What an upset.
Eight months ago, the future was anything but certain for Memphis, the new musical at the Shubert Theater in Manhattan. The story of a white DJ who falls in love with R&B in the ‘50s, it got panned by the New York Times as the “Michael Bolton of Broadway musicals,” and a “slick but formulaic entertainment” that “barely generates enough heat to warp a vinyl record.”
But on Sunday night, it was the evening’s biggest winner at the 64th Annual Tony Awards, where it took home prizes for Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book.
Click the Image to View Our Gallery of the Best of the 2010 Tony Awards
Never mind that Fela! had scored rave reviews in the same paper, or that it had enormous star wattage behind it. It was directed by famed choreographer Bill T. Jones and its producers included Jay-Z, Beyonce, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, all of whom were sitting at the front of Radio City Music Hall. ( Fela! did win best choreography, best sound, and best costume design.)
Shortly after winning one of the evening’s first awards, for Best Book of a Musical, Memphis writer Joe DiPietro said, “My family didn’t expect me to be up here, I didn’t expect me to be up here, and the New York Times didn’t expect me to be up here.”
Still, his co-writer, David Bryan (keyboardist of Bon Jovi), had some ideas for why the musical had connected with voters. “It’s about the birth of rock 'n' roll, it’s an interracial love story, and it’s about the idea that love was, is, and always will conquer all,” he said at an after party in the ice skating rink area of Rockefeller Center.
Perhaps less surprising was the success of Red with the theater community. The play, about the early days of artist Mark Rothko, originated at the Donmar Warehouse in London and had no trouble with critics or audiences when it came stateside.
Katie Finneran's emotional acceptance speech dedicated to her fiance.
It probably helps that interest in the painter has been enormous. (One of Rothko’s relatively minor paintings sold at the Sotheby’s contemporary art auction last month for $31.4 million.) “For my money, Rothko is one of the great iconic artists and that’s not going to change,” said playwright John Logan, shortly after his show nabbed six Tonys, among them, Best Play, Best Direction, and Best Featured Actor. Logan admitted that the artist’s psychological baggage adds to the public’s ongoing fascination with him. “We would have liked him less if he’d been less depressed.”
As many were also quick to note, Broadway’s biggest night of the year wound up being a big night for Hollywood, too. The actress Scarlett Johansson won the award for Best Featured Actress in a Play for her bravura performance in the revival of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, Denzel Washington won Best Actor for his role as an unhappy husband in August Wilson’s Fences (the play also won Best Revival) and Catherine Zeta-Jones took home a statue for her role in A Little Night Music.
Denzel Washington Best Actor Tony Speech
The show was hosted by former Will & Grace star Sean Hayes, who was nominated for his role in the revival of Promises, Promises, and seemed game for just about everything the Tony Awards’ producers threw his way. He dressed up as Spiderman, Little Orphan Annie, and Billy Elliot (complete with super-tight ballet wear). He also played piano, sang, and made out onstage with his Promises, Promises co-star Kristin Chenoweth, a clever swipe at Newsweek, which ran a vicious piece recently asserting that Hayes’ homosexuality made him an inappropriate choice for the playboy he stars as in Promises, Promises. And from where we sat, it looked like a pretty good kiss.
Sean Hayes kisses Kristin Chenoweth
Also in the house were high wattage presenters (Cate Blanchett, Helen Mirren, Michael Douglas, Katie Holmes, Daniel Radcliffe, and Paula Abdul), high wattage guest performers (Matthew Morrison and Lea Michele of Glee), and high wattage nominees who didn’t win but seemed happy to be there (Laura Linney, Liev Schreiber with wife Naomi Watts, Christopher Walken, and Alfred Molina).
After their wins, Denzel Washington and his co-star Viola Davis mingled with Bill T. Jones, the choreographer and director of Fela! “Can I get a picture?” Jones said to Washington.
“Of course,” was the reply.
A reporter asked Washington whether there were enough roles for black actors now.
“You know, somebody’s gotta write it. If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage. But August wrote it and he will live on. And I hope other young writers are inspired by him, not just actors.”
Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.