‘Hadestown’ leads winners at Tony Awards

Receives eight awards, including one for director Rachel Chavkin
The cast and crew of "Hadestown" accept the award for Best Musical onstage during the 2019 Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall.
The cast and crew of "Hadestown" accept the award for Best Musical onstage during the 2019 Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall.

“Hadestown,” a pulsing, poetic contemporary riff on an ancient Greek myth, won the Tony Award for best new musical Sunday night, triumphing over film adaptations, a musical comedy and a jukebox show.

The win, coming at a time when Broadway is enjoying a long-running box office boom, marks the sixth year in a row that Tony voters have chosen an inventive show nurtured by nonprofits over more commercial fare.

“Hadestown,” dreamed up by a Vermont singer-songwriter who as a child became fascinated by the doomed love story of Orpheus and Eurydice, is at once tragic and hopeful, suggesting that the very act of storytelling can be a salve for sadness.

Fueled by a seven-piece onstage band, the blues-and-folk-styled show is set in a jazz club that morphs into an oil drum, and alludes to climate change, labor strife and, indirectly, immigration. The show’s most resonant song, written before Donald Trump became president, is called “Why We Build the Wall.”

The musical beat out an original musical comedy, “The Prom,” about a group of narcissistic actors who try to advance their careers with an act of unwanted do-goodism, as well as two stage adaptations of well-known films, “Tootsie” and “Beetlejuice,” and a jukebox musical, “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations.”

All four cost more to bring to Broadway than “Hadestown,” which is also notable for the number of women at the wheel — still a relative rarity in commercial theater.

Two of its lead producers are women, as is the lead producer of “The Ferryman,” which won as best new play, and “Oklahoma!,” which won as best musical revival.

The 73rd annual Tonys ceremony, held at Radio City Music Hall, was a night more buoyant than surprising.

The director of “Hadestown,” Rachel Chavkin, who previously brought “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” to Broadway, picked up her first Tony for directing the new musical. She was the only woman nominated as a director of any show this year, a fact that she noted ruefully during her acceptance speech. And she is only the fourth woman ever to win a Tony as director of a musical.

“I wish I wasn’t the only woman directing a musical on Broadway this season,” she said, before calling for greater gender and racial diversity among theater artists and critics.

“This is not a pipeline issue,” she added. “It is a failure of imagination by a field whose job is to imagine the way the world could be.”

“Hadestown” was conceived and written by Anaïs Mitchell, a singer-songwriter with no ties to Broadway (besides a childhood affection for “Les Misérables”), who won a Tony for her score. She began the musical as a DIY community theater project in 2006, touring small Vermont venues in a silver school bus packed with props.
Among the lessons Mitchell said she learned from working on the show for so long: “Nobody does it alone.”

The show’s other winners included André De Shields, a theater veteran who in 1975 broke out as the title character in “The Wiz.” He won for playing Hermes, a Greek god who serves as the musical’s narrator and travel guide.

“The top of one mountain is the bottom of the next, so keep climbing,” the 73-year-old De Shields advised as he accepted the award for best featured actor in a musical.

“Hadestown” picked up eight awards in all, including for scenic design by Rachel Hauck; orchestrations by Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose; lighting design by Bradley King; and sound design by Nevin Steinberg and Jessica Paz.

The show is shaping up to be a hit, despite a lack of name recognition and a crowded theatrical marketplace. Since opening in April it has been selling well, and word-of-mouth appears strong.

The other musicals did not go home empty-handed: Santino Fontana, the star of “Tootsie,” won as best actor in a musical, and the show’s book writer, Robert Horn, won in his category. “Ain’t Too Proud” picked up an award for Sergio Trujillo’s electrifying choreography.

“The Ferryman,” a sprawling Irish drama by English writer Jez Butterworth, won the Tony for best new play, fueled by admiration for its sophisticated storytelling, which manages to be suspenseful and funny and romantic and eerie — all at once.

The category was quite competitive this season, which saw an unusually ambitious assortment of dramas and comedies, heartening doomsayers who have long fretted about the health of plays on Broadway, where the big money and big crowds flock to musicals.

The biggest play of the season — as measured by cost to develop and weekly take at the box office — is “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But it was not nominated for best play, leaving the awards race between “Ferryman” and “What the Constitution Means to Me,” an autobiographical reflection on gender and the law written and performed by American Heidi Schreck.

The night belonged to “Ferryman,” which considers Ireland’s Troubles as refracted through a boisterous household that includes adults and children, plus a baby, a goose and a rabbit. Sam Mendes won as the play’s director, and Rob Howell won two prizes, for its costume and scenic design.

The also-rans will be fine — both “Mockingbird” and “Constitution” are planning tours, and “Mockingbird” is settling in for an extended run on Broadway.

In one of the night’s emotional highlights, Ali Stroker becoming the first wheelchair user to win a Tony. Stroker, 31, lost the use of her legs in a car accident at age 2; now she is featured as Ado Annie, the lusty young woman who “cain’t say no” in a revival of “Oklahoma!”

“This award is for every kid who is watching tonight who has a disability, who has a limitation or a challenge, who has been waiting to see themselves represented in this arena,” Stroker said. “You are.”

The 87-year-old comedian, writer and director Elaine May earned her first Tony, as leading actress in a play, for portraying a woman losing her memory in a revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s “The Waverly Gallery.” May, who burst onto the scene in the 1950s performing comedy with Mike Nichols, won for her first Broadway role in more than 50 years.

Bryan Cranston, a favorite among Broadway audiences, won his second Tony for the stage adaptation of the film “Network.” Cranston, 63, starred as Howard Beale, the “mad as hell” anchorman in the classic satire of television news.

“Finally a straight old white man gets a break!” he said before dedicating his award “to all the real journalists around the world, both in the print media and broadcast media, who actually are in the line of fire with their support of truth.”

“The media is not the enemy of the people,” he said. “Demagoguery is the enemy of the people.”

Stephanie Block, a Broadway fan favorite, won her first Tony as one of three women portraying different stages of Cher’s life in “The Cher Show.” The victory is a triumph for Block, who famously lost out on the lead role in “Wicked” years ago and who had been nominated twice previously.
She thanked not only God but also “the goddess Cher.”
Bob Mackie, who designed Cher’s attention-demanding looks for decades, also won, for the show’s costumes.

Celia Keenan-Bolger was named best featured actress in a play for portraying Scout, the daughter of Atticus Finch. in Aaron Sorkin’s new stage adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Keenan-Bolger is 41, and playing Scout both as a young woman and as a child; in her acceptance speech, she praised novelist Harper Lee “for making the greatest literary heroine of all time.”

And Bertie Carvel won as best featured actor in a play for his portrayal of a young Rupert Murdoch in “Ink,” a British drama about an early chapter in the media titan’s tabloid career.

The show’s host was James Corden, a lifelong theater lover who won a Tony in 2012 (for “One Man, Two Guvnors”) and who led the ceremony in 2016.

As the telecast began, Corden exhorted viewers — who, ironically, were mostly watching on television — to think about getting off their couches and going to see a show. He cracked joke after joke about the challenges facing Broadway — high ticket prices, low artist salaries (at least when compared to television) — but celebrated the joys, and the spectacle, of “actual people in an actual space.”

A provocative production of “Oklahoma!” — dark and violent, doubling down on questions the show has always asked about America — won a two-way contest for best musical revival.

And a starry 50th anniversary staging of “The Boys in the Band,” a pioneering gay drama by Mart Crowley, triumphed in the contest for best play revival.

Crowley, tearing up as he accepted the award, paid tribute to “the original cast of nine brave men who did not listen to their agents when they were told that their careers would be finished if they did this play.” Several members of the original cast later died of AIDS-related illnesses.

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