Tony Awards 2012: For ‘Once’ daring trumps commerce

Steve Kazee and the cast of "Once" perform at the Tony Awards.
(Theo Wargo, Getty Images)

Will wonders never cease: David overcame Goliath in a rare victory at the Beacon Theatre that will force us to rethink the old truism that commerce trumps independent vision on Broadway.

“Once,” the little musical spun from an Irish art house film, bested “Newsies,” the Disney Theatrical Productions front-runner, for the Tony Award for best musical, despite “Newsies’” greater potential for roadshow lucre.

But if this season has taught us anything it’s that theatrical creativity can’t be suppressed by corporate forces. For all the hoopla about another record-breaking year of billion-dollar-plus grosses (funny how when you keep charging more for tickets, it doesn’t really matter if attendance is basically flat), there was plenty of evidence of Broadway’s determination to find room on the ledger sheet for risk and daring.

TONYS: Red carpet | Winners | Best & worst

TRANSCRIPT: McNulty talks Tonys with readers

Another shimmering example is best play Tony winner “Clybourne Park.” Bruce Norris’ 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner, which made it to the Great White Way despite being waylaid by a funding crisis during its acclaimed run at the Mark Taper Forum. Fortunately for the play (and the future of serious playwriting on our commercial stages) producer Jordan Roth wasn’t going to let a budgetary brick wall stand in the way of the drama’s Broadway future. The money was found, and unlike Wall Street’s wily leveraging, you can guarantee there are no obscene paydays in the offing.

True, the establishment still holds sway. I’m not sure that Mike Nichols deserves a Tony for his direction of “Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.” The production, which won for revival but failed to pick up any acting trophies, was uneven. But for getting to the emotional heart of Miller’s classic — a directorial feat that brought out the white heat between Philip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield in their scenes together, Nichols bridged the years between Miller’s historical moment and our own.

Stephen Sondheim didn’t have a great night. “Follies,” which was considered a favorite for the musical revival award, lost out to “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” an adapted version that the greatest living theatrical songwriter took public issue with for its liberties.

“Follies,” which closed Saturday at the Ahmanson Theatre, was at a distinct disadvantage for no longer running in New York. Los Angeles has its fair share of Tony voters, but a show that’s still in business on Broadway, no matter how controversial, undeniably has the upper-hand.

More importantly, though, this “Porgy and Bess"has a force of nature in Audra McDonald, who finally picked up a Tony (her fifth!) for lead actress in a musical. It’s hard to argue with talent as radiant as hers, and her performance was indeed one of the most sublimely painful experiences of this or any season.

How marvelous to see singular young talents acknowledged. James Corden, delivering a clowning master class in “One Man, Two Guvnors,” has earned not only comparisons to Zero Mostel and Bert Lahr but now has a Tony for lead actor in a play, an award most insiders assumed would go to Hoffman, tragedy nearly always trouncing comedy on these occasions. And Nina Arianda, an actress whose crisp timing and granulated reality put me in mind of the late-great Judy Holliday, managed to fend off the competition of distinguished veterans to take the prize for lead actress in a play.

It was by no stretch a banner year for the Broadway musical. Dumb movie retreads, cynical pastiches and generic would-be blockbusters predominated. Pity the poor Tony nominating committee forced to include music from plays in the lackluster original score category.

Which is all the more reason Sunday night’s triumph by “Once” is so significant. The show, which also picked up awards for best book (Enda Walsh), lead actor (Steve Kazee) and director (John Tiffany), among several other prizes, validates something essential to a healthy artistic future on Broadway: the freedom to follow an unorthodox path.

In a year that showed that bigger isn’t always better (“Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” was notable mainly as a gag setup for nonpareil Tony host Neil Patrick Harris,) it is reassuring to see a show with the courage to dream small walk away with the evening’s biggest prize.

Here are a few distinctions that unaccountably didn’t make it into the broadcast:

Best line of an acceptance speech: Judy Kaye’s “I guess chandeliers have been very, very good to me.” (Kaye, who won for swinging on a light fixture in “Nice Work if You Can Get It,” previously won for her performance in “The Phantom of the Opera.”)

Most touching shout-out: Corden tearing up with heartfelt gratitude to his “baby mama” who helped him turn “me” into “we.”

Category most in need of a blood transfusion: Original score, won by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman for “Newsies.” (There are occasions when the Tonys should follow the Pulitzer Prize lead and offer no award in an anemic area.)

Saddest irony: What many consider to be the season’s worst musicals — “Ghost the Musical,” “Godspell"— no doubt sold tons of tickets while the better (but less televisual) shows probably didn’t entice all that many people to whip out their credit cards.

Best performance rendered grotesque by the small screen: Tracie Bennett as Judy Garland in “End of the Rainbow.” It was so over-the-top, I feared cameras might shatter.

Most shameless plug: The live broadcast fromRoyal Caribbean International’sOasis of the Seas’ performance of “Hairspray.”

Most moving acceptance speech: McDonald telling her daughter that, though this night is special, it doesn’t compare to the day she was born.

Stagiest conjugal love-fest: Hugh Jackman being presented with an honorary award by his wife Deborra-Lee Furness, in prime time. No matter how sincere, the moment read like a desperate ratings ploy. Oh, well, whatever it takes, CBS, to keep the show on the air.

TONY AWARDS: Red carpet | Winners | Best & worst

TRANSCRIPT: Theater critic Charles McNulty’s chat with readers