Cacophony of Broadway’s best

A silly musical comedy about a British pauper who knocks off a string of aristocrats was the big winner at the 68th Tony Awards on Sunday night, earning the prize for outstanding musical and three other trophies.

“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” grabbed the coveted best musical Tony, and “All the Way” — Robert Schenkkan’s bio-drama starring Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Baines Johnson — took the trophy for outstanding new play during the three-hour ceremony at Radio City Music Hall. The show, broadcast on CBS, was hosted by the hard-working Hugh Jackman.

Featuring a score by Steven Lutvak and Robert L. Freedman, “A Gentleman’s Guide” was nominated in 10 categories — the most of any show — and won for book (Freedman), direction (Darko Tresnjak) and costumes (Linda Cho), as well as best musical.

Meanwhile, a 1959 work, “A Raisin in the Sun,” received the most trophies of any straight play, with wins for director (Kenny Leon), supporting actress (Sophie Okonedo) and outstanding revival.

“Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s ’90s musical about a transgender rocker mutilated in a botched sex-change operation, was named best musical revival, and its star, Neil Patrick Harris, won as outstanding actor in a musical.

The evening’s most electric moment belonged to Audra McDonald, who garnered a record-breaking sixth acting Tony for her performance as Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.” Reduced to tears, she managed to jokingly thank her parents “for not medicating their daughter.” She also paid tribute to Lena Horne, Maya Angelou, Diahann Carroll, Ruby Dee and Holiday herself — women on whose shoulders she said she stood.

McDonald has won, astonishingly, in all four acting categories in her career. And she is only 43.

The lack of a dominant audience or critical favorite on Broadway this season — on the order of such past shows as “The Book of Mormon” (nine Tonys) or even last year’s winner, “Kinky Boots” (six Tonys) — meant the awards were harder to predict, and were spread around more equally, to 13 productions. No show this year won more than four awards.

The Tonys for lead actors, for example, went to performers in four productions: Cranston, Harris, McDonald and Jessie Mueller (“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”). Best choreography went to Warren Carlyle for “After Midnight,” a revue. And the awards for best score and orchestrations went to Jason Robert Brown for “The Bridges of Madison County” — a show that wasn’t even nominated for best musical.

A few lightly nominated shows, such as the musicals “Bullets Over Broadway” and “If/Then” and the plays “Mothers and Sons,” “Casa Valentina” and “Outside Mullingar,” were left winless.

Some winners acknowledged those who were overlooked. “Denzel, Denzel, Denzel!” Leon said in his acceptance speech, referring to Denzel Washington, the only “Raisin” leading actor not to receive a Tony nomination.

Leon went on to wish that every kid in the country had “a little piece of theater in their daily education lives.” (He also gave a shout-out to his next Broadway project, the Tupac Shakur musical “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” opening later this month.)

The producers of the Tony telecast, long afflicted with anemic ratings, have been trying especially hard of late to goose the numbers with a gallery of celebrity presenters. A result is that some have very tenuous connections to the theater. This year, the ranks of presenters included Clint Eastwood, Lucy Liu, Emmy Rossum, Wayne Brady and Kate Mara. Others who made appearances, like Bradley Cooper and Gloria Estefan, have forthcoming Broadway projects.

Jackman is always an energizing presence. This year, he went a step further, actually mimicking the Energizer bunny. The broadcast started with the visually odd shtick of Jackman bouncing up and down as he passed various nominees backstage at Radio City. (The sequence turned out to be a tribute to hoofer Bobby Van in the ’53 musical film “Small Town Girl.”)

Reaffirming its history as a cavalcade of plugola, the show was front-loaded with numbers from the nominated musicals — and even some that weren’t. Jonathan Groff introduced Idina Menzel in a number from “If/Then,” and RuPaul did the preliminaries for Harris to perform as Hedwig, from “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”

The magnitude of promotion, though, has become so pronounced that some of the content that people who care about the theater want to see has been shunted to the margins. The awards for such key contributions as book of musical, choreography, set design and lighting — heck, even for the music in a musical — were presented during commercials. In addition to the numbers from current shows, the Tonys attempted to show their hipness with a guest appearance by LL Cool J and T.I., who rapped a number from “The Music Man” with Jackman.

The 40-odd plays, revues and musicals, new and in revival, that opened in one of Broadway’s 40 designated theaters during the 2013-14 season were eligible for the Tonys. The awards in 26 categories are voted on by 868 producers, touring-house producers, playwrights, directors, actors, press agents and a few journalists.

Several of the nominated productions have ties to Washington. “If/Then” — the ambitious if poorly received musical by the creators of “Next to Normal” that stars Menzel as a woman on two separate life paths — had its tryout last fall at Washington’s National Theatre. Other nominees that have local connections included director and D.C. native Leigh Silverman, who was nominated for her work on the revival of the musical “Violet.”

Two actresses who honed their performances at Arena Stage — Mary Bridget Davies, of “A Night With Janis Joplin,” and Estelle Parsons, of “The Velocity of Autumn” — were nominated as leading actress, respectively, in a musical and a play.

Neither won. But Davies got a consolation prize that seemed to make her happy. She got to dance with Jackman in an aisle of the cavernous hall.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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