Tony Awards: Big winners, surprise losers and what it all means for the theater

In February, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul fell just short of Hollywood’s highest honor when “La La Land,” the Southland-set musical they penned the lyrics for, failed to win best picture at the Academy Awards.

No misses this time.

The stars shone for the composer-lyricists and book writer Steven Levenson, as “Dear Evan Hansen” nabbed the Tony Awards’ top honor of best musical at Radio City Music Hall on Sunday night. The trio’s show, an emo-pop piece about an awkward teenager who becomes an accidental hero, won over voters with a story that’s both a timeless tale of teenage anxiety and an of-the-moment examination of social media.

The show won six Tonys, including for book, score, orchestration and featured actress. Ben Platt, who plays the title character and became a Broadway’ sensation this season, won the Tony for best actor in a musical.

“At its core our musical is about wanting to belong, said producer Stacey Mindich in accepting the prize. “You have been seen and heard around the world,” she said, addressing fans who have responded to the production.

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“Evan Hansen” earned the U.S. theater’s top honor in what many regarded as the deepest musical season in recent memory including such heralded shows as “Come From Away” and “Groundhog Day.” With its win, “Evan Hansen” joins a short but notable list of intimate pieces, including “Once” and “Fun Home,” to take the top prize in recent years.

“We hoped to write a show where people looking for a home can find one,” Paul said of “Hansen,” which with humble roots in Washington, D.C., and off-Broadway was hardly even guaranteed to get to Broadway.

Platt, a Los Angeles native and the son of film and theater (“Wicked”) producer Marc Platt, thanked his family and drew on the musical’s heartfelt core in his acceptance speech.

“You taught me you have to be a decent human being to be a decent artist,” Platt said, addressing his father. He added a plea to idiosyncratic types in keeping with the theme of his show. “Don’t change,” he said, “The things that make you strange are the things that make you powerful.”

But if the night celebrated the outsider, it was the consummate showbiz insider who was its biggest star. The evening was a coronation for “Hello, Dolly!” the Jerry Zaks-directed revival that brought Bette Midler back to the Broadway stage. The show won four Tonys, including revival of a musical, featured actor Gavin Creel, and for costume. Midler took lead actress in a musical, her first-ever Tony win.

Midler has waited a long time for her award — and she was bound and determined to make the most of the moment.

Midler marked the occasion with a rat-a-tat riff that included her thanking “all the Tony voters, many of which I’ve actually dated” and noting that “I can’t remember the last time I had so much smoke blown up my (butt) but there is no more room.” The acceptance speech went well beyond the allotted time, but Midler pressed on, saying “shut that crap off,” to the orchestra music attempting to play her off.

The surprising speech did not match the upsets from the podium. Many of the awards followed form, as J.T. Rogers’ Middle East-peace drama “Oslo” and “Jitney,” August Wilson’s American Century cycle classic about livery drivers in Pittsburgh, won best play and best revival of a play, respectively; both were favorites.

Still, there were some whoppers, “Oslo’s” Michael Aronov, playing an Israeli foreign-ministry official, bested Danny DeVito in featured actor in a play. Making his Broadway debut, DeVito was favored as a slippery furniture salesman in the revival of Arthur Miller’s “The Price.”

In direction “Indecent’s” Rebecca Taichman and “Come From Away”s Christopher Ashley were both unexpected winners in play and musical, for their shows about 20th century artistic oppression and post-9/11 global community, respectively.

A genuinely shocked and breathless Taichman talked about the play’s message in accepting the award: “This is about making art when one is in great danger.”

It was a season when Broadway was politicized following the election of President Trump and the stormy visit of then-vice-president elect Mike Pence to “Hamilton.” The Tony Award show on CBS was expected to go heavy on ideological statements, but it only went intermittently to that well.

CBS personality Stephen Colbert made several appearances, including one in which he riffed on Trump. “This Broadway production is supposed to have a four-year run but reviews have not been kind,” he said, to applause in the room. Cynthia Nixon, accepting the featured actress in a play prize for her repertory turn in “Little Foxes,” cited playwright Lillian Hellman’s line about people who stand back during injustice. “All my love and respect and undying gratitude goes out to all the people refusing to just stand,” she said, also to loud cheers.

And in a kind of bookend moment to the Pence fracas, Jill and Joe Biden’s presence was noted and met with a standing ovation in the Radio City theater during a pre-show segment. Jill Biden had come to promote a veteran’s charity, which she later talked about in introducing a number from the PTSD-themed musical “Bandstand.”

The Tonys come at a time of crossover in between the theater and movie worlds, when musicals on Broadway are more cinematic and musical films are more common.

Still, some distinctions remain.

Backstage, a reporter asked Pasek and Paul to describe the feeling of being here as opposed to the Oscars.

“This is sacred ground to us,” Pasek said. “Nothing compares to this.”

The Tonys were returning to their regular home at Radio City after a one-year interlude at the more intimate, or cramped, space at the Beacon Theatre uptown. That made for a more formal show — there weren’t the same bits done around the theater and even outside the theater, as James Corden did last year. The show also had a more celebratory feel compared to last year’s ceremony, which followed the Orlando nightclub shooting by less than 24 hours.

Host Kevin Spacey took an unorthodox approach to the job, trotting out impersonations — Bill Clinton, Johnny Carson and his own “House of Cards” Frank Underwood character — in lieu of more conventional hosting technique. He began the night with a Billy Crystal-like medley — the Oscar veteran even appeared in a screen bubble of wisdom — in which he self-deprecatingly took shots at his own host undesirability. In a line that either boldly or naively tempted fate,he sang‎, ‎"Have you ever felt the ratings could disappear/and if you host no one could cheer."

The routine featured many riffs on nominated shows and slayed in the room, even as many of their nuances went over the heads, or provoked annoyance, from those following on TV and social media.

But Spacey had the ad lib of the evening when he appeared as Underwoodat the end of the telecast. He was helping Lin-Manuel Miranda hand outbest musical, and he managed to upstage even the favored Broadway sonwith a comically calibrated turn of impatience. "I want to get thehell out of here," he said, "before Bette Midler thanks anyone else."

Patrick Pacheco contributed this report.

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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