The main character in the Broadway show "A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder" spends much of the musical mystery knocking off those he believes stand in the way of his big score.
At Sunday's Tony Awards, the production landed its own loot: the top prize of best musical. It was one of four awards, including director for Darko Tresnjak, picked up by the Robert L. Freedman-Steven Lutvak show, which stars Jefferson Mays as eight different members of the fictional D'Ysquith family and Bryce Pinkham as the heir apparent who helps them meet their end.
The wins capped an unlikely run for "Gentleman's," which after out-of-town tryouts in Hartford and at San Diego's Old Globe opened to modest box office in September but gained momentum as the Tonys came closer.
"The little engine that could — did," said producer Joey Parnes, in a breathless speech accepting the night's top award.
But it was also a night for some major locomotives.
Hollywood emigres Neil Patrick Harris and Bryan Cranston each took home their first Tony Awards — the former for his cross-dressing rocker in the revival of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," which also won four Tonys — and the latter for his weighty turn as Lyndon Johnson in the new political drama "All the Way." At the other end of the spectrum, stage veteran Audra McDonald nabbed a record sixth Tony.
With her lead actress in a play win for her turn as Billie Holiday in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill," McDonald also became the first woman to win a Tony in all four acting categories. A theater-world favorite, McDonald won an extended standing ovation from the crowd at Radio City Music Hall.
"I want to thank my mom and dad up in heaven for disobeying the doctors' orders and not medicating their hyperactive daughter," she said in an emotional speech, going on to add that she believed she was standing on the shoulders of Maya Angelou, Ruby Dee and other iconic women, including Holiday.
Hosted by the hopping, joking and singing Hugh Jackman, the Tonys saw multiple surprises Sunday night, including perhaps most notably three wins for "A Raisin in the Sun," Kenny Leon's revival of the Lorraine Hansberry race classic he last brought to Broadway a decade ago. The show won best revival of a play, director of a play and featured actress in a play for Sophie Okonedo. Leon told reporters backstage that the work "gives voice to a lot of people in this country who grow up poor."
The "Raisin" revival did better at the Tonys than it did the last time around, when the show was nominated for best revival of a play but didn't win (though in a neat bit of Hollywood symmetry, McDonald back then took the prize for the same role Okonedo won for this year).
A pair of wins Sunday also went to "All the Way," with the Robert Schenkkan drama, about Johnson's role in passing the Civil Rights Act during the first year of his presidency, also winning best play in addition to the win for Cranston.
The "Breaking Bad' actor then riffed on his previous career phase backstage.
"It's the one that truly influences your performance night after night," he said. "When you can feel an audience and effect emotional change in them," he said of the theater, "it's like a drug and you have to get it. It's as strong as blue crystal meth."
One of the big stories of the season was a less household name — Jessie Mueller, 31, who arrived on Broadway just three years ago but won a competitive lead actress in a musical category for her portrayal of Carole King in the biographical "Beautiful," beating out such Broadway favorites as Sutton Foster, Kelli O'Hara and Idina Menzel.
Mueller brought the house down with a duet that also featured King, then followed it up with a Vine-worthy dance with Jackman in the aisles of the theater.
"Carole King, come on, I never thought I'd get to sing with you once in my life, let alone twice," she said from the podium.
As was the case last year, it was a strong night for black performers at the annual event, put on by the Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing and voted on by about 870 theater veterans.
In addition to Okonedo and McDonald, featured actor in a musical honors went to "Aladdin's" James Monroe Iglehart, who had a big number and then an equally large presence at the podium.
"I know this is supposed to be the most dignified awards show of the season, but I have to do this, this pray shout," Iglehart said, and then did a joyous dance.
One of the few major play prizes "Raisin" didn't win was for lead actor in a play — Denzel Washington wasn't nominated for his turn as Walter Lee Younger.
"Denzel, Denzel, Denzel," Leon said when accepting the prize for director of a play, continuing a theme he began on the red carpet when he said, "Denzel was snubbed. Let's get that out there."
Jackman began the show on a somewhat off-kilter note — literally — as he hopped into the theater from the street outside, picking up on a viral video he had released last week.
Many of the assembled didn't know about it, though, perhaps prompting him to explain to the audience during a commercial break: "You don't grow up in a country of 20 million kangaroos and not know how to hop."
The telecast also showcased a new trend to promote future productions.
Clint Eastwood noted he had a film version of "Jersey Boys" about to come out, Leon ended his speech by mentioning his soon-to-open Tupac Shakur musical "Holler If Ya Hear Me," and Sting and Jennifer Hudson promoted new fall shows, "The Last Ship" and the screen-to-stage adaptation "Finding Neverland."
Harris, host of the last three shows who stepped aside this year to focus on his turn in "Hedwig," still had a shining moment when he did the uptempo number "Sugar Daddy."
The actor later took an earnest path at the podium, thanking, among many others, "teachers in small town New Mexico. When sports were the only option, you showed creativity has a place in the world."
But the night largely belonged to "Gentleman's Guide," which also had costume design and best book wins to round out its haul.
Though the show, with a season-high 10 nominations, was a front-runner by this weekend, principals were still not sounding like world-beaters as recently as a few days ago. "We're finally selling out. And it only took us seven months," Mays quipped at rehearsal last week.
Backstage, Freedman said that the win "is particularly sweet because of all the bumps along the way," the book writer alluding to how he worked on the show for a decade before finally mounting it on the road and Broadway. "It was like a roller coaster ride with all the screaming," he said.
Times staff writer Alana Semuels contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times