By Gordon Cox
LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - "Fun Home" made itself at home on Broadway at the 2015 Tony Awards, winning the top award for new musical in a tightly contested race with the evening's other frontrunner, "An American in Paris."
The show earned five awards total, as did best play winner "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," which had been a Tony favorite since it opened in the fall. "American in Paris" danced away with four trophies.
The triumph of the intimate, challenging "Fun Home" -- surely the first Broadway musical with a butch lesbian as a protagonist, and the show that yielded the first all-female composer-lyricist team to win the award for score -- is seen by many observers as a mark of progress for Broadway and for the Tonys, which can often reward more traditional crowdpleasers about far less edgy subjects.
Winning for best book of a musical (in an untelevised award handed out during a commercial break), writer Lisa Kron gave a heartfelt speech about "Fun Home" as a step toward a more diverse Broadway. She described a recurring dream she'd had about discovering a maze of rooms in her apartment that she'd never known were there.
"I've been thinking about that dream as I think about this amazing Broadway season," she said. "We've all been sitting in the same one or two rooms, and this season, the lights got turned on in a few other rooms. Wouldn't it be great if, after this season, we didn't all just go back into the living room?"
"Fun Home" nabbed three major creative awards within the first hour of the telecast: score (Jeanine Tesori and Kron, the first all-female duo to win in that category), book (Kron) and director (Sam Gold). Toward the end of the ceremony, Michael Cerveris, who plays the tortured father of "Fun Home," scored for lead actor in a musical, and at the podium urged the Supreme Court to make gay marriage legal. He also brandished a tie that had been owned by Bruce Bechdel, the man he plays in the stage adaptation of the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel.
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Although "An American in Paris" was no slouch at the awards, all four of its honors went untelevised, handed out either prior to broadcast or during commercial breaks. That show won for choreography (Christopher Wheeldon), lights (Natasha Katz), sets (Bob Crowley and 59 Prods.) and orchestrations (Christopher Austin, Don Sebesky, Bill Elliott).
Helen Mirren won the first major award of the night, taking the trophy for leading actress in a play for her performance as the Queen of England in "The Audience." Given her Oscar-winning track record with the role, she'd largely been considered a sure thing for the Tony. (Soon thereafter, her co-star, Richard McCabe, took the award for featured actor in a play.)
The winner of four awards, "The King and I" pulled off two major surprises in what was, aside from the outcome of the new musical category, a largely predictable evening. The well received Lincoln Center Theater revival had been expected to win the title for musical revival -- which it did -- but most pundits hadn't picked it for lead actress and featured actress, two more categories it ended up winning.
"King and I" star Kelli O'Hara, who had been in danger of becoming the Susan Lucci of the Tonys, finally scored a trophy after five previous nominations, winning for lead actress. The race for that award had been acknowledged to be tight, but oddsmakers had given the edge to Kristin Chenoweth, nominated for "On the 20th Century" (and the co-host of the ceremony).
"You'd think I'd have written something down by now, but I haven't," O'Hara joked at the podium, before going on: "To my parents, who were sitting next to me for the sixth time: You don't have to pretend it's okay this time!"
Earlier in the night, "King and I" cast member Ruthie Ann Miles took the title for featured actress in a musical. She'd earned strong reviews for her performance in the show as one of the titular king's wives, but that award had largely been expected to go to Judy Kuhn or possibly Sydney Lucas, both of "Fun Home."
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The wins for "Curious Incident," on the other hand, were largely preordained, with the show winning best play, lead actor in a play (Alex Sharp), director of a play (Marianne Elliott), sets (Bunny Christie and Finn Ross) and lighting (Paule Constable).
"Skylight," producer Scott Rudin's revival of the David Hare play, took the award for play revival. "For me, producing plays in this city has always started with David Hare," Rudin said from the podium. "I hope that I'm lucky enough to finish with the plays of David Hare."
Whereas other Tony broadcasts have more blatantly sought to play up Broadway's pop culture connections in an effort to heighten the interest of general audiences, this one embraced its inner theater nerd from the start. The strategy was signaled in the weeks running up to the show with the choice of co-hosts, Chenoweth and Alan Cumming, who don't have the celebrity status of last year's host Hugh Jackman but are much-loved Broadway favorites, each with a sense of humor and the Tony-winning chops to carry the ceremony's song-and-dance chores.
The telecast's opening sequence -- a loose, goofball affair in Chenoweth and Cumming's hands -- went so inside-baseball that the co-hosts cracked jokes about revival paychecks and Harvey Weinstein before segueing into "A Musical," the evening's performance segment from nominated show "Something Rotten!" That tune, a spoofy ode to musical theater with plenty of fan service, is a spot-the-reference game for theater lovers that, in one of its biggest punchlines, mocks recitative.
But then, the Tonys, with a long track record of relatively modest ratings, has always been watched mostly by a core audience of theater fans, and as such represents Broadway's biggest opportunity to sell new shows to the demographic most likely to buy a ticket. For producers of individual productions, the challenge becomes showing off your wares in a way that both plays well on national television and serves as an accurate representation of your overall show.
In that regard, the closeups afforded by the TV camera helped some of Broadway's more intimate moments fare best, especially "Ring of Keys," the endearing solo from "Fun Home," and the pas de deux from ballet-centric "An American in Paris." By contrast, some larger-scale numbers can look a little bare on the vast Radio City stage, a fate that seemed to befall revivals "On the Town" and "Gigi." But "On the 20th Century" looked lively, and the bombast and spectacle of "Stronger" from "Finding Neverland" (which featured familiar TV faces Matthew Morrison and Kelsey Grammer) also played well.
Sometimes producers seemed to exploit the advertising opportunity of the Tonys a bit too explicitly, as with David Hyde Pierce's testimonial-ad intro to a song from "It Shoulda Been You" (which admittedly needs all the box office help it can get). And if "The Visit," the dark, challenging Kander and Ebb musical that was among the night's new musical nominees, had seemed impossible to sell before Tony night, its telecast medley didn't changed any minds, although it showed off star Chita Rivera in a vibrant light.
One of the most affecting moments in the telecast proved, unexpectedly, to be the annual In Memoriam segment. Accompanying this year's montage of departed faces, Josh Groban sang "You'll Never Walk Alone" (from Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel") in a sequence that culminated with the ceremony's entire cast of performers, along with the orchestra, rising out of the floor as if all of Broadway had turned up in tribute. The segment also served as a mea culpa for last year's In Memoriam, which got relegated to a commercial break.
Even targeting theater fans as it did, the ceremony brought out a number of the big Hollywood names who have showed up on Broadway in recent seasons. For instance, Bryan Cranston (who won a Tony last year for "All the Way") narrated a rundown of the four nonmusicals nominated for best play and presented that award, while Larry David and Jason Alexander handed out the biggest trophy of the night, best new musical -- allowing David, the star of Broadway comedy "Fish in the Dark," to crack wise about his nomination snub. (That appearance also gave the pair a chance to tout Alexander's upcoming stint in "Fish," in which he'll replace David beginning June 9.) A nominee for his score to "The Last Ship," Sting turned up, gamely, to trumpet the activities of the American Theater Wing, the organization that established the Tony Awards.
Any viewers holding out for a tour-de-force finale -- along the lines of previous host Neil Patrick Harris' on-the-fly recap, in song, of the night's doings -- were likely disappointed by the cast of "Jersey Boys," which earned a Tony slot in honor of its tenth anniversary. To close the Tony ceremony, they sang "December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)" over film clips of the evening's highlights.