Tony awards: Dear Evan Hansen takes centre stage at Broadway's big night

The ‘social media musical’ with a pop score dominated with six wins, Hello, Dolly! also shone, while host Kevin Spacey’s performance divided opinion

Dear Evan Hansen, the offbeat musical about teen angst, suicide and the tyranny of social media was the shining star of the Tony awards on an evening that celebrated a record-breaking Broadway theater season while lamenting the Trump administration’s move to axe funding for the arts.

Dear Evan Hansen took six awards, including best new musical, but Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 fizzled out on the night, only winning two awards despite being the most nominated show with 12 nods.

Nothing this season could match Hamilton’s sweep last year, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work is still a monster hit on Broadway. But Dear Evan Hansen was the clear darling of the season for Tony voters, who gave it more awards than expected, while also delivering some other surprises on Sunday.

One of those was the award for best director of a musical, which had been expected to be another win for Hansen but was instead given to first-time director Christopher Ashley for his work on Come From Away.

‘Shut that crap off!’: Bette Midler refuses to curtail Tonys speech

That musical, about the welcome a tiny town in Newfoundland gives to hundreds of air passengers stranded there on September 11, 2001, had been seen as a strong rival, but largely lost out on the night.

Alongside Ashley’s unexpected win came another surprise with the award for best director of a play going to Rebecca Taichman for Indecent, Pulitzer-winning playwright Paula Vogel’s Broadway debut.

The best director prize had been expected to go to Oslo, which won for best new play, or A Doll’s House, Part 2. So when Taichman was named, she was visibly stunned. “Am I dreaming? I’m in a state of total shock,” she said, upon reaching the stage.

In the press area, she ripped into the Trump administration for its goal of “shutting down” the National Endowment for the Arts, as proposed in the budget Donald Trump recently sent to Congress.

“Cutting the NEA – I don’t understand it. If you actually want to decimate culture, community, dialogue, and empathy, that’s how you do it. [The NEA is] beleaguered already; to cut it more is such an audacious and ridiculous move, and it says very clearly and very loudly, ‘We do not value the creation of art,” she said.

Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon, who won the Tony for best featured actress in a revival, for her role in Little Foxes, also got political, both on stage and off.

Nixon did not name Trump, but said the story of a Lillian Hellman’s Little Foxes, about an aggressive family seeking great riches, is “eerily prescient”.

She added: “80 years ago [Hellman] wrote, ‘there are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it and other people who just stand around and watch them do it.’ My love, my gratitude and my undying respect go out to all the people in 2017 who are refusing to just stand and watch them do it.”

Afterwards, she expanded on her point to the press off stage. “The arts are not funded very well in this country compared to other places in this world. It’s important to fund the arts on every level as a means by which a civilization is gauged,” she said.

Back inside at the awards ceremony, held at Radio City Music Hall in New York, upon receiving her award, Nixon had thanked her wife, Christine Marinoni, who was in the audience.

Most winners on the night, gay and straight, thanked their significant others with an ease and confidence that was in sharp contrast to strained jokes host Kevin Spacey made about rumours surrounding his own sexuality.

Kevin Spacey goes presidential at the Tony awards – video

Early on in his hosting, he joked with Whoopi Goldberg as she pops out of a closet on stage: “How long have you been in that closet?” She responded: “Well, Kevin, it depends on who you ask.” Both actors have been subject to years of speculation about their sexuality but have never come out.

With June being pride month and the 2016 Tonys overshadowed by the massacre at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Spacey was roundly scolded by many on social media.

Meanwhile, two of the most famous stars who were deemed shoo-ins to win, Kevin Kline and Bette Midler, duly did. Kline, in winning best lead actor in a play, also joined Nixon and Taichman in praising the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for Humanities, “two organizations without which none of us would be here,” he said.

Midler, who had declined to sing at the awards but presented one and won one, stole the show. After a subtle political dig about the stage lifting spirits “in these terrible, terrible times” she managed to silence the orchestra as it tried to play her off when she went over time with her acceptance speech for best actress in a revival of a musical, in Hello, Dolly! “Shut that crap off,” she yelled, to loud cheers.

Earlier in the evening, before the awards ceremony, it emerged that major sponsors were pulling out of New York’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar from the Public Theater because of the resemblance of the character of the emperor to Donald Trump.

But in an uproarious night at Radio City Music Hall, the Dear Evan Hansen winners refrained from alluding to politics in their speeches and were simply full of passion for their craft, as their young stars swept the night.

Lead Ben Platt, as expected, won best actor in a new musical. The show won best book, and hit songwriting duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who won the Oscar for best original song for writing the lyrics to City of Stars in La La Land, won their first Tony for best score for Dear Evan Hansen.

Then, in a testament to tenacity, Jane Greenwood won the Tony for best costume design of a play, for Little Foxes, her first win after 21 nominations, dating back to 1965. Veteran actor James Earl Jones also won the lifetime achievement Tony.

  • This article was amended on 12 June 2017 to correct the lead photo caption and identify Dear Evan Hansen producer Stacey Mindich.


Joanna Walters in New York

The GuardianTramp

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