“Hadestown,” Anais Mitchell’s bluesy and stylish show based on a Greek myth about a smitten young man who tries to rescue his lover from hell, captured the grand prize at the Tony Awards on Sunday night, winning best musical and seven other trophies, for direction, score, lighting, sound, supporting actor, orchestrations and set design.
In the other category with big box-office implications, best play, the award went to “The Ferryman,” Jez Butterworth’s sprawling yarn of recrimination and retribution in the time of Northern Ireland’s religious-tribal Troubles. The play nabbed three other Tonys, including one for director Sam Mendes.
The 73rd annual ceremony, telecast from Radio City Music Hall and emceed by CBS “Late Late Show” host James Corden, spread the winnings in 26 categories over a dozen shows. A wildly reimagined “Oklahoma!” claimed the award for best musical revival (in a race with only one other contestant, “Kiss Me, Kate”), and Mart Crowley’s “The Boys in the Band” won for best play revival.
A comedy-drama that vied with “Band” in the revival category – Kenneth Lonergan’s “The Waverly Gallery” – yielded one of the evening’s most exhilarating victories, as 87-year-old comedy legend Elaine May was announced as best actress in a play, for her exquisite turn as an older woman of fading mental faculties.
Accepting the award on the arm of producer Scott Rudin, May paid tribute to her young co-star Lucas Hedges, who each night described May’s character’s death onstage. “He was so touching,” she said, “that watching from the wings I thought, ‘I’m going to win that guy’s Tony!’ ”
Perhaps even more moving was a moment that will be regarded as a landmark: the award for best-supporting actress in a musical to Ali Stroker, who wheeled herself up to the rostrum to accept the prize. Her portrayal from a wheelchair of Ado Annie is a spirited highlight of the revival of “Oklahoma!” and her delivery of a rousing “I Cain’t Say No” on the telecast demonstrated why she won the accolade.
In her acceptance speech, Stroker declared that the award was for anyone with a disability “who has been waiting to see themselves represented in this arena – you are!”
Bryan Cranston secured his second best-actor Tony in five years, for his bravura performance as Howard Beale in director Ivo van Hove’s stage version of the 1976 movie satire “Network.” He also won in 2014, for his canny impersonation of President Lyndon Johnson in Robert Schenkkan’s “All the Way.”
“Finally, a straight old white man gets a break!” Cranston joked. On a more serious note, he said he was dedicating his award to the press. “The media is not the enemy of the people,” he declared. “Demagoguery is the enemy of the people.”
In other noteworthy categories: Santino Fontana was named best actor in a musical for his witty work as Michael Dorsey in “Tootsie”; Stephanie Block took home the statuette for best actress in a musical as a middle-age Cher in “The Cher Show”; and Celia Keenan-Bolger was singled out as best actress in a supporting role in a play for her embodiment of Scout Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Veteran performer Andre De Shields scooped up the award for best-supporting actor in a musical for “Hadestown,” and Bertie Carvel – who played Miss Trunchbull on Broadway in “Matilda” – received the Tony for best-supporting actor in a play for portraying Rupert Murdoch in “Ink.”
Jeremy Pope was, remarkably, a double nominee – for best actor in a play (for “Choir Boy”) and best-supporting actor in a musical (for “Ain’t Too Proud”) but did not win in either category.
With the exception of “Mockingbird” – strangely shut out by the Tony nominators of the best-play race – the 2018-19 Broadway season lacked a show with a blockbuster following, such as “Hamilton” or “Dear Evan Hansen.” As a result, despite Corden’s comedic aplomb and the celebrity wattage of presenters such as Tina Fey, Jake Gyllenhaal, Samuel L. Jackson, Catherine O’Hara and Laura Linney, the three-hour CBS telecast lacked drama. The Tony-nominated musicals were accorded customary showcases, although the standout performance may have been by Cynthia Erivo, a 2016 Tony winner for “The Color Purple,” who sang “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” to adorn the in-memoriam segment.
The preternaturally cheeky Corden presided over a so-so opening salute to the obvious: that Broadway shows are presented live. His hosting duties included plugging his own talk show; a few cute, spoofy songs, including one with former hosts Sara Bareilles, Josh Groban and Neil Patrick Harris; and the de rigueur bantering with celebrities in the front rows. Turning to the cast of the last summer’s revival of “The Boys in the Band,” he joked:
“I’m looking at Matt Bomer – and technically he and I are the same species.”
The season that concluded in late April was a middling one for new musicals. The choice of “Hadestown” – with the rare Broadway distinction of winning with women as both director and author/composer – signalled perhaps a shifting of taste among the 800-odd producers and theatre artists who vote for the awards. It bested three musical comedies and a jukebox musical: “Tootsie,” “Beetlejuice,” “The Prom” and “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations.”
“Hadestown,” whose director, Rachel Chavkin, was among the night’s winners, is thick with atmosphere rather than plot; it will appeal, one suspects, to a narrower swath of theatregoers than a crowd-pleaser like “Ain’t Too Proud,” which outsells it, week after week. It will remain to be seen if the Tony haul augurs a protracted Broadway life for the show.
Mitchell herself was recognized for her music and lyrics for “Hadestown,” and Robert Horn collected the Tony for his laugh-a-minute book for “Tootsie.”
“Beetlejuice,” which began life last fall in a disappointing tryout at Washington’s National Theatre, and emerged in a bit better shape at the Winter Garden Theatre this spring, failed to win in any of the five categories in which it was nominated. Other prominently nominated shows that left empty-handed included “The Prom,” “Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus” and Heidi Schreck’s widely admired “What the Constitution Means to Me.”