cred of the once-maligned catalog musical — thanks to two of the 2009-10 slate’s edgiest offerings, “Fela!” and Green Day punk-opera “American Idiot.” But in the eye of cynics, the Tony’s opening sequence likely played as a celebration of the commercial allure of the jukebox tuner.
After the cast of “Million Dollar Quartet” kicked it all off with “Blue Suede Shoes,” Chenoweth sang “I Say a Little Prayer” from “Promises, Promises” and the ensemble of “Come Fly Away” danced to Sinatra. Green Day showed up to join the “Idiot” cast for the opening’s final seg.
In fact, much of the Tonys are traditionally conceived with an eye toward pulling in national auds outside the usual legit fans.
One performance sequence grabbed the coattails of FOX ratings darling “Glee,” with two Main Stem vets from the skein’s cast returning for a paired perf of lengthy solos. After Matthew Morrison (“Hairspray,” “South Pacific”) offered a slick rendition “Gypsy” song-and-dance number “All I Need is the Girl,” Lea Michele entered from the aisle reprising “Funny Girl” anthem “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” (She first performed the tune on a climactic episode of “Glee,” and the re-do on the Tonys served as a reminder to legit producers to keep her mind for the “Funny Girl” revival aiming for Broadway in early 2012.)
As the only annual event that turns the attention of national network television onto Broadway, the Tony telecast is generally considered a marketing boon to the musicals that perform segs during the ceremony. In that regard, “American Idiot” came off well, the ADHD-fueled kinetics of its title-song extract seeming tailor-made for the tube (although the strobe lights occasionally grated onscreen).
The seg from “Fela!” — a tough sell to crowds unfamiliar with Kuti and the Afrobeat music he created — focused on introducing auds to its environmentally enveloping, dance-oriented staging and the political activism of its title character. Production also took the opportunity to play up the show’s connection to two of its star producers, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith, who introduced the musical segment.
Although tuners often play well onscreen, non-musicals have long had the rep of being notoriously difficult to showcase on the tube. In a move that recalled a similar sequence during the 2008 ceremony, each nominated play’s stars introduced their respective shows while the set was recreated behind them through a CGI rendering and a few set elements. Although it seemed dry — as is often the case no matter how the plays are showcased — this year the sequence could play up the big-name thesps to come to the boards in the 2009-10 season, including Liev Schreiber, Kelsey Grammer and Tony Shalhoub.
Some of Hayes’ emcee interludes proved funnier than others, with costumed punch lines inspired by “Billy Elliot” and the delayed “Spider-Man” musical landing better than an awkward bit with Fester (Kevin Chamberlin) from “The Addams Family.” Ceremony shtick didn’t shy away from some of the season’s sore spots, including mentions of the perceived snubs for Chenoweth and “Addams Family” topliners Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth.
For TV viewers, the tech elements of the ceremony came off a little iffy, with faltering sound mixes plaguing some of the musical numbers.
Win for “Red” leaves critically lauded but sales-challenged play “Next Fall” out in the cold. That show, a dramedy about a gay couple grappling with differing religious beliefs, could potentially have benefited from the profile boost of a win (although it’s generally acknowledged that usually the only award with real box office power is new musical). Losing out on the trophy puts the low-grossing production in danger of shuttering soon.
And the winners are:
Author: John Logan
Producers: Arielle Tepper Madover, Stephanie P. McClelland, Matthew Byam Shaw, Neal Street, Fox Theatricals, Ruth Hendel/Barbara Whitman, Philip Hagemann/Murray Rosenthal, The Donmar Warehouse
Producers: Junkyard Dog Productions, Barbara and Buddy Freitag, Marleen and Kenny Alhadeff, Latitude Link, Jim and Susan Blair, Demos Bizar Entertainment, Land Line Productions, Apples and Oranges Productions, Dave Copley, Dancap Productions, Inc., Alex and Katya Lukianov, Tony Ponturo, 2 Guys Productions, Richard Winkler, Lauren Doll, Eric and Marsi Gardiner, Linda and Bill Potter, Broadway Across America, Jocko Productions, Patty Baker, Dan Frishwasser, Bob Bartner/Scott and Kaylin Union, Loraine Boyle/Chase Mishkin, Remmel T. Dickinson/”Memphis” Orpheum Group, ShadowCatcher Entertainment/Vijay and Sita Vashee
BOOK OF A MUSICAL
ORIGINAL SCORE (MUSIC AND/OR LYRICS) WRITTEN FOR THE THEATRE
Music: David Bryan
Lyrics: Joe DiPietro, David Bryan
REVIVAL OF A PLAY
Producers: Carole Shorenstein Hays and Scott Rudin
REVIVAL OF A MUSICAL
“La Cage aux Folles”
Producers: Sonia Friedman Productions, David Babani, Barry and Fran Weissler and Edwin W. Schloss, Bob Bartner/Norman Tulchin, Broadway Across America, Matthew Mitchell, Raise The Roof 4 Richard Winkler/Bensinger Taylor/Laudenslager Bergrère, Arelene Scanlan/John O’Boyle, Independent Presenters Network, Olympus Theatricals, Allen Spivak, Jerry Frankel/Bat-Barry Productions, Nederlander Presentations, Inc/Harvey Weinstein, Menier Chocolate Factory
PERFORMANCE BY A LEADING ACTOR IN A PLAY
Denzel Washington, “Fences”
PERFORMANCE BY A LEADING ACTRESS IN A PLAY
Viola Davis, “Fences”
PERFORMANCE BY A LEADING ACTOR IN A MUSICAL
Douglas Hodge, “La Cage aux Folles”
PERFORMANCE BY A LEADING ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL
Catherine Zeta-Jones, “A Little Night Music”
PERFORMANCE BY A FEATURED ACTOR IN A PLAY
Eddie Redmayne, “Red”
PERFORMANCE BY A FEATURED ACTRESS IN A PLAY
Scarlett Johansson, “A View from the Bridge”
PERFORMANCE BY A FEATURED ACTOR IN A MUSICAL
Levi Kreis, “Million Dollar Quartet”
PERFORMANCE BY A FEATURED ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL
Katie Finneran, “Promises, Promises”
SCENIC DESIGN OF A PLAY
Christopher Oram, “Red”
SCENIC DESIGN OF A MUSICAL
Christine Jones, “American Idiot”
COSTUME DESIGN OF A PLAY
Catherine Zuber, “The Royal Family”
COSTUME DESIGN OF A MUSICAL
Marina Draghici, “Fela!”
LIGHTING DESIGN OF A PLAY
Neil Austin, “Red”
LIGHTING DESIGN OF A MUSICAL
Kevin Adams, “American Idiot”
SOUND DESIGN OF A PLAY
Adam Cork, “Red”
SOUND DESIGN OF A MUSICAL
Robert Kaplowitz, “Fela!”
DIRECTION OF A PLAY
Michael Grandage, “Red”
DIRECTION OF A MUSICAL
Terry Johnson, “La Cage aux Folles”
Bill T. Jones, “Fela!”
Daryl Waters & David Bryan, “Memphis”