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‘Kinky Boots’ Triumph Is an All-American Feat

It was a good night for Broadway and diversity at the Tonys, as women and minorities stand out

Who says theater is nothing like sports?

At the parties following June 9’s Tony ceremony — which saw new musical “Kinky Boots” walk all over Brit hit and critical fave “Matilda” — the dominant topic was a postgame analysis that would have fit right in on ESPN.

After all, at the start of the season, the conventional wisdom held that the Tony ceremony was “Matilda’s” to lose. When the Brit hit opened on Broadway in April, the ecstatic Gotham reviews, particularly an over-the-top rave in the New York Times, seemed to lay the groundwork for the kind of awards sweep the show pulled off in London.

So what happened?

A lot of the year’s winners had followed the script that awards prognosticators had laid out in the prior weeks. Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” won the new play title after amassing kudos momentum in earlier races; helmer Diane Paulus’ cirque-infused production of “Pippin” won four awards including tuner revival and musical director.

SEE MORE: ‘Kinky Boots’ Pairs Awards Muscle with Box Office Might

Cicely Tyson snagged the lead actress in a play kudo, crowning a strong night for African-American actors, which also saw Billy Porter (lead actor in a musical for “Kinky”), Patina Miller (lead actress in a tuner for Pippin) and Courtney B. Vance (featured actor in a play for “Lucky Guy”) take home trophies. Paulus and the director of winning play revival “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” Pam MacKinnon, became the first two women to win directing trophies in a single season since Julie Taymor (“The Lion King”) and Garry Hynes (“The Beauty Queen of Leenane”) did it in 1998.

The big surprise of the night was the lead actor in a play win for Tracy Letts, who beat out the biggest name on the nominee list, Tom Hanks (“Lucky Guy”). Letts delivered a surprising take on a familiar character in “Virginia Woolf.”

SEE MORE: PHOTOS: Tony Awards Red Carpet

The race between “Kinky” and “Matilda” changed complexion after the nominees list came out. Powered by aud and industry affection so strong it surprised even some of its supporters, “Kinky Boots” racked up 13 Tony nominations vs. the even dozen for “Matilda.” All at once, what had been considered a race with a clear favorite had become a nailbiter.

As the conversation at the swirl of Tony Award parties attested, the question of what gave “Kinky” the edge has a number of answers.

Some postulated “Matilda” was done in by critical praise that oversold it, while “Kinky” was unexpectedly helped by comparatively mixed reviews that allowed a crowdpleasing show to over-deliver on diminished expectations.

SEE MORE: PHOTOS: Tony Award Winners

A number of partygoers seemed to feel that “Kinky” has just as many, if not more, creative flaws as “Matilda,” but some voters copped to admiring “Matilda” more than they genuinely liked it. To some degree, that could be seen as a referendum on the difference between Brit musicals vs. American ones, with “Matilda” repping the dark, sharp-edged, brainy fare that crops up in Blighty and “Kinky” exemplifying the warm, welcoming uplift of contempo American commercial titles.

Revelers also opined that “Matilda” was hurt when those involved in the project, banking on sure-bet success, didn’t play nice with the U.S. industry, refusing to dole out producer billing to big-money investors in the $16 million project. (The show’s Broadway credits list only two producers, the Brit Royal Shakespeare Company and American commercial shingle the Dodgers.)

Some question whether Tony types vote American based solely on a sense of artistic patriotism, but it does seem true that “Kinky” had a hometown advantage. Although the tuner is based on a British indie, its team of producers and creatives are all Broadway regulars with a huge amount of goodwill behind them.

SEE MORE: PHOTOS: Tony Winners Pack the Plaza Hotel and Ruby Foo’s

Book writer Harvey Fierstein has been a Brooklyn-born Broadway fixture for decades, not only as a writer but as a hardworking performer and diligent member of the community. Composer Cyndi Lauper, who won the night’s trophy for score, comes to the Rialto as a Queens-bred, beloved ’80s pop icon who acquitted herself ably in her first stage composing gig. Main Stem veteran Jerry Mitchell, who directed and choreographed, founded Broadway Bares, the strip-a-thon that raises a huge chunk of change annually for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

Taking all that together, a lot of kudos watchers suggested that some voters checked their ballots as much out of affection for the people involved in “Kinky Boots” as for the project itself.

Each year, the only Tony Award that really boosts sales is generally considered to be for new musical. But this year it’s not just the unpredictability of the awards race that made the season stand out: It was the box office strength of “Kinky” and “Matilda,” as well as “Lucky Guy,” “Pippin,” “Motown” and a handful of other spring offerings.

So regardless of Tony night’s outcome, don’t look for instant fallout at the B.O.

Wins by Show

6: “Kinky Boots”

4: “Matilda” and “Pippin”

3: “The Nance” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

2: “Lucky Guy”

1: “The Assembled Parties,” “Cinderella,: “The Trip to Bountiful” and “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

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