"A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder," the musical with no marquee names or obvious marketing hook, won big at the Tony Awards on Sunday night, proving that a droll Edwardian tale of homicide, a few murderously clever patter songs and the killingly funny quick-change artistry of Jefferson Mays are all that's needed to make the leap from theatrical obscurity into Broadway history.
"All the Way," Robert Schenkkan's three-hour drama about the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, won for best play, demonstrating that audiences can be persuaded to sit through what they slept through in high school social studies if the right actor is in the driver's seat. Bryan Cranston, who deservedly won for his commanding portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson, motored the play like a NASCAR champ.
The awards telecast, hosted by a game if not always well-deployed Hugh Jackman (who often looked as astray as his beard), may have seemed like a crammed infomercial for a Broadway that has grown only more commercial in this still young century, but the winners reminded us that the theater is at its most vital when it forges an independent path.
Whether "Gentleman's Guide," which passed through San Diego's Old Globe before arriving on Broadway and claiming the best musical prize, will be able to translate its success on the road is another story. This is a crumpet of a show — cinnamon-y on the outside, a little dry in the middle — in an age in which producers too often feel that they have to sell gooey chain store doughnuts.
Originality wasn't Broadway's strong suit this season. "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," which won for best musical revival, featured the season's strongest score, and "A Raisin in the Sun," which won for best play revival, represented the most urgent dramatic vision.
Following suit, the best speeches came from actors in revivals: Sophie Okonedo, winning for her featured performance in "Raisin," movingly thanked the late, great playwright Lorraine Hansberry ("Your words heal me eight times a week"). Mark Rylance, winning for his featured performance as Olivia in the all-male production of "Twelfth Night," paid tribute to Sam Wanamaker, the blacklisted American actor who led the campaign to build Shakespeare's Globe in London from where this production was imported.
Hard as it may be to believe, "Gentleman's Guide" — based on a novel by Roy Horniman that was turned into the 1949 movie "Kind Hearts and Coronets" — was the only best musical contender with a completely original score. It didn't win in this category. (Jason Robert Brown's score for "The Bridges of Madison County," which closed early but earned a good deal of respect from theater insiders, took best score, giving hope that the show will have a long afterlife.)
But the creative risk-taking behind "Gentleman's Guide" was rewarded with two other big prizes: former Old Globe artistic director Darko Tresnjak won for his direction and Robert L. Freedman got the nod for his book.
"Beautiful: The Carole King Musical" may have been a more emotionally involving show, and though it lost the musical race, it won for lead actress (Jessie Mueller) — which makes sense given that her performance humanized an offering targeted to baby boomers of a more sensitive stripe. (Yes, the jukebox musical appears to be finally growing up.) What's more, "Beautiful" is already a box office juggernaut and doesn't need the top prize to sell tickets when it tours.
This year the Tonys probably should have invented a cross-dressing category to give those in straight duds a fighting chance. In addition to Rylance, whose performance is the one I'll treasure most from this season, Neil Patrick Harris and Lena Hall won for their gender-bending magic in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," a show whose punk style and transgender subject matter must have had Harris' old bosses gulping hard at CBS headquarters.
By winning a record sixth competitive Tony, Audra McDonald, still in her early 40s, has now won in every acting category. How good is she? So good that Vogue's Anna Wintour was seated behind her in perfect photo-bomb proximity. It was a joyous victory for this historic talent — perhaps the only Broadway star today who can make the cliché "living legend" journalistically defensible — even if it would have been fairer to the competition had her magnificent portrayal of Billie Holiday in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" been classified as a musical performance.
Kenny Leon, who won for his expert direction of "A Raisin in the Sun," took a moment in his speech to thank theaters across the country (with a special shout out to LATC) that are cultivating tomorrow's talent and bringing live performance to Americans everywhere.
The Tony Awards are all about marketing, but moments likes this brought home the truth of how and why this art form gloriously endures.