NEW YORK — “Dear Evan Hansen” claimed the top prize — best musical — at the 71st Tony Awards on Sunday, a nail-biter of a night that saw it scoop up five other awards, including one for its universally heralded star, Ben Platt.
The musical, birthed in the summer of 2015 at Arena Stage, garnered trophies for its book writer, Steven Levenson, and composer-lyricists, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who earlier this year earned an Oscar for their music in “La La Land.” “Dear Evan Hansen” tells the story of an introverted teenager who, desperate to be accepted, perpetuates a lie about a friendship with a classmate who has taken his own life, a falsehood that earns him Internet fame but ends in disaster.
The show, which also won for Alex Lacamoire’s orchestrations and for Rachel Bay Jones’s featured performance as Evan’s struggling mom, won in the category that also included “Come From Away,” “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” and “Groundhog Day.”
“When I was 6, I was the prince in ‘Cinderella,’ ” Platt exclaimed. Of musical theater, he said, “It’s where I’ve always belonged.”
“I have been in and out of this business for so long,” an excited Jones said. “Thanks to my Nana,” she added, “who sold her engagement ring so I could come to New York and be an actress.”
Another tight race saw the Tony for best play go to “Oslo,” J.T. Rogers’s fact-based, three-hour drama of the back-channel efforts of two married Norwegian diplomats to bring Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table. “Oslo” won in a particularly strong field of new plays on Broadway that included Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House Part 2,” Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat” and Paula Vogel’s “Indecent.” “Indecent’s” director Rebecca Taichman, won for best director.
No single show had been expected to dominate the three-hour ceremony — broadcast on CBS from Radio City Music Hall and hosted by Kevin Spacey — the way the Broadway juggernaut “Hamilton” did last year, when it vacuumed up 11 awards. That proved to be the case this year, as the prizes were scattered over 12 shows, none of which nabbed more than the six statuettes secured by “Dear Evan Hansen.”
And the nation’s capital proved to be a strong presence at this year’s proceedings, not so much because of the country’s wild political atmosphere as the amount of Washington theater that was represented in the ceremony. “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Come From Away” and “Sweat” all had crucial lives in the District that were instrumental in their destinies on Broadway.
Awards were handed out in 24 categories, divided between musicals and plays, new and old. The Tonys for best revival went to the widely lauded “Hello, Dolly!” and August Wilson’s play “Jitney,” the only drama in his 10-play cycle of black life in the 20th century not to have been staged before on Broadway.
Producer Scott Rudin said bringing “Dolly!” back was an attempt “to remind people of what musicals were like in the ’60s, the golden age.”
“Dolly!” star Bette Midler was named best actress in a musical in a contest that notably also included Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole of the musical “War Paint.” Laurie Metcalf, who plays an older version of Ibsen’s Nora Helmer in “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” won best actress in a play, and Kevin Kline took home the Tony for best actor in a play for his portrayal of a self-infatuated British actor in the revival of Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter.”
“I’m so honored to receive this from you all,” Midler said. “This has been one of the greatest professional experiences of my entire life.” She followed her opening remarks with a couple of characteristically off-color ones. And when the band tried to play her off, she shouted, “Shut that crap off!” And wonder of wonders, the band stopped playing.
Kline took his moment to thank the usual assortment of family and artistic collaborators and added a plug for two threatened government organizations, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities — without which, Kline said, “half the people in this room probably wouldn’t be here.”
In other supporting categories, Cynthia Nixon of “The Little Foxes” won as featured actress in a play, and Gavin Creel of “Hello, Dolly!” and Michael Aronov of “Oslo” were voted best featured actor in a musical and play.
As usual, all the nominated musicals performed a number, although Midler was not among the performers — her co-star David Hyde Pierce sang instead — a decided loss for the ceremony’s look-in value.
The celebrities appearing included Tina Fey, Anna Kendrick, David Oyelowo, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Sara Bareilles, Stephen Colbert, Uma Thurman, Josh Gad and Sarah Paulson. A nice innovation this year had each playwright of a Tony-nominated original play spotlighted onstage, giving a short description of their work.
Given the propensity of artists to speak out on political issues at awards shows, the Tonys were surprisingly devoid of grandstanding speeches. One of the largest ovations of the evening, however, was for Jill Biden, wife of the former vice president, who introduced a production number from the musical “Bandstand.”
And Colbert, in announcing best revival of a musical, made an irreverent allusion to President Trump, saying of his administration: “The D.C. production is supposed to have a four-year run, but the reviews have not been kind.”
Spacey, a smooth raconteur and skilled impressionist, opened the show dressed in Evan Hansen’s now well-known blue striped polo shirt and wearing a cast on his arm, a la Evan, emblazoned in this case with the hashtag “host.” He assayed characters from each of the nominated musicals and finished up in the number, in versatile style, tap dancing in a tuxedo. The jokes were all for Broadway insiders, which were fun for the cognoscenti but probably went over the heads of a lot of viewers. Later in the show, Spacey came on stage doing some of his better known impersonations — of the late Johnny Carson and former president Bill Clinton.
Addressing Platt in the audience, Spacey-as-Clinton said that after seeing “Dear Evan Hansen,” he could see that “Hillary’s a lot better at creating fake email accounts than you.”