by Jocelyn Noveck
AP National Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — On a feel-good night for Broadway, it was only natural that the Tony award go to its most feel-good musical, the joyous “Kinky Boots.” But most everything about Sunday’s Tony telecast was warmhearted, from inspiring speeches about the theatrical community to the inspired antics of Neil Patrick Harris, who should officially be awarded the host job on a permanent basis.
It was a big night for African-American actors, with wins for best actor and actress in a musical, best actress in a play and featured actor in a play.
The ebullient Billy Porter won best actor in a musical for playing a drag queen with a heart of gold and a taste for, well, kinky boots, in “Kinky Boots.” He graciously saluted his co-star and co-nominee, Stark Sands. “”You are my rock, my sword, my shield,” he said, adding: “I share this award with you. I’m gonna keep it at my house — but I share it with you.”
And the effervescent Patina Miller won best actress in a musical for “Pippin,” in a role — the Leading Player — that also won Ben Vereen a Tony in 1973. Like Vereen, Miller sings and dances expertly in the role, but unlike Vereen, she also soars on a trapeze and sings while hula-hooping.
Cicely Tyson, 88, had perhaps the evening’s most emotional win — and not one but two standing ovations — for best actress in a play, in “The Trip to Bountiful.” She told the audience that at her age, she had “this burning desire to do just one more — one more great role. I didn’t want to be greedy. I just wanted one more.”
And Courtney B. Vance won best featured actor in “Lucky Guy,” his first win in three nominations.
“It’s a richer experience now,” he said at the Tony after-party. “Being nominated is a whirlwind. Now I know how to pace myself.” He was snapping photos of his wife, actress Angela Bassett, as fellow guests at the Tony after-party at the Plaza Hotel crowded around them. “Besides,” he said, “we’re the toast of Broadway now! That doesn’t happen very often.”
Shalita Grant, his colleague in “Vanya and Sonia,” was boogying on the dance floor too. “Hey, it’s a great night,” she said. “Two months on Broadway and then a nomination? I can’t complain.”
The winner in Grant’s category was Judith Light of “The Assembled Parties,” her second Tony in the category in two years. The former star of TV’s “Who’s the Boss?” gave one of the most poignant and admired speeches of the night, along with Letts, who made similar remarks about the Tonys being not about competition, but about collaboration.
As it was for African-Americans, it was an especially happy night for female theater artists: In a rare feat, women took home both directing prizes, for a musical (Diane Paulus for the high-energy “Pippin” revival) and for a play (Pam MacKinnon for the searing revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”).
And Cyndi Lauper won best original score for “Kinky Boots,” a result that had many in the audience whooping with delight. “Girl, you’re gonna have fun tonight!” shouted presenter Jesse Tyler Ferguson, the “Modern Family” actor — a reference, of course, to Lauper’s iconic “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”
In winning best musical, “Kinky” scored something of an upset over the terrific but decidedly darker “Matilda the Musical.” And underscoring the sunny nature of this year’s ceremony, a comedy — Christopher Durang’s dysfunctional-family satire “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” — won for best play over the more typical dramatic fare.
It wasn’t a great night for movie stars. In a season where a number of Hollywood personalities were snubbed for Tony nominations — Scarlett Johansson, Bette Midler and Jessica Chastain among them — best-actor nominee Tom Hanks (“Lucky Guy”) lost out to Tracy Letts, previously a Tony-winning playwright, for his wrenching performance in “Virginia Woolf.”
Wins or losses, the guests at the Tony gala seemed intent on having a wonderful time. One of them was Billy Magnussen, who plays a studly young boyfriend to Sigourney Weaver’s character in “Vanya and Sonia.” He had lost out to Vance but couldn’t stop dancing (if you wanted to interview him, you had to twirl along.) “Who gets to dance at the Tonys?” he asked joyfully and rather rhetorically. “This guy!” He said it was “amazing to be honored for something that I would do for free anyway.”
At the after-party, Light elaborated on her thoughts. “We are here to celebrate each other,” she said in an interview. “That is the magic. We root for each other. If we didn’t, our work would simply be too arduous.”
“This is my family,” Light added, pointing to a ballroom filled with theater folk. “I’m so happy to be at a party with my family.”
Light’s counterpart on the musical side was Andrea Martin, 66, who won best featured actress in a musical for “Pippin,” in which she plays the title character’s grandmother, Berthe, and stops the show every night by performing high-flying stunts that thrill the audience.
Her co-star, Matthew James Thomas, who plays Pippin, said at the party that he was backstage watching Martin’s emotional speech, and found it so moving that he burst into tears. “She’s usually so together, so it was amazing to see her like that,” he said. “I’m so happy for her, and Diane, and the whole company.”
Also accepting congratulations at the party was someone who never appeared onstage: the Tony-winning composer, actor, lyricist and rapper Lin-Manuel Miranda, who co-wrote with Tom Kitt the terrific opening number performed by host Harris. Miranda, who wrote and starred in “In the Heights,” also wrote the rap number that Harris performed with Audra McDonald at the end of the show, with lyrics that referred to events that had happened only minutes earlier — a trick used by Seth MacFarlane and Kristin Chenoweth in their musical closing of this year’s Academy Awards.
But that may have been the only similarity to the Oscars. Harris showed no sign of wear on his fourth go as Tony host, earning as many laughs as ever with routines like a running reference to boxer Mike Tyson, or a number about theater actors (like him) who move on to glory and wealth on TV shows — some of which then get canceled.
Harris opened the show as the Irish “Guy” in the musical “Once,” holding a guitar in a pub and singing soulfully, but then quickly jumped into a flashy production number that showcased performers from almost a dozen musicals. Among other things, Harris jumped through a hoop, a la “Pippin,” vanished from a box and somehow appeared at the back of the theater, and promised a “truly legendary show” before glitter guns went off.
Legendary or not, it certainly made its audience very happy; by the end of the number, the entire Radio City Music Hall crowd was on its feet.
AP Drama Writer Mark Kennedy contributed to this report.