The 2019 Tony Awards turned out heavenly for "Hadestown," the stylized, bluesy, steampunk-influenced Anais Mitchell musical based on the "Orpheus and Eurydice" myth and set partly in the underworld. “Hadestown,” the most innovative new musical of its Broadway season, beat out its more traditional and mainstream rival "Tootsie" — a likable show that began in Chicago — to win the Tony for best musical at Radio City Music Hall and, overall, to triumph.
Meanwhile, "The Ferryman," a juicy, eye-popping Jez Butterworth epic about familial agony amidst the Irish "troubles," dominated the year's strong slate of plays by reminding us how much sprawling humanity (and other creatures) could be stuffed on a Broadway stage. “Ferryman” will likely play Chicago on its tour next year.
But although “Hadestown” and “The Ferryman” dominated the Tonys this year, there also were crucial compensations for many other shows, especially in the acting department. That’s because both of the winners were ensemble-driven pieces, leaving room for divas and stars from other Broadway attractions.
That meant Tonys for performers Stephanie J. Block, the indefatigable star of "The Cher Show” (which also tried out in Chicago); for Santino Fontana, the formidable “Tootsie” performer who played both Michael Dorsey and his alter-ego Dorothy Micheals; and for the 87-year-old Elaine May, the star of the revival of "The Waverly Gallery," who began her comedy career in the 1950s at the Compass Players in Chicago and whose famous sense of timing was very much in evidence at Sunday night’s award ceremony.
"At the end of the play I die," said, evoking the octogenarian free pass when it comes to spoilers and delighting the audience.
Bryan Cranston, a winner for his leading performance in the play "Network," used his speech to pay tribute to journalists and say that "the media is not the enemy of the people. Demagoguery is the enemy of the people." After the awards, he spoke in the press room about how “draining” he found his task of getting mad as hell, seven times a week.
And Ali Stroker, who plays Ado Annie in the Tony-winning musical revival of "Oklahoma," won a ground-breaking supporting actress Tony, becoming the first performer who uses a wheelchair to win a Tony, and, in the process, clearly rising to a new status as a bonafide Broadway star. Of all the winners Sunday night, Stroker’s Tony perhaps was the most significant.
"This award is for every person who has a disability or a limitation or a challenge who have been waiting to see themselves in this arena," Stroker said.
In the Tony press room after her award, Stroker said that producers and theater owners had made the public spaces of their theaters accessible for the public but had not yet done the same for the backstage areas where performers must reside.
Big individual winners from "Hadestown" included Rachel Chavkin, the winner for best director of a musical; Mitchell for best score; scenic designer Rachel Hauck, lighting designer Bradley King, and the orchestrators Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose. And, in the category of best supporting actor in a musical, the veteran performer Andre De Shields, who won his first Tony Award at the age of 73 and delivered an emotional speech about resilience in the American theater.
"The top of one mountain is the bottom of the next so keep climbing," De Shields said, elegantly attired in golden, bewigged footwear and with his famous coif seemingly in celebratory fettle. After the awards, he said he was a Capricorn and he had no intention of leaving Broadway without a Tony.
"Hadestown" also produced not only the first woman ever to be nominated for a Tony in the category of best sound design in a musical, but, as of Sunday night, Jessica Paz (honored alongside her colleague and co-winner Nevin Steinberg) became the first sound-designing woman ever to win one.
Block, a winner for "The Cher Show" won her first Tony despite a long career in Broadway musicals. "I have always been a theater nerd," she said, "This is not a speech, it is a journal entry from when I was 12 or 13."
Celia Keenan-Bolger, a longtime Broadway favorite, won her first Tony Award, for best supporting actress in a play, for playing Scout in the Broadway revival of "To Kill a Mockingbird," a character Bolger described as the "greatest literary heroine of all time." Other than Keenan-Bolger, “Mockingbird” mostly was confined to nominations, even though it is one of the most successful revivals of a play in Broadway history.
There also was a nod for Sergio Trujillo, the winner of best choreography for his work on "Ain't Too Proud," the musical celebrating The Temptations.
"I arrived here in New York 30 years ago as an illegal immigrant, Trujilo said. "I am proof that you just have to keep believing because change will come."
"Tootsie" got its first Tony of the night for its veteran book writer, Robert Horn, widely regarded as having written the funniest gags of the season. Horn had waited some 35 years for his Tony.
"Anybody can be a sword-swallower at least once," Horn said.
This was a good night to share the spotlight with one’s associate, as did Rob Howell, the costume designer of "Ferryman," who won the first Tony Award of the night. Howell was followed by Bob Mackie, both a designer and a character in "The Cher Show." Mackie, an icon in costuming, kept his acceptance speech brief.
"This is very encouraging for an 80-year-old," he said.
At the top of the broadcast portion of the night, the Tony host James Corden (whose gentle, non-threatening enthusiasm is the perfect match for this nervous moment for awards show), poked fun at streaming services like Netflix and Hulu in a largely successful opening number celebrating the unique merits of live dramatic entertainment, the most powerful component of Broadway's brand.
"Trade the remote for the near, leave your couch and travel here," Corden sang, as the walls of what appeared to be his sad-sack living room dropped away, revealing the glam award-show audience at the Radio City Music Hall, and the beginning of Broadway's biggest night.
Winners of the 2019 American Theatre Wing's Tony Awards
Best play: “The Ferryman” by Jez Butterworth
Best musical: “Hadestown”
Best revival of a play: “The Boys in the Band”
Best revival of a musical: “Oklahoma!”
Best book of a musical: “Tootsie” by Robert Horn
Best original score: “Hadestown” with music and lyrics by Anais Mitchell
Best performance by an actor in a leading role in a play: Bryan Cranston, “Network”
Best performance by an actress in a leading role in a play: Elaine May, “The Waverly Gallery”
Best performance by an actor in a leading role in a musical: Santino Fontana, “Tootsie”
Best performance by an actress in a leading role in a musical: Stephanie J. Block, “The Cher Show”
Best performance by an actor in a featured role in a play: Bertie Carvel, “Ink”
Best performance by an actress in a featured role in a play: Celia Keenan-Bolger, “To Kill a Mockingbird”
Best performance by an actor in a featured role in a musical: André De Shields, “Hadestown”
Best performance by an actress in a featured role in a musical: Ali Stroker, “Oklahoma!”
Best scenic design of a play: Rob Howell, “The Ferryman”
Best scenic design of a musical: Rachel Hauck, “Hadestown”
Best costume design of a play: Rob Howell, “The Ferryman”
Best costume design of a musical: Bob Mackie, “The Cher Show”
Best lighting design of a play: Neil Austin, “Ink”
Best lighting design of a musical: Bradley King, “Hadestown”
Best sound design of a play: Fitz Patton, “Choir Boy”
Best sound design of a musical: Nevin Steinberg and Jessica Paz, “Hadestown”
Best direction of a play: Sam Mendes, “The Ferryman”
Best direction of a musical: Rachel Chavkin, “Hadestown”
Best choreography: Sergio Trujillo, “Ain't Too Proud - The Life and Times of the Temptations”
Best orchestrations: Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose, “Hadestown”
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.