Tony Awards 2009: Billy Elliot Wins Big

There were plenty of interesting haps and mishaps at the 2009 Tony Awards ceremony, the 63rd of its kind, which took place this past Sunday at Radio City Music Hall in New York and was televised by CBS.

Though Brits walked away with plenty of the top honors, Americans shook up the typical routine, and a series of exciting musical excerpts made for an impressive year for the Tonys, which received a boost in the ratings for the first time after a slump of several years.
As this year’s host, Neil Patrick Harris provided the show with a refreshing comic energy. His jokes were offbeat and sometimes full of insider bite (including a dig at Jeremy Piven’s now-infamous sushi defense). Even more thrilling was his closing number, which brought the house down by summing up the evening’s events with pith and pizzazz.

The show was off to a vibrant start with an elaborate opening number featuring most of the evening’s musical nominees in a vast montage of this past Broadway season’s offerings. There were the West Side Story gangs up against Guys and Dolls‘s crapshooters. There were the Shrek fairy tale characters waving their freak flag. And there were also the Hair tribe, Liza Minnelli, hair band Poison with the cast of Rock of Ages, Elton John and the Billys from Billy Elliot, Dolly Parton and the 9 to 5 trio of leading ladies, and – perhaps the most awkward of pairings, – Next to Normal‘s Aaron Tveit battling Pal Joey‘s Stockard Channing in a face-off of competing renditions of I’m Alive and Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered from their respective shows.

In perhaps the evening’s most worrying moment, Poison frontman Bret Michaels was knocked clean off his feet by a descending set piece following his performance with Rock of Ages in the opening number. After this troubling mishap, however, the show was off and rolling as the awards got underway.

Most of the awards were fairly predictable. Though there was talk of a possible Next to Normal upset (similar to Avenue Q‘s usurping cash cow Wicked some years back), Billy Elliot danced off with the best musical prize unceremoniously, winning a total of ten awards over the course of the evening, including awards for director Stephen Daldry and, in the acting department, for its three Billys as well as for Gregory Jbara.

In one of the most-discussed Tony speeches of the season, Alice Ripley cited a passage from J.F.K., shouting in a rather angry tone of voice before slipping back into her usual friendly demeanor. Explaining herself later, she explained that she was speaking up so she could be heard because of sound troubles experienced throughout the telecast, but she’s still subject of a handful of parodies already on YouTube.

The Billys (David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik, and Kiril Kulish), of course, won best actor in a musical, coming as no real surprise, though the circumstances of their nomination raised a few eyebrows because of the ruling that Tony voters need only see the performance of one of the three young actors in order to vote for the trio.

As has been the trend in recent years, a bundle of awards went to deserving Brits in transferred productions. At least ten awards went to British shows and nominees, with Hair the only U.S.-originated production to take top honors. God of Carnage took home the best play award, and The Norman Conquests won best revival of a play, providing Matthew Warchus (who was nominated for his direction of both shows and won for Carnage) an extra jolt of pride upon accepting his award.

Liza Minnelli’s comeback show, Liza’s at the Palace…, took the prize for special theatrical event, besting Will Ferrell’s You’re Welcome America, and special awards went to composer-lyricist Jerry Herman for lifetime achievement and press agent Shirley Herz (the first ever to win a Tony) for excellence in the theatre. Taking home the newly created Isabelle Stevenson Award was Tony winner Phyllis Newman, whose women’s health initiative, as part of the Actors’ Fund, serves women in the entertainment industry in need of medical assistance.

Overall, it was a year dominated by performances. Aside from the nominated shows, tour casts from Legally Blonde, Mamma Mia, and Jersey Boys performed excerpts to promote shows on the road with mixed levels of success (it was quite a sight to see five carbon-copy Frankie Vallis from across the country perform together on-stage).

What with Elton, Dolly, Liza, and Doogie, there was certainly no lack of drama or celebrity at this year’s Tonys. Despite a fairly predictable list of winners (I mean, please, who could have beat Angela Lansbury as featured actress in a play?), there were plenty of satisfying moments (watching Karen Olivo, near tears deliver her heartfelt speech) and plenty to talk about, even if there was an element of schadenfreude in watching Bret Michaels hit the floor. Can next year’s awards top this year’s? Oh, please – it’s far too early to tell. But with shows like Spider-Man, The Addams Family, New York premieres from David Mamet and Sarah Ruhl, and revivals of Bye Bye Birdie and Finian’s Rainbow amongst others, who knows what web-slinging will be instore in just a year’s time. Start picking favorites!

The 2009 Tony Awards in full:

Best Play:

God of Carnage

Best Musical:

Billy Elliot, The Musical

Best Book of a Musical:

Lee Hall, Billy Elliot, The Musical

Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre:

Music: Tom Kitt, Lyrics: Brian Yorkey, Next to Normal

Best Revival of a Play:

The Norman Conquests

Best Revival of a Musical:


Best Special Theatrical Event:

Liza’s at the Palace…

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play:

Geoffrey Rush, Exit the King

Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play:

Marcia Gay Harden, God of Carnage

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical:

David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik, and Kiril Kulish, Billy Elliot, The Musical

Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical:

Alice Ripley, Next to Normal

Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play:

Roger Robinson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play:

Angela Lansbury, Blithe Spirit

Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical:

Gregory Jbara, Billy Elliot, The Musical

Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical:

Karen Olivo, West Side Story

Best Direction of a Play:

Matthew Warchus, God of Carnage

Best Direction of a Musical:

Stephen Daldry, Billy Elliot, The Musical

Best Choreography:

Peter Darling, Billy Elliot, The Musical

Best Orchestrations: (tie)

Martin Koch, Billy Elliot, The Musical

Michael Starobin and Tom Kitt, Next to Normal

Best Scenic Design of a Play:

Derek McLane, 33 Variations

Best Scenic Design of a Musical:

Ian MacNeil, Billy Elliot, The Musical

Best Costume Design of a Play:

Anthony Ward, Mary Stuart

Best Costume Design of a Musical:

Tim Hatley, Shrek The Musical

Best Lighting Design of a Play:

Brian MacDevitt, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

Best Lighting Design of a Musical:

Rick Fisher, Billy Elliot, The Musical

Best Sound Design of a Play:

Gregory Clarke, Equus

Best Sound Design of a Musical:

Paul Arditti, Billy Elliot, The Musical

Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre:

Jerry Herman

Regional Theatre Tony award:

Signature Theatre, Arlington, Va.

Isabelle Stevenson Award:

Phyllis Newman

Tony Honors for Excellence in the Theatre:

Shirley Herz

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