By the reckoning of many Broadway observers, the 2015 Tony Awards had a script and largely stuck to it. A lot of wins had been predicted by pundits — as was the case with sure thing Helen Mirren, reprising the role of the Queen of England in “The Audience,” or with “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” the much-lauded play that had been a Tony pick since it opened way back in the fall.
But the ceremony still managed to give Broadway a few surprises — and they were big ones.
SURPRISE: “Fun Home”
Going into Tony night, the only real toss-up was for the evening’s biggest award: best new musical, the one trophy that consistently has the power to affect Broadway sales. “Fun Home,” nominated for 12 awards, was one of the two clear frontrunners (along with “An American in Paris,” also nominated for 12), but there was a reason the audience in Radio City was particularly elated when the show won. “Fun Home” is a small-scale, intimate, challenging musical about a lesbian cartoonist coming to grips with her relationship with her father. Playing in one of Broadway’s smallest theaters, it’ll never be a commercial juggernaut like “The Lion King” or “Wicked.” It is, frankly, not the kind of musical that usually wins the big award at the Tonys, where voters often lean toward more traditionally crowd-pleasing (and strong-selling) fare like “American in Paris.”
“Fun Home” advocates — and they are legion in the theater industry — see the victory as an important step toward breaking the mold of what works on Broadway, cementing a place there for shows likes “Fun Home” or “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (a major Tony winner last year) or the incoming hip-hop musical “Hamilton,” and opening Broadway up to greater diversity in both form and subject matter.
SURPRISE: Ruthie Ann Miles, “The King and I”
Critics all agreed that Miles, who turned heads in 2013 playing Imelda Marcos in Off Broadway buzz magnet “Here Lies Love,” gives a stellar turn as chief wife Lady Thiang in “The King and I” (the Lincoln Center Theater revival that, as largely predicted, won the honor for musical revival). But Broadway observers had generally reckoned that the winner for featured actress in a musical would be one of the performers in “Fun Home,” which dominated the category with three actresses among the nominees. Many in the industry had thought the award would go to New York theater veteran Judy Kuhn, or possibly to 11-year-old Sydney Lucas. But as it turned out, those “Fun Home” actresses may well have split the vote, clearing the way for Miles to take a well-deserved turn at the podium.
SURPRISE: Kelli O’Hara, “The King and I”
Longtime Broadway favorite O’Hara had been in danger of becoming the Susan Lucci of the Tonys, with five prior nominations and not a single win, despite universal acclaim in roles ranging from “The Light in the Piazza” to “South Pacific.” But while she was acknowledged as a significant contender this year in the hugely competitive category of lead actress in a musical, Kristin Chenoweth (“On the 20th Century”), equally beloved on Broadway, had been tipped for the win. Whereas Chenoweth shows up on Broadway only once every five years or so, the regularity and consistency of O’Hara’s stage appearances seemed to be working against her — or that was the thinking, anyway. In the end, Tony voters decided O’Hara had waited long enough, and finally gave her a trophy for the mantel.
SURPRISE: In Memoriam
When was the last time the In Memoriam segment was one of the top moments of an awards show? Possibly never. So it proved astonishing when the Tony ceremony’s tribute turned out to be genuinely moving, thanks to an inclusive video montage, a heartfelt rendition of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” by Josh Groban and, crucially, a staging coup that saw the entire cast of the ceremony’s performers, and its orchestra, rise out of the floor to pay their respects in song. The sequence stood out in part due to what some theater types proclaimed a lackluster year for the ceremony, and pointed up the fact that maybe the Tonys need some sprucing up, with a new idea for a set that takes advantage of all the things Radio City’s stage can do.
SNUB: The ceremony itself, by TV viewers
The 2015 Tony telecast embraced its inner theater nerd, from its in-jokey opening number to its Broadway-favorite co-hosts to its “Jersey Boys” finale. That probably contributed to the fact that on Sunday night, America seemed far more interested in the NBA finals and “Game of Thrones” than the Tonys. Early numbers suggest Tony ratings sank dangerously close to a record low, with 6.35 million in total viewership (off 9%) and down 25% in the prime 18-49 demographic.