NEW YORK — "Jersey Boys," a show about the '60s pop group Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons that has bucked a history of scorn for so-called jukebox musicals, on Sunday became the first of the genre to win a Tony Award for best musical.
Its main competitor, the Toronto-spawned "The Drowsy Chaperone" — a frothy, affectionate valentine to the traditional Broadway musical that received its U.S. premiere at the Ahmanson Theatre in November — rang up bigger Tony numbers, topping "Jersey Boys" five to four. "Drowsy" took the awards for best book of a musical, score, sets, costumes and featured actress, Beth Leavel, who plays the title role.
But "Jersey Boys," which originated at La Jolla Playhouse, took the marquee categories of best show, actor and featured actor.
The dramatic categories at the Tonys were dominated by "The History Boys," an import from England's National Theatre. It took six awards: best play, director for Nicholas Hytner, featured actress for Frances de la Tour, sets, lighting and actor for Richard Griffiths, who plays an idiosyncratic but idealistic schoolmaster preparing a group of teenage boys for high-pressure entrance exams for Oxford and Cambridge.
Another Briton, Ian McDiarmid of "Star Wars" fame, won for featured actor in a play as the wry cockney manager of a drunken itinerant mountebank in "Faith Healer."
Cynthia Nixon's award for leading actress, playing a bereaved mother in "Rabbit Hole," and the revival award for Clifford Odets' Depression-era "Awake and Sing!" prevented a British sweep in the dramatic categories. Coming in a year when the Pulitzer Prize board refused to award a prize for best play, the evening was not a rousing one for the American dramatic stage.
LaChanze, who starred as Celie, the much-abused, resiliently enduring protagonist of "The Color Purple," won for leading actress in a musical. Her victory was a major upset, because the lesser-known actress, a first-time nominee, was up against a field that included established, Tony-festooned stars in Sutton Foster ("The Drowsy Chaperone"), Patti LuPone ("Sweeney Todd") and Chita Rivera ("Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life").
LaChanze let out the most joyful whoop heard from the stage of Radio City Music Hall, where the awards were presented, after a victory speech she hadn't expected to give. "I'm still shocked that in this immense group of talent I walked away with the trophy," she said backstage.
In another surprise win, "The Pajama Game" was named best revival of a musical. That award had been widely expected to go to "Sweeney Todd." But John Doyle, who staged "Sweeney" using actors who doubled as musicians, did take the award for director of a musical. Sarah Travis won for the orchestrations.
On a night when most of the award winners' remarks were brief and emotionally contained, exhibiting little personality or star power, San Diego-raised Christian Hoff of "Jersey Boys" cried openly while hoisting his medallion for featured actor heavenward in memory of his Swedish immigrant father.
"This is for you, Papa," said the young actor, who began his theater training when he was 8 years old.
John Lloyd Young, whose portrayal of Valli won for leading actor in a musical, also grew emotional, addressing his father in the audience and recalling their tiffs when the older man, a career Air Force officer, had resisted his son's love of acting.
Afterward, Young talked of the disastrous run of jukebox musicals on Broadway. He didn't name names, but recent shows based on songs by the Beach Boys, John Lennon, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash have been critical and box-office flops.
"We had to work against that stigma," Young said. Critics praised "Jersey Boys" for couching its musical numbers in recording sessions and performance settings, thereby letting the band rock out and avoid seeming artificial. Lloyd dismissed shows that drained rock's energy by chaining it to typical Broadway staging.
"They were unnatural, and in the worst cases they made fools of the actors on the stage and the people in the audience," he said. "This one was different ... an American dream, Jersey style."
The best musical Tony for a rock show "has been late in coming," said Des McAnuff, La Jolla Playhouse artistic director, who staged "Jersey Boys." "The great thing about the musical is that it can bend with the times and adjust to different art forms. I'm very proud of the Tony voters."
In accepting the Tony for best play, "History Boys" author Alan Bennett thanked Broadway audiences for being "generous and openhearted" in accepting a very British play, which has already been filmed and is scheduled for an October release.
"We were a bit nervous about the response and whether the play would mean anything over here," said the veteran playwright.
The British weren't gloating about their Tony-night thrashing of American rivals, but Nicholas Hytner, director of London's National Theatre, declared backstage that his company, which spawned "The History Boys," is "the best theater in the English-speaking world." That, Hytner added, is in no small measure because of the $30.4 million in annual funding the National gets from British taxpayers — a stark contrast with the American system, in which producers scrounge for private donations and investments to fund their shows.
"I can't help but think that if an American theater got that kind of support, it would play just as valuable and productive a role," said Hytner, whose previous best director Tony was for a 1994 revival of "Carousel."
Cynthia Nixon, who had an extensive theater background before TV's "Sex and the City" made her a star, didn't dispute Hytner's assessment.
"In other countries, particularly in Britain, they invest in their theater in a way that our government doesn't.... There used to be a lot more original American plays on Broadway, but the economics prohibit it."
Kathleen Marshall won her second Tony award for choreography, adding this year's win for "The Pajama Game" to the 2004 Tony she won for "Wonderful Town."
Catherine Zuber's costume design award for "Awake and Sing!" was her second consecutive Tony; she won last year for "The Light in the Piazza."
Boehm reported from Los Angeles and Getlin from New York.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times