Tony Awards show a new maturity in theater scene

Tony Awards show a new maturity in theater scene
Sydney Lucas of "Fun Home" performs at the Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall in New York. (Charles Sykes / Invision / Associated Press)

Broadway went big this year. Big box office, big attendance, big flops and big statements.

The biggest statement by far was "Fun Home" winning five Tonys, including the best musical award, the grandest and most lucrative prize of all. The show, based on the graphic memoir by lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel about her search for clues about her closeted gay father's apparent suicide, is hardly your typical Broadway tourist bait.


"Fun Home" had an acclaimed run at the Public Theater, and in previous eras that is where it would have remained — an off-Broadway succès d'estime, taught in college feminist theater courses but largely absent from the repertoire. In the move uptown, the show, rather than being pasteurized for mainstream consumption, grew more confidently into itself.

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Sam Gold won for his direction, Lisa Kron for her book and Jeanine Tesori and Kron for their score in the first all-female win for book and score. Michael Cerveris, portraying Alison's father with uncommon psychological dexterity, won for lead actor in a musical — a competitive race but one in which he deserved to finish on top.

Artistically, there really was no other choice. "An American in Paris," recycling the George and Ira Gershwin songbook, was a breathtakingly staged exercise in baby boomer nostalgia. But Tony voters, recognizing that box office receipts aren't a substitute for daring originality, allowed hearts and minds to prevail over wallets.

In a year of record Broadway grosses ($1.36 billion), it's heartening to see commercial imperatives take a back seat. But then perhaps Broadway is beginning to recognize how reliant it is on nonprofit theater in the U.S. and nationally subsidized theater in Britain. These are the laboratories that produce not only a good chunk of the Great White Way's hoard of gold but, more important for the art form's longevity, its cultural cachet.

A special British Airways flight will need to be reserved for all the trophies heading back to the other side of the pond. David Hare's "Skylight" took home the Tony for best play revival. Helen Mirren, widely expected to win for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in Peter Morgan's "The Audience," was given the lead actress in a play award unusually early in the telecast—no reason to withhold what everyone knew was inevitable.

"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," the British import based on Mark Haddon's novel about a teen who appears to be autistic solving a crime in which his father becomes a principal suspect, was the other major winner of the night, taking home five Tonys, including best play for Simon Stephens' adaptation and lead actor for Alex Sharp, a Broadway newbie fresh out of Juilliard.

Marianne Elliott, upon accepting the award for best direction, spoke of how gobsmacked everyone associated with "Curious Incident" has been about the tremendous international success of a show originally intended for a small theater. Preserving the integrity of the drama, the way it attempts to theatricalize the autistic way of processing the world, was the priority, and Elliott and her team were richly rewarded for not compromising their plan.

The Lincoln Center Theatre production of "The King and I," gorgeously staged by Bartlett Sher, won for best musical revival. And in another mark of excellent judgment by Tony voters, the prize for best actress in a musical went to the show's star Kelli O'Hara, winning finally on her sixth nomination for a performance distinguished by vocal beauty and soulful delicacy.

Kristin Chenoweth was widely considered to be the front runner for this award for her performance in "On the Twentieth Century." But she can't go home too disappointed, having earned more fans as the frisky cohost of the CBS telecast with Alan Cumming. The show didn't have the propulsive madcap force that comes when Neil Patrick Harris or Hugh Jackman is the master of ceremonies, but it had a welcoming entre nous energy—theater people extending a wide communal embrace to everyone who loves the stage and its inclusive values.

One number bravely exemplified this spirit — "Ring of Keys" from "Fun Home," performed by Sydney Lucas, the youngest of the three actresses who play Alison. In the song, as Kron described the moment on Facebook before the telecast, "a little tomboy sees a kindred spirit in a butch delivery woman," adding that it's "going to be unlike anything that's ever been on national TV before."

The wondrous thing is that she wasn't overstating matters — and yet nothing at all seemed controversial or out of place.

Imagine a night when the two big winners are a lesbian musical and a play with a protagonist who is on the spectrum. Broadway is a bigger business than ever, and the artistic challenges that go along with this are formidable.

But these Tony Awards speak to a new maturity in our theater.