"Avenue Q," the cheerily subversive adult musical with the puppets that obsess about their neuroses and perform oh-so-naughty acts, carried away top honors at last night's Tony Awards in New York, winning the coveted prize for best new musical.
The show also garnered the awards for best book and best score, sealing a victory over "Wicked," a musical retelling of "The Wizard of Oz" from the perspective of two contentious witches. "Wicked" also won three Tonys, but only one of them came in a spotlighted category: best actress in a musical. In the evening's major upset, that accolade went to Idina Menzel, who plays the green-skinned Elphaba, the girl who grows up to be the Wicked Witch of the West. She won over co-star Kristin Chenoweth as well as Tonya Pinkins ("Caroline, or Change"), Donna Murphy ("Wonderful Town") and Stephanie D'Abruzzo ("Avenue Q").
The award for best play went to a production with a cast of one: "I Am My Own Wife," the Pulitzer-winning one-man show about a cross-dresser who lived as a woman under a repressive East German regime. The drama also collected a best actor Tony for Jefferson Mays, who plays all of "Wife's" characters, including its compelling central one, the mysterious Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.
Unlike other recent seasons, when hits such as "The Producers" and "Hairspray" vacuumed up a slew of prizes, there was no Tony sweep at last night's proceedings, the 58th annual gathering celebrating achievement on Broadway. Reflecting a crowded season that nonetheless evinced a paucity of critical and popular successes, a total of 10 shows split the 21 acting, writing and technical awards.
In fact, the show that received the most Tonys was one the awards administrators deemed a revival: Stephen Sondheim's 14-year-old musical "Assassins." The show took away five Tonys last night including best revival of a musical, a vindication of sorts for composer Sondheim and book writer John Weidman. (Consigned to the revival category even though its current production represents its debut on Broadway, the musical was not eligible in the best book and score categories.) It also won for best lighting, orchestrations, featured actor (Michael Cerveris) and director, Joe Mantello. Mantello, a Tony winner last year for best direction of a play for "Take Me Out," traded places with Jack O'Brien. Last season, O'Brien won the Tony for direction of a musical ("Hairspray") and this year won for best direction of a play, for Lincoln Center Theater's "Henry IV" with Kevin Kline. The production also won a Tony for best play revival.
The host again this year was Hugh Jackman, who himself won a Tony last night, honored as best actor for his performance in "The Boy From Oz," a musical based on the life of Australian singer Peter Allen. In the ceremony's spirited opening number on the stage of Radio City Music Hall, Jackman danced with the casts of this year's nominated musicals and high kicked with the Rockettes. "I knew these long legs would come in handy one day," he said afterward.
The three-hour broadcast on CBS indeed had more kick than it had exhibited in years. The numbers did not make the shows look like museum pieces and the jokes were surprisingly fresh. "A musical is only as good as its director," presenter Martin Short intoned. "Same goes for the CIA." An attempt was made to jazz up the presenting ranks with the likes of Edie Falco, Sean Combs, Taye Diggs, Ethan Hawke, Scarlett Johansson and Anna Paquin. Mary J. Blige was even recruited to sing a number from "A Chorus Line."
The evening's best pairing of presenters was also its most unlikely: rapper LL Cool J and Carol Channing. "I know when you think of the Tony Awards you don't immediately think: 'LL Cool J,' " the rap star said. After introducing Channing, they both broke into a hip-hop version of Channing's virtual theme song, "Hello, Dolly!" with a verse that ended, "You be rappin'/ They be clappin'/ We be back in charge."
Although there were some notable oversights among the nominees -- the slighting of Ned Beatty, brilliant as Big Daddy in the revival of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," was the most ludicrous omission in years -- the Tony voters showed a great deal of discernment in many categories. The supporting acting awards to Cerveris, Bryan F. O'Byrne ("Frozen"), Anika Noni Rose ("Caroline, or Change") and Audra McDonald ("A Raisin in the Sun") were all more than well deserved. McDonald, at just 33, pulled off the astonishing feat of winning her fourth acting Tony last night. "The fact that Broadway has been so kind to me is something I'll never be able to repay," she said in a tearful acceptance speech.
Some winners had been expected, like Jackman and Phylicia Rashad, who was named best actress in a play for her performance as the indomitable mother in "A Raisin in the Sun." But Menzel's victory, in the evening's hottest contest, seemed a surprise even to her. Breathlessly she expressed her gratitude to Chenoweth, who plays Glinda the good witch in the show. She also thanked her mother, for taking her to "Dreamgirls" and "Annie" when she was a kid.
A complete list of last night's winners:
Play: "I Am My Own Wife."
Musical: "Avenue Q."
Revival of a play: "Henry IV."
Revival of a musical: "Assassins."
Leading actor in a play: Jefferson Mays, "I Am My Own Wife."
Leading actress in a play: Phylicia Rashad, "A Raisin in the Sun."
Featured actor in a play: Brian F. O'Byrne, "Frozen."
Featured actress in a play: Audra McDonald, "A Raisin in the Sun."
Leading actor in a musical: Hugh Jackman, "The Boy From Oz."
Leading actress in a musical: Idina Menzel, "Wicked."
Featured actor in a musical: Michael Cerveris, "Assassins."
Featured actress in a musical: Anika Noni Rose, "Caroline, or Change."
Director, play: Jack O'Brien, "Henry IV."
Director, musical: Joe Mantello, "Assassins."
Book, musical: Jeff Whitty, "Avenue Q."
Original score (music and/or lyrics): "Avenue Q," Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (music).
Choreography: Kathleen Marshall, "Wonderful Town."
Scenic design: Eugene Lee, "Wicked."
Costume design: Susan Hilferty, "Wicked."
Lighting design: Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, "Assassins."
Orchestrations: Michael Starobin, "Assassins."
Special award for lifetime achievement: James M. Nederlander.
Regional theater: Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.