Charming 'Billy'
British Musical Dances Its Way to 10 Trophies; 'Carnage' Is Top Play

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 8, 2009

NEW YORK, June 7 "Billy Elliot," the story of a working-class English lad who yearns for the higher-brow life of a ballet star, danced away with the Tony Award for best musical last night, during a ceremony in which it swept 10 of the coveted trophies.

The London import, with music by Elton John, was the big winner at the 63rd annual awards show, which also celebrated the crowning of Yasmina Reza's "God of Carnage" as the Broadway season's best new play.

In the most authentically endearing moment of the evening, the three young dancer-actors who rotate in and out of the role of Billy -- David Alvarez, Kiril Kulish and Trent Kowalik -- awkwardly tried to express their joy as they shared the award for best actor in a musical. It was a three-way division of the trophy unprecedented in Tony history.

"God of Carnage," about warring yuppie parents in Brooklyn, also won for director Matthew Warchus and Marcia Gay Harden, cited as best actress in a play. Geoffrey Rush, an Oscar winner for "Shine," took away the statuette for best actor in a play for his performance as a monarch coming to grips with mortality in "Exit the King." And a sentimental favorite, Angela Lansbury, won best featured actress in a play for her role as a daffy psychic in "Blithe Spirit."

"Who would have thought?" a breathless Lansbury said on winning her fifth Tony, tying Julie Harris's record. "Who knew at this time of my life that I should be presented with this lovely, lovely award?"

But it was "Billy Elliot" that, as widely predicted, dominated the proceedings. It vacuumed up a slew of awards, including those for choreography, sets, lighting, sound, director, book of a musical, featured musical actor, lead actor and orchestrations, the last a tie with "Next to Normal."

The prize for best revival of a play went to the London-born production of the Alan Ayckbourn trilogy, "The Norman Conquests," while director Diane Paulus's remounting of flower-powered "Hair" was named best revival of a musical. And for her universally heralded portrayal of the mentally debilitated mother in "Next to Normal," Alice Ripley garnered the Tony for best actress in a musical.

Washington theater got a rare shot at the Tony spotlight early in the evening at Radio City Music Hall, when the leaders of Arlington's Signature Theatre -- Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer and Managing Director Maggie Boland -- stepped up to receive the special Tony awarded each year to an outstanding regional theater.

Other shows with a D.C. pedigree did well: Set designer Derek McLane won for "33 Variations" which originated at Arena Stage. "Next to Normal" also won in the categories of orchestrations and score of a musical. And Karen Olivo won best featured actress in a musical for "West Side Story," which tried out at the National Theatre.

"The most rewarding thing for me is that I've become a dancer," Olivo told reporters after winning. "I've really had to stretch myself."

As for Signature's award, it was only the second time a theater in the nation's capital had been singled out for the honor; in 1976 Arena Stage was given the first regional theater Tony.

"Our last world premiere ran four hours long, had 21 actors, 15 in the orchestra and 276 [people] in the audience," Schaeffer said. ". . . It sounds crazy but that's why Signature is Signature."

Unfortunately, Schaeffer's moment was not covered in its entirety on the three-hour CBS telecast. Because of network time constraints, the award was relegated to a webcast an hour before the televised ceremony, meriting only a taped recap on the live broadcast. At a party given by Signature on Saturday night in the theater district, Schaeffer said he was not disappointed, because the company had received such enormous response to the news of its award, which came with a $25,000 gift.

The awards were moved in part to make room in the telecast for production numbers from such out-of-competition touring shows as "Mamma Mia!" and "Legally Blonde, the Musical"-- a concession, perhaps, to a belief that on a perennially ratings-challenged awards show, they would be bigger enticements for a national audience.

The ceremony was hosted this year by a mischievous Neil Patrick Harris, star of CBS's "How I Met Your Mother" and sometime-Broadway musical actor, who made fun of other stars, as well as himself. "I'm told that that was the biggest and most expensive number in the history of the Tony Awards," Harris said after the show's opening. "And that's why I'm your host tonight."

The presenters on this especially music-heavy evening represented the usual assortment of high-visibility figures from film, TV and pop music who pay infrequent visits to Broadway.

This year's crop of stars included Dolly Parton, (who sang the title song from her nominated score for "9 to 5"), Anne Hathaway (playing Viola in "Twelfth Night" in Central Park this summer) and Will Ferrell, whose "You're Welcome America: A Final Night With George W. Bush" vied for the Tony for special theatrical event. (He lost to Liza Minnelli.) The rock group Poison took to the stage to perform with the cast of the '80s musical spoof, "Rock of Ages."

Although presenters repeatedly mentioned the unusual volume of straight plays on Broadway this season, the Tony program made it seem as if the year were wall-to-wall musicals. The telecast is often a not-so-thinly veiled commercial for Broadway, and this year the show began with a 10-minute medley from all the nominated musicals, both new and revivals -- and then more from them throughout the evening.

A TV announcer boasted that the telecast would offer "more music than ever before." The economy-size plugs probably did a heap of good for the shows' economies.

The winners:

Musical: "Billy Elliot, the Musical."

Play: "God of Carnage."

Book of a musical: Lee Hall, "Billy Elliot."

Original score: "Next to Normal."

Revival, play: "The Norman Conquests."

Revival, musical: "Hair"

Special theatrical event: "Liza's at The Palace."

Leading actor, musical: David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik, Kiril Kulish, "Billy Elliot."

Leading actress, musical: Alice Ripley, "Next to Normal."

Leading actor, play: Geoffrey Rush, "Exit the King."

Leading actress, play: Marcia Gay Harden, "God of Carnage."

Featured actor, play: Roger Robinson, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone."

Featured actress, play: Angela Lansbury, "Blithe Spirit."

Featured actor, musical: Gregory Jbara, "Billy Elliot."

Featured actress, musical: Karen Olivo, "West Side Story."

Scenic design, play: Derek McLane, "33 Variations."

Scenic design, musical: Ian MacNeil, "Billy Elliot."

Costume design, play: Anthony Ward, "Mary Stuart."

Costume design, musical: Tim Hatley, "Shrek the Musical."

Lighting design, play: Brian MacDevitt, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone."

Lighting design, musical: Rick Fisher, "Billy Elliot."

Sound design, play: Gregory Clarke, "Equus."

Sound design, musical: Paul Arditti, "Billy Elliot."

Direction, play: Matthew Warchus, "God of Carnage."

Direction, musical: Stephen Daldry, "Billy Elliot."

Choreography: Peter Darling, "Billy Elliot."

Orchestrations: Martin Koch, "Billy Elliot"; Michael Starobin and Tom Kitt, "Next to Normal."

Special award for lifetime achievement: Jerry Herman.

Regional theater award: Signature Theatre, Arlington.

Isabelle Stevenson Award: Phyllis Newman.

Tony Honor for Excellence: Shirley Herz.

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