Few may be popping Champagne corks for a Broadway season in which ticket prices went up, attendance went down and commercialism ran amok. But if anything could restore faith in the American theater it was Sunday's exuberant Tony Awards ceremony at Radio City Music Hall.
Beginning with an opening number by the impish showman and incomparable Tony host Neil Patrick Harris (please, CBS, make him sign a lifetime contract!), the telecast found ways of selling Broadway's wares to America while honoring the Great White Way's stubbornly eccentric soul.
The awards themselves also managed to celebrate the spirit that makes Broadway impossible to give up on even in a year in which Kathie Lee Gifford became a Tony-eligible (though, mercifully, not nominated) lyricist.
In the evening's biggest surprise, "Kinky Boots," the glitzily earnest Harvey Fierstein-Cyndi Lauper extravaganza, won the award for best musical over the heavily favored "Matilda, the Musical," the British import adapted from the delightfully dyspeptic Roald Dahl children's book.
This wasn't a banner year for musicals by any stretch, and story and song in these two shows rarely reached the wedded bliss that was a mainstay in the American musical's Golden Age. But given Broadway's prevailing business strategy of pandering to the tourist masses, you have to smile approvingly at contenders that manage to flaunt their unconventionality.
"Matilda" extols the bookworm loner in a culture of empty-headed conformists. "Kinky Boots" revolves around a self-empowered drag queen heroically rescuing a fuddy-duddy shoe factory from the brink of bankruptcy while teaching a group of working stiffs the art of fabulous self-acceptance.
You know the year can't be that bad when the competition for lead actor in a musical comes down to two men in dresses: Billy Porter (the diva whose boots are made for strutting from "Kinky Boots") won the award that many predicted would go to Bertie Carvel (the cane-wielding headmistress from "Matilda").
This might not seem particularly unusual for Broadway, but when you think that "Kinky Boots" is preaching a sermon of love and tolerance to mainstream America and that "Matilda" is essentially a children's show, the cross-dressing takes on a new light.
Broadway may be selling out more than usual these days, but it still knows how to sashay and snap.
"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" took the prize for best play in what was one of the weaker seasons in quite some time for Broadway drama. Yet Christopher Durang's long career has brought so much outrageous hilarity to the American theater — "Betty's Summer Vacation" nearly asphyxiated me with laughter when I first encountered it off-Broadway — it was impossible not to exult at seeing him finally nab a Tony.
Unbelievably, it took until 1998 before a woman finally won for direction in a play or musical. That year both Garry Hynes (for "The Beauty Queen of Leenane") and Julie Taymor (for "The Lion King") won for their direction of a play and musical, respectively.
On Sunday, the directing awards were also won by women (Pam MacKinnon for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and Diane Paulus for "Pippin"), but this time it wasn't a landmark occasion — just excellence receiving its due.
In winning the Tony for her score for "Kinky Boots," Lauper, however, made some history — she is the first woman to get the award for original score without a male collaborator. Her work betrays her theatrical inexperience in places, but its high points (especially the raise-the roof-number "Sex Is in the Heel" and the tenderly introspective ballad "I'm Not My Father's Son") have a depth and originality that made this award not only popular but just.
The revival of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" that began at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company closed in March but it was hardly forgotten. And how could it be? This 50th anniversary production of Edward Albee's masterpiece was the silver lining of the 2012-13 Broadway season. Amid its impressive haul, the production won for best revival. And in what might be the second biggest upset of the evening, Tracy Letts took home the trophy for lead actor in a play.
Tom Hanks, star of Nora Ephron's "Lucky Guy" was expected to walk off with this award — and he would have been deserving of the win in any other season. But Letts' portrayal of George cleansed the role of all the received ideas that have accumulated over the years and made us rethink the balance of power at the heart of the play. Tony voters, many of whom are producers with economic stakes in the outcome of these awards, sometimes put economics before aesthetics, but in this case artistry prevailed.
It would be easy to speculate on the financial calculus that allowed "Kinky Boots" to edge "Matilda" for the best musical. Clearly, a show about a man dressed as a woman saving a drab English shoe factory could use the award more than a children's show with a West End pedigree and a passel of
New York raves. But let no one ever again underestimate the power of Harvey Fierstein, who truly is the Harvey Weinstein of the Tonys.
I can't personally get all that excited about a year in which even an ingeniously reconceived "Pippin" is the musical that everyone is touting as the must-see show this spring. But the Tony ceremony snuffed out (for a little while, anyway) my inner curmudgeon.
Porter, Lauper and Judith Light (who won for featured actress in a play for her work in Richard Greenberg's "The Assembled Parties") all gave heartfelt speeches. But it was Cicely Tyson who, in winning for her performance in "The Trip to Bountiful," choked me up the most by expressing her simple gratitude for living long enough to act one more time in a great role on Broadway.