Tony Awards 2012: ‘Once’ wins best musical; ‘Clybourne Park’ best play

NEW YORK — The Kennedy Center fell just short of achieving Tony glory Sunday night as its acclaimed production of “Follies,” considered by some the best musical revival of the Broadway season, lost in the category to a revised version of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.”

Still, in its third incarnation on Broadway, the 1970 musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman did receive one Tony, for Gregg Barnes’s costume design. The $7.3 million show, directed by Signature Theatre’s Eric Schaeffer, received a total of eight nominations and had a 152-performance run on Broadway after its engagement last spring in the center’s Eisenhower Theater.

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Nevertheless, it was an unusually strong night for Washington inside the Beacon Theatre during a three-hour ceremony hosted again by the comically nimble Neil Patrick Harris. In addition to the “Follies” trophy, “Clybourne Park,” Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy-drama examining race and class in America, was honored as best play over Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities,” Rick Elice’s “Peter and the Starcatcher” and David Ives’s “Venus in Fur.” “Clybourne” opened at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in the District just weeks after its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons in New York and broke box-office records during a return engagement last summer.

“You always anticipate failure, so when it arrives it’s not a surprise,” Norris said in the Tony press room after the award was bestowed. “So what’s happened with this play over the past 21 / 2 years is a constant surprise.”

The normally press-shy Norris added that the idea for “Clybourne,” based on Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” went back to when he was 12 years old and saw a movie version of the play in social studies class in Houston.

“The bad guy in that play was the closest [looking] person to me,” he said, adding that the fact compelled him to write about it.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company, meanwhile, in the person of founding artistic director Michael Kahn, accepted the 2012 Tony for outstanding regional theater.

It was the second time in four years that this special Tony went to a company from the Washington area; in 2009, Signature Theatre in Arlington was the recipient.

Kahn and company celebrated the recognition at a post-Tony party at Times Square’s Renaissance Hotel. The Kennedy Center held a viewing party in a penthouse at Lincoln Center.

The 66th annual awards Sunday night were considered a particularly competitive set of contests this year in many of the acting and production categories.

For best musical, two shows based on not-so-successful movies were the front-runners. “Once,” adapted from a cult 2006 film, bested “Newsies,” a stage version of the 1992 Disney film. “Once” also secured wins for actor (Steve Kazee), direction (John Tiffany), orchestrations (Martin Lowe), book (Enda Walsh), set design (Bob Crowley), sound (Clive Goodwin) and lighting (Natasha Katz). Its eight awards made it the evening’s winningest show.

“Peter and the Starcatcher” was the most-honored play, with five awards.

Best revival of a play went, as widely expected, to “Death of a Salesman,” with another statuette going to its director, Mike Nichols. One of the evening’s most popular winners came in the category of lead actor in a play, which was won by James Corden, the exhilarating clown of “One Man, Two Guvnors.”

In the tight race for best actress in a play, Nina Arianda, as the goofy seductress of Ives’s “Venus in Fur,” won in a strong field that included Tracie Bennett, giving a spookily authentic impression of Judy Garland in “End of the Rainbow,” Stockard Channing (“Other Desert Cities”), Linda Lavin (“The Lyons”) and Cynthia Nixon (“Wit”).

“It’s the rarest thing in a play,” the 80-year-old Nichols said of “Salesman.” “It gets truer as time goes by.”

Arianda, meanwhile, paid tribute to another octogenarian, Christopher Plummer, after he handed her the Tony. “You were my first crush!” she declared.

In the categories reserved for musicals, the most momentous honor was the one bestowed on Audra McDonald — the fifth acting Tony of her career — for her performance as the sullen addict Bess of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.” Consider this: McDonald has appeared in nine Broadway productions since 1991 and won Tonys in more than half of them. In a desultory season for new musicals, the Tony for best score went to the mechanical “Newsies.”

The awards ceremony, telecast on CBS, passed around the usual platter of ham and cheese. Production numbers from the nominated musicals (and some that were not nominated, such as “Godspell”) were efficiently shuffled on and off. The highlight of the showcases, for once, was a smart montage of live and taped snippets from the season’s plays that included two entertaining bits by Corden and Bennett.

A sourer taste was left by a shameless, superfluous plug for a cruise line, in the form of a number from “Hairspray” aboard a ship in the Caribbean.

 
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