Monday, June 10, 2013

Big winner at the 2013 Tonys: South Carolina

If you watched the Tony Awards show Sunday, you may know that two natives of the Palmetto State went home with trophies.

Rock Hill's William Ivey Long was no surprise: He won his sixth Tony out of 13 nominations for designing the opulent costumes in the musical "Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella." And Patina Miller of Pageland," who was nominated for "Sister Act" two years ago, nabbed her first Tony as best actress in a leading role in a musical.

Her emotion-charged speech included a shout-out to her father, who's currently in a hospital ("We almost lost him"), and the producers of "Pippin," who were willing to cast a woman as Leading Player in the revival of that Stephen Schwartz musical. (Ben Vereen won a Tony for the same role 40 years ago.) Speaking of South Carolina, one of the women Miller beat was Valisa LeKae, who stars as Diana Ross in "Motown: The Musical" -- a show directed by York County's Charles Randolph-Wright. More photos of Patina Miller.

"Pippin" and "Kinky Boots" dominated the musical categories. "Pippin" also won for best musical revival, director Diane Paulus and featured actress Andrea Martin. "Boots" took best musical, best lead actor in a musical (Billy Porter), best score for Cyndi Lauper's clever mix of traditional Broadway styles and pop anthems, and best orchestrations, choreography and sound design. (This means we should see it on tour in a couple of years. Based on the cast album, I'll want to. I want to see the new circus-style "Pippin," too.)

On the dramatic side, the big deal was...a 51-year-old play by the 85-year-old Edward Albee. "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" won best revival of a play, best director for Pam McKinnon and best lead actor for Tracy Letts. (Yes, the guy who already had a Tony for writing "August: Osage County.") Christopher Durang's "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" won best play but nothing else.

Letts' victory reveals one of the four reasons the Tony Awards top the Oscars: Celebrity doesn't guarantee success here. Letts beat Hollywood icon Tom Hanks and Broadway icon Nathan Lane. MacKinnon trumped better-known directors Bartlett Sher and George C. Wolfe.

Another reason: The Tonys work well as an awards show. They're funnier and more daring than the Oscars, where the humor has an undercurrent of butt-kissing. (Movie actors usually make tepid fun of people who might give them huge contracts.) The musical numbers are better at the Tonys -- for one thing, they give a real flavor of the shows from which they come -- and thank-you speeches have more joy and astonishment. (The Tonys don't always anoint preordained winners, as the Oscars now mostly do.)

Yet another reason: Few sweeps. What was the last movie to win the best picture Oscar and not a single  award in any other category, as Durang's play did? (Answer: "Mutiny on the Bounty" in 1935.) "Pippin" and "Kinky Boots" had to make room not only for William Ivey Long but for "Matilda the Musical," which took best book, featured actor, scenic design and lighting.

Best reason of all: People at the Tonys look more like the general population. Four of the eight acting winners were black, although fewer than one-fifth of the performers on Broadway are African-American (according to the New York Times). Miller and Porter were joined by Courtney B. Vance ("Lucky Guy") and Cicely Tyson, who'll be 80 in December and became the oldest Tony-winning actor ever. She won best lead actress in a play for the revival of "The Trip to Bountiful," in the part that won white actress Geraldine Page an Oscar in the 1985 movie.

When the array of producers for "Kinky Boots" and "Pippin" tromped onto the stage, we saw folks of  various ages, races, genders and sexual preferences. (Tony host Neil Patrick Harris is openly gay, as were many presenters.) When I watch the Tony Awards, I see America.