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'Q' on easy street

The quirky show captures three Tonys, including best musical, with 'Assassins' and 'I Am My Own Wife' also scoring among the multiple winners.

June 07, 2004|Mike Boehm and Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — "Avenue Q" -- a hip, low-tech, puppet-populated show by Broadway novices about the struggles, frustrations and mature-audiences-only consolations of urban slackers -- defeated the favored glitzy, $14-million, hot-ticket Oz fantasy, "Wicked," for best musical at the Tony Awards on Sunday night.

Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's "Assassins," a dark, chilling look at the history of attempts on U.S. presidents' lives, swept five of the six categories in which it was nominated, including best revival of a musical.

The show with the puppets also won for musical book and score, acing out, among others, Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Angels in America" and "Homebody/Kabul" author and one of the leading names in American theater. Kushner was nominated as librettist and lyricist (in tandem with composer Jeanine Tesori) for "Caroline, or Change," a serious look at racial ferment during his Louisiana childhood in 1963. The Tonys instead went to the "Avenue Q" newcomers: Jeff Whitty for his book and Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx for their songs.

"Caroline," with six nominations, notched just one Tony -- for Anika Noni Rose's portrayal of the rebellious teenage daughter of Caroline Thibodeaux, a laundress who befriends, then falls out with an 8-year-old Jewish boy patterned after Kushner.

"I Am My Own Wife," by "Quills" author Doug Wright, was named best play, and its solo star, Jefferson Mays, won leading actor in a play for embodying its more than 30 roles -- including that of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a real-life cross-dressing, openly gay man whose story of survival under the Nazis and East German communists the play tells. "I Am" had already won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize; its competition for the Tony included last year's Pulitzer winner, Nilo Cruz's "Anna in the Tropics."

Wright's play was also the first one-actor show to win a best play Tony; Lily Tomlin in "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe" and Hal Holbrook in "Mark Twain Tonight!" previously had won Tonys for acting alone onstage. Mays, a veteran of regional theater and off-Broadway, won in his first Broadway turn against a field that included three two-time Tony winners -- Kevin Kline, Frank Langella and Christopher Plummer -- as well as British acting eminence Simon Russell Beale.

Other ground was broken by Phylicia Rashad, who became the first black actress to win a Tony for a leading role in a play. Rashad won for her portrayal of Lena Younger, the worn but toweringly strong mother who holds a family together in Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 drama, "A Raisin in the Sun." Audra McDonald won the fourth Tony of her career, featured actress in a play, for her role as Lena's daughter-in-law, Ruth. Several black women have won for leading actress in a musical, including Virginia Capers, who won in 1974 while playing the same role as Rashad in "Raisin," a musical version of Hansberry's play.

Hugh Jackman, who hosted the evening's CBS telecast from Radio City Music Hall, won a Tony for leading actor in a musical for playing a fellow Australian in "The Boy From Oz," a biographical show about song-and-dance man Peter Allen. Critics hated the show but loved Jackman, who was the clear favorite in his category.

The male featured actor awards went to Michael Cerveris for his portrayal of John Wilkes Booth in "Assassins" and Brian F. O'Byrne, who plays a child-killer in the drama "Frozen."

A fusion of Shakespeare's two "Henry IV" plays overcame "A Raisin in the Sun" for best play revival, and its director, Jack O'Brien, the artistic director of San Diego's Old Globe, won directing honors for the second consecutive year, after last year's musical nod for "Hairspray."

"Wicked," which led all contenders with 10 nominations, did win three Tonys, including Idina Menzel's victory in the hotly contested leading musical actress category, which included costar Kristin Chenoweth. The show, which imagines events before the well-known "Wizard of Oz," casts Menzel's green-skinned Elphaba and Chenoweth's blond, popular Glinda as friends at sorcery school before the green one soured and became the Wicked Witch of the West. Joe Mantello, who last year won the Tony for direction of a play ("Take Me Out"), flip-flopped with O'Brien by capturing the musical direction award for "Assassins."

The "Avenue Q" gang had campaigned hard for the best-musical Tony but clearly considered itself underdog to "Wicked," which has played to sold-out houses and is expected to become a cash cow on tour.

"Thank you, Broadway, for voting your heart," co-producer Jeffrey Seller said while accepting the award.

"It certainly doesn't suck to be us tonight," said another producer, Robyn Goodman, alluding to "It Sucks to Be Me," a song sung by the show's cast, all disaffected by romantic or career setbacks and some of them Muppets-like puppets controlled by actors with "Sesame Street" credentials.

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