By Patricia Reaney
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Actress Audra McDonald made Broadway history on Sunday, winning her sixth Tony as Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” and Bryan Cranston and Neil Patrick Harris nabbed the top acting prizes at the 68th annual Tony Awards.
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” took home the top musical prize and Jessie Mueller was named best actress for her starring role in “Beautiful – The Carole King Musical”.
McDonald, with her best actress prize in a play, became the only woman to win a Tony in all four acting categories. She also tied with the late actress Julie Harris, who had six wins, including a special lifetime achievement award.
With tears streaming down her face, a trembling McDonald acknowledged her parents, family and the women who came before her.
“I want to thank all the shoulders of the strong and brave and courageous women that I am standing on,” she said. “And most of all Billie Holiday. You deserve so much more than you were given when you were on this earth.”
With four awards including Darko Tresnjak’s statuette for best director, the musical satire “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” tied with “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” with the most Tonys.
Cranston had been a favorite to win in his Broadway debut as U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson in “All the Way,” Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Schenkkan’s acclaimed play.
“When you can effect emotional change in the audience it’s like a powerful drug. It’s as strong as blue crystal meth,” he said, referring to his Emmy-winning role as a teacher turned ruthless drug kingpin in TV’s “Breaking Bad”.
Harris was also a main contender for lead actor in a musical as the transgender rock star in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”. Lena Hall nabbed her first Tony for her supporting role in the production, which was also named best musical revival.
“Playing Hedwig is an absolute joy.It was a role I was terrified of, in taking it on. It has changed me and challenged me,” he said.
Award-winning actor Hugh Jackman hosted the ceremony at Radio City Music Hall for the fourth time. The show included performances by Tony nominee Idina Menzel, music legend Gladys Knight and rock star Sting, who performed a song from his upcoming Broadway debut musical “The Last Ship”.
British actor Mark Rylance took home his third Tony, winning for featured actor in a play as the Countess Olivia in the all-male Shakespeare Globe production of “Twelfth Night”.
“We would very much like to come back (to Broadway) with some more Shakespeare and we are talking about it but we haven’t settled what it will be,” said Rylance, who praised the late blacklisted American actor Sam Wanamaker, the force behind the recreation of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.
A flustered and surprised Sophie Okonedo accepted the featured actress prize in her Broadway debut, as Denzel Washington’s wife, in the revival of “A Raisin in the Sun”.
Lorraine Hansberry’s acclaimed 1959 work also won the Tony for best revival of a play, and the best directing prize for Kenny Leon.
“That was shocking and stunning, surprising. But I thought the production was well deserving of a Tony Award,” Leon said backstage.
James Monroe Iglehart, who plays the larger-than-life genie in “Aladdin,” jumped up and shouted to loud audience applause after winning the featured actor prize in a musical.
The Tony Awards are presented by the theater industry association, The Broadway League, and the American Theatre Wing, a not-for-profit organization.
(Additional reporting by Jill Serjeant; Editing by Eric Walsh and Clarence Fernandez)