News Column

Pittsburgh's Billy Porter wins Tony Award for best actor in musical

June 10, 2013

YellowBrix

June 10--"Kinky Boots" stood high on its stiletto heels at the Tony Awards last night, raising up the most-nominated show of the Broadway season to best musical and Pittsburgh's own Billy Porter to best actor in a musical. He dashed to the Radio City Music Hall stage screaming, "Oh my God, oh my God," and gave the most passionate acceptance speech of the night.

"Shakespeare said to thine own self be true, and when I was 11 years old, my journey to truth began when I discovered the Tony Awards while washing dishes in my kitchen and [watching] the performance of Jennifer Holliday and the cast of 'Dreamgirls' took my breath away." The experience sent him on a course from East Liberty to Carnegie Mellon University and beyond. He thanked "the best sister in the world," MaryMartha Ford, who accompanied him to the show, and his mother, Cloerinda Ford, back in Pittsburgh, for living the theme of acceptance that is at the heart of "Kinky Boots."

"Kinky Boots" crushed the hopes of British invader "Matilda," which was its chief rival for the top award of the night.

"Kinky Boots," the uplifting musical by writer Harvey Fierstein and first-time Broadway songwriter Cyndi Lauper gifted Mr. Porter with Lola, the sequin-spangled drag queen who follows her heart and inspires change in even the most hardened hearts. Most Tony predictors had been ready to hand the best musical Tony to British import "Matilda," the imaginative retelling of Roald Dahl's modern fairy tale, and lead actor in a musical to Bertie Carvel, who is brilliantly bad as child-hating headmistress Miss Trunchbull but has less to do than Mr. Porter.

The actor said he shared the award with his co-star and fellow nominee Stark Sands, "but I'm taking it home with me," he said.

Pop songwriter Ms. Lauper was an appreciative winner for best original score and when they called her name, she first thanked collaborator Fierstein, who had lost a best book of a musical Tony to "Matilda's" Dennis Kelly.

"I want to thank Broadway for welcoming me. This city, I understand how hard you work, and I'm no stranger to hard work, but your hard work inspires me," she said. "And this wonderful cast, and Billy Porter, who is electric on that stage."

Mr. Porter's fellow CMU alumnus, the dynamic Patina Miller, was his counterpart winner for her role as Leading Player in "Pippin," the circus-themed winner of best musical revival. In a heartfelt acceptance, she talked of a little girl from South Carolina achieving her dream in her second Broadway show; she also was a nominee for "Sister Act."

It was a competitive season with no crystal-clear winner in each of the more than two dozen Tony Award categories. "Kinky Boots" won the first two musical awards handed out, for sound and orchestrations, but then "Matilda" won for book and featured actor Gabriel Ebert, a first-timer who was "humbled and grateful and a little freaked out" and nothing at all like his role as Matilda's slimy dad, Mr. Wormwood.

The race was on.

Among the favorites that won the night were the raucous comedy "Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike," a best play winner for writer Christopher Durang, while among acting categories, 66-year-old Andrea Martin, who has been earning mid-show standing O's for her high-flying number in "Pippin," earned her second Tony as best featured actress in a musical.

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" won as best revival of a play, which included an acclaimed performance by actor-playwright Tracy Letts and a best director win for Pam McKinnon. The "overwhelmed" Mr. Letts won for best actor in a play in what was a race to the finish. Mr. Show Biz, Nathan Lane, a much honored and admired Broadway veteran, received a glowing reception for his role in "The Nance," a show about the theater, and two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks made his Broadway debut in "Lucky Guy," a new play by the late Nora Ephron, but Mr. Letts' George won the day.

The Tony Awards ceremony returned to cavernous Radio City Music Hall after a couple of years in New York's Beacon Theatre, and it gave host Neil Patrick Harris room to roam in an opening number by "Bring It On" collaborators Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tom Kitt. The theme was "it's bigger!," and included Mr. Harris literally jumping through a hoop in a salute to the circus-inspired revival of "Pippin." He also asked for a Tom Hooper extreme-close-up a la the film of "Les Miz" -- then said "We don't need a close-up to prove we are singing live ... eight shows a week."

Later, Andrew Rannells, Laura Benanti and Megan Hilty joined Mr. Harris for a comedic song about being victims of TV cancellations after Broadway success.

Green Tree native Zachary Quinto, who is making his Broadway debut in "The Glass Menagerie" in September, then arrived onstage with Audra McDonald to present best featured actor in a play to Courtney B. Vance of "Lucky Guy." Three years ago, Carnegie Mellon alums Porter, Quinto and Christian Borle shared a stage in Signature Theater's off-Broadway production of "Angels in America." More CMU connections: Judith Light won her second Tony and in consecutive years, this time for "The Assembled Parties." She won last year for the family drama "Other Desert Cities," which is playing now at Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Two women directors were winners for revivals, Ms. MacKinnon and Diane Paulus for "Pippin." In her breathless, passionate acceptance speech, Ms. Paulus called "Pippin" creator Stephen Schwartz (CMU Class of '68) a treasure of the American theater, while Ms. McKinnon noted that the Vegas odds-makers got it wrong in her case.

Jerry Mitchell, the director of "Kinky Boots," was awarded the Tony for best choreography away from the TV cameras. He put guys like Mr. Porter in high heels and created the moves for "Everybody Say Yeah" that put his cast on a conveyor belt -- the number that earned an ovation during the Tonys telecast.

Mr. Porter was accompanied on the red carpet by his sister, MaryMartha Ford, while back in Pittsburgh, a Tonys viewing party was held in the apartment building of Mr. Porter's mother at West Commons on the North Side. The actor's cousin, Stephanie Harper, said, "My aunt invited her whole building. I know invitations went out for 30, but with family and friends, I wouldn't be surprised if it was much higher." When Mr. Porter won, she called to say, "We are overjoyed for Billy and the whole 'Kinky Boots' cast, Cyndi Lauper, everyone."

Mr. Porter has been seen on stages from Pittsburgh CLO to City Theatre -- he thanked City leader Tracy Brigden in his acceptance last night -- before hitting Broadway in the 1990s in "Miss Saigon." Other Broadway shows were "Smokey Joe's Cafe," "Grease"and "Five Guys Named Moe." Leading up to the Tonys, Mr. Porter was the winner of major awards such as Drama Desk -- in which Mr. Carvel was named best featured player -- and Outer Critics Circle honors.

Costume designer Ann Roth, a Carnegie Mellon graduate whose career began as a scenery painter for the Pittsburgh Opera, won a Tony last night for the burlesque-themed play "The Nance." Her Broadway career began in 1957 and it was her fifth nomination. She also won an Oscar for "The English Patient."

"I don't know if a man can be a muse, but Nathan Lane is my main guy," Ms. Roth said in accepting her Tony.

Hal Prince, a 21-time Tony winner, earned a standing ovation during a tribute to "The Phantom of the Opera, when he gave a history of the show by the numbers, including thousands of actors employed and millions who had seen it.

"The number that probably pleases me the most," he said, "is the 28 instruments in the pit, the largest orchestra on Broadway."

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960.

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