Key moments at the Tonys: Jay-Z and Hillary Clinton in the house, strides for women and a late upset

Key moments at the Tonys: Jay-Z and Hillary Clinton in the house, strides for women and a late upset

Key moments at the Tonys: Jay-Z and Hillary Clinton in the house, strides for women and a late upset

The Tonys are often the most entertaining of awards shows, with Broadway performers showing their best work

ByJOCELYN NOVECK AP national writer

June 17, 2024, 9:00 AM

    NEW YORK -- NEW YORK (AP) — “People, stop texting me!” pleaded Kecia Lewis, with comic exasperation. The veteran Broadway performer had just won her first Tony award in a 40-year career, for the Alicia Keys musical “Hell’s Kitchen,” and was trying to read her acceptance speech off her phone. But she was being distracted by those pesky congratulatory texts.

    Lewis soon had the laughing audience in tears, though, describing how in those four decades she had wanted to give up many times — but got enough encouragement from the right people to keep going. Many award winners encourage others to pursue their dreams, but Lewis, in a speech that was one of the night’s best, issued a blunt order: “Don’t. Give. Up!”

    The Tonys are often the most entertaining of awards shows, with Broadway performers showing their best work. Sunday’s show was no exception, with the performances augmented by special appearances from the likes of Jay-Z and Hillary Clinton.

    As always, the Tonys crowned both veterans (Jonathan Groff, best actor in a musical) and newcomers (Maleah Joi Moon, best actress in a musical), and had the added factor of making history for women: Female directors accounted for seven of 10 directing nods, including four of five best musical nominees. Danya Taymor won for directing “The Outsiders,” the second woman in her family to do so after her aunt, “Lion King” director Julie Taymor.

    The lauded “Stereophonic” by David Adjmi, about a rock band trying to make a hit album and stay together, was crowned best play as expected. But the final award of the night brought an upset that had people whooping with surprise. “The Outsiders,” based on the classic youth novel, beat out “Hell’s Kitchen” for best musical. Nothing like a last-minute nailbiter to send the crowd out buzzing into the night.

    Some key moments of the evening:

    The audience at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater, a new venue for the Tonys, came to its feet with the first musical excerpt of the night, from “Hell’s Kitchen” — a jolt of joyous high energy. A medley of songs introduced the show’s stars — including Lewis, singing with young sensation Moon — before a piano rolled onstage with Keys herself, singing her and Jay-Z’s 2009 smash “Empire State of Mind,” and trading lines with Moon. The crowd REALLY went nuts when Keys descended the stage, left the auditorium and joined Jay-Z himself, rapping his lines on the steps in the theater’s grand lobby. “Had to do something crazy,” Keys explained, mid-song. “It’s my hometown!”

    The HBO hit “Succession'' just keeps on giving. No fewer than three of its stars have recently gone on to give starry performances. On Sunday, it was Jeremy Strong's turn for Tony glory. The actor, who played troubled media scion Kendall Roy on TV, took home his first Tony as best actor in a play for the revival of Henrik Ibsen's 1882 political play ”An Enemy of the People." And while Kendall would surely not have done this, Strong thanked the unsung, invisible heroes of Broadway — “the ushers and the front of house staff, who see me walking in every day looking like I've just been run over by a truck,” he said, “and see me walk out somehow looking even worse.”

    Daniel Radcliffe may have made his name — and fame — as Harry Potter onscreen, but he’s now an established stage actor. On Sunday, he won his first Tony in five Broadway shows, for best featured actor in the revival of “Merrily We Roll Along,” the Stephen Sondheim- George Furth musical that progresses backward in time. “This is one of the best experiences of my life,” Radcliffe said. Speaking of his obvious kinship with fellow castmates Jonathan Groff and Lindsay Mendez, with whom he performed “Old Friends” on the telecast, he noted: “I don’t really have to act in this show, I just have to look at you and feel everything I want to feel. I will never have it this good again.” Groff cried in the audience.

    Then it was Radcliffe’s turn to cry when Groff was named best actor in a musical (“Merrily” also won best musical revival). Groff — beloved on Broadway and previously nominated for “Spring Awakening” and “Hamilton” — told the crowd that he used to watch the Tonys in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, as a kid. He paid tribute to his parents in the audience: “Thank you for letting me dress up like Mary Poppins when I was 3,” he said. “Thank you for letting me act out scenes from ‘I Love Lucy’ on my 10th birthday. Thank you for always allowing my freak flag to fly without ever making me feel weird about it.”

    Like Groff, Moon was thinking of family when she won best actress in a musical for “Hell’s Kitchen,” in a tight race with veteran Kelli O’Hara. The 21-year-old, who plays a role loosely based on Keys, dedicated her award “to my parents … Dad, you’ve been working all your life. Mom, you came to America at 17 and you’ve been surviving ever since. ’Hell’s Kitchen’ is about a 17-year-old on the cusp of a dream. I can’t imagine how many dreams deferred, how many sacrifices you made to give me the life I have today. So tonight, all I hope is that you just get to celebrate.”

    Hillary Clinton may have been a U.S. senator, secretary of state and first lady, but she's also a confirmed theater geek — one of the reasons she was greeted with one of the warmest standing ovations of the night. But she was appearing now as a producer, introducing “Suffs,” Shaina Taub’s historical musical about the early-20th century suffragists. “I know a little bit about how hard it is to make change,” Clinton told the crowd with a bit of a wink. She added: “Now it is an election year, and we need to be reminded how important it is to vote.” Earlier in the evening, Taub, only the second woman in Broadway history to write, compose and star in a musical, won for both best score and best book, and issued a similar call. “If you are inspired by the story of ‘Suffs,’ please make sure you and everyone you know have registered to vote,” she urged.

    Danya Taymor — niece of Julie Taymor, the first woman to win a Tony for directing a musical — became the sixth woman to win the honor, for “The Outsiders,” an adaptation of the classic young adult novel. Taymor, who pulls off an extraordinary fight scene in the show that is part drama, part dance, and all explosive power, was one of a history-making group: Seven of 10 directing nominees were women, including four out of five best musical nominees. She issued a message “to all the young artists out there who want to create," telling them that "what some may perceive as a weakness or a liability in you might just be your superpower. Don’t be afraid to trust your gut.”

    More life lessons were on offer over drinks and small plates at the afterparty. The audience streamed out of the Koch theater and across Lincoln Center Plaza, where a glittering disco ball had been installed above the famous fountain. At David Geffen Hall, home to the New York Philharmonic, guests dined on risotto with lobster, corn and asparagus; foraged mushrooms with pancetta, grilled shrimp, and steak. Most of all they mingled, and Lewis, carrying her Tony, was a key draw. In an interview, she reflected on the time she had considered quitting acting, around eight years ago, “One of my girlfriends said, ‘What are you gonna do, are you gonna drive a bus? You won’t be happy.’" She said she had driven for Uber and Lyft for a while. Ultimately, she got her break. Lewis, who plays a stern but influential piano teacher and mentor, says that after shows, she speaks with fans who often raise their own stories of mentors. “They all talk about their auntie, grandma, cousin, piano teacher, vocal coach, gym teacher. And I always tell them: ‘Go thank them. If they’re still with us, thank them.’”

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