NEW YORK • Once upon a time, a quirky film made on a shoestring turned into an unlikely Oscar-winner and, even more improbably, a Broadway show.
Now, “Once” has completed its Cinderella story, winning the coveted best-musical Tony award Sunday for its bittersweet love story that has captured the hearts of theatergoers, just as it did with movie audiences in 2006.
“Once” won eight awards in all, including for its lead actor, Steve Kazee, who brought movie-star looks and a soulful singing voice to the part of Guy, a street musician in Dublin who falls for a Czech immigrant flower-seller.
Kazee gave one of the most poignant speeches of a night that had many of them, paying tearful tribute to his mother, who passed away on Easter Sunday. He also thanked his cast mates, especially co-star Cristin Milioti, for helping him cope: “They carried me around and made me feel alive.”
“Once” triumphed over the more obviously commercial “Newsies” for the top prize, and that was a theme of the night — many of the top-honored shows were neither big-budget nor star-driven, and a number had started off-Broadway in small theaters.
And the show with the biggest price tag of all, “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” was shut out in the two technical categories in which it was nominated, sets and costume design in a musical. The evening’s host, Neil Patrick Harris, made fun of that $75 million show’s early troubles when he started one bit hanging from the ceiling, Spidey-like; he then proceeded to get stuck in the air, or rather pretended to.
The Tony for best play went to Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park,” which had already won the Pulitzer Prize for its clever exploration of race in America, via a piece of real estate.
To no one’s surprise, Audra McDonald was named best lead actress in a musical for “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” which was named best musical revival. It was her fifth Tony Award, at only age 41, tying the competitive record held by Angela Lansbury and Julie Harris.
“I was a little girl with a potbelly and afro puffs, hyperactive and overdramatic. And I found the theater, and I found my home,” McDonald said, tearfully.
McDonald is an established name on Broadway, but the best-actress winner in a play, Nina Arianda of “Venus in Fur,” came out of nowhere to stun audiences, first off Broadway and then on, with her smoldering portrayal of a mysterious young actress auditioning for a play. In a very competitive category, she beat out veterans like Linda Lavin and Stockard Channing for the Tony.
Handed her award by actor Christopher Plummer, 82, Arianda, who is in her 20s, revealed that he’d been her first crush. “When that whistle was blown in ‘Sound of Music,’ you made my day,” she told the actor.
Later, at the packed post-Tony gala at the Plaza Hotel, where guests munched on everything from oysters and lobster to tiny little pastries, Arianda clutched her Tony and said she was feeling dazed. “I still don’t know where I am,” she exclaimed. Asked her plans after the show closed in a week, she said: “Vacation.”
Standing amidst a bevy of admirers in the Plaza’s Palm Court restaurant was James Corden, the British comic actor who won best actor in a play for the farcical “One Man, Two Guvnors,” an upset over Philip Seymour Hoffman for his Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman.”
“I’m shocked, and I’m thrilled,” Corden said. “No one could have imagined a better reception here for our play.” Asked if he had worried whether the show’s very British humor would appeal to American audiences, he said: “You hope, but you never know.”
Arthur Miller’s 63-year-old masterpiece “Death of a Salesman” won the Tony for best play revival and Mike Nichols won his ninth Tony for directing it. He said the play has a special meaning for many in Sunday’s audience.
“There’s not a person in this theater that doesn’t know what it is to be a salesman — to be out there in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine,” he said. “As we know, a salesman has got to dream. It goes with the territory.”
In the featured actor category in a play, Christian Borle, who hilariously plays the clumsy, overheated pirate who will later become Captain Hook in “Peter and the Starcatcher,” took home the trophy. Borle is on a roll: He also stars in the NBC series “Smash.”
In something of a vindication, the reworked version of the Gershwin opera “Porgy and Bess” managed to come home with more — and more prestigious — awards than a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies.”
Diane Paulus, the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater, condensed and adapted it for Broadway with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and Obie Award-winning composer Diedre Murray. Purists including Sondheim complained that a musical treasure was being corrupted.
Theater audiences disagreed, with fans cheering the new work, which features songs such as “Summertime” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” Norm Lewis, who plays Porgy, said the controversy was actually a good thing. “It started a dialogue,” he said at the post-Tony gala. “And that dialogue was about theater, not the latest shoes or something. It brought us attention.”
In featured roles, Judy Kaye won for the musical “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” in which she plays a temperance worker who likes to drink and hangs from a chandelier at one point.
Judith Light, who plays an acerbic alcoholic in “Other Desert Cities,” won for best featured actress in a play. Michael McGrath won for best actor in a featured musical role from “Nice Work If You Can Get It.”
In one bit of good news for “Newsies,” composer Alan Menken, who has more Oscars than any other living person, captured his first Tony for the score.
The show at the Beacon Theatre was packed with musical performances designed to show a TV audience what’s available on Broadway. The numbers were highly entertaining, as was the banter — and song and dance — from Harris, whom the Tony audience adores.
Jesse Tyler Ferguson, the “Modern Family” star, made a cameo appearance as Harris’s understudy in a comic number, and said later at the gala that he loved the show. He also said he had been pulling for “Once,” and that Kazee was a friend.
“Wasn’t that speech about his mother amazing?” he said.
Kazee choked up as he told the crowd about his Mom.
“My mother ... always told me before shows to stand up there and show them whose little boy you are,” he said. “And I’m showing you today that I am the son of Kathy Withrow Kazee who lost the fight with cancer on Easter Sunday this year, and I think about her every day,” Kazee said.
Ratings for Tony telecast drop almost 1 million
CBS’ Tony Awards show was seen by 6 million viewers, down significantly from last year’s 6.9 million — and against much softer competition, according to preliminary Nielsen figures released Monday.
The data makes it the second-lowest ratings for the Tony awards since 1988.
The Tony broadcast was up against the season finale of AMC’s “Mad Men” but faced no competition from the NBA postseason, as it did last year when it aired opposite Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
Neil Patrick Harris returned as host again this year but there was no clear, dying-to-see-it front-running Broadway show like last year’s juggernaut, “The Book of Mormon.” The sweet musical “Once” won eight awards this year.
Updated ratings figures will be available on Tuesday.