Broadway's Tonys seemed a family affair this year, with an outpouring of generosity from winners to losers despite the domination of the evening by "Billy Eliot," which won 10 awards, and one actor bringing his wife to the stage to stand by him while he accepted his prize.
"I'd like to congratulate the writers of 'Next to Normal,'" said a gracious Elton John, standing in the middle of cast members and producers after his show, "Billy Eliot," won the best musical prize. "Thank you for accepting us on Broadway. … We came here at a hard time economically. You opened your hearts and you opened your wallets."
In one of the evening's rare upsets, John lost the award for score to "Next to Normal."
He wasn't the only winner to acknowledge those who left empty-handed. Winners such as Angela Lansbury, Marcia Gay Harden and Geoffrey Rush each honored their competitors in their acceptance speeches.
"I send my love and congratulations to the other nominees in this category. It wasn't fair," said Lansbury, who took home her fifth Tony, this time for her performance as the dotty medium Madame Arcati in a revival of Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit." Her win in the featured-actress category tied the record for acting prizes held by Julie Harris, who has five plus a special lifetime achievement award given in 2002.
Rush, who took the top actor prize for his extravagant portrait of a dying monarch in "Exit the King," wittily mentioned the other best actor nominees by pronouncing their names and plays with a French accent. He also thanked audiences "for proving that French existential absurdist tragicomedy rocks."
The "Billy" triumph included a rare sharing of the best actor prize by the young leading men — David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik and Kiril Kulish — who play the title role. In the past, other actors have shared Tonys, although not for playing the same role. John Kani and Winston Ntshona took home the actor-play prize for the double bill of "Sizwe Banzi Is Dead" and "The Island" in 1975.
The three Billys shyly thanked people associated with the show only by their first name. They also acknowledged siblings and parents before Kulish told the cheering crowd Sunday night at Radio City Music Hall: "We want to say to all the kids out there who might want to dance, 'Never give up.'"
"Billy Elliot" collected eight other awards: featured actor (Gregory Jbara, who brought wife Julie on stage), director (Stephen Daldry), book, choreography, sets, lighting, sound and orchestrations, a prize it shared with "Next to Normal."
Jbara said his wife was living in Los Angeles by herself, raising their kids, while he was out doing the show.
"I've never had a role this emotional before. … The emotional journey is actually quite healing and rejuvenating," he said about his role as Billy's father.
The 10 awards won by "Billy Elliot" — it had been nominated for 15 — were not enough to topple the Tony record of 12 wins, a feat "The Producers" accomplished in 2001.
"Next to Normal" managed one other major prize: the actress-musical award for Alice Ripley, who plays a woman battling mental illness.
"God of Carnage," Yasmina Reza's savage comedy of social discord, picked up two other major awards, one for its director, Matthew Warchus, and the other for Harden. Warchus paid tribute to the ensemble cast of "The Norman Conquests," which he also directed, and which won the prize for best play revival.
Family of another sort was lauded by Oskar Eustis, head of the Public Theater, whose production of "Hair" won the musical revival prize. He thanked everyone associated with iconic "Hair," its origins in the 1960s and the revival cast: "These 32 most beautiful beasts of the forests, who not only know what hair stands for but live it every day. … Peace now, freedom now, equality now."
The show's main competition for revival, "West Side Story," managed to snare one prize — for Karen Olivo's fiery performance of Anita.
One of the more heartfelt ovations of the evening was given to Lansbury.
"Who knew that (at) this time in my life that I should be presented with this lovely, lovely award," the 83-year-old actress said. "I feel deeply grateful."
She later returned to the stage of Radio City Music Hall to present a lifetime achievement award to composer Jerry Herman, who wrote "Mame," the musical that won Lansbury her first Tony.
"Did you know that I was born on this street and my mother thought there was something special that her hospital room had a great view of the Winter Garden marquee," said Herman, who also composed the scores for "Hello, Dolly!" and "La Cage aux Folles."
"Well, here I am 77 years later, still on 50th Street but enjoying the ultimate moment of my life."
Family was also evoked by Roger Robinson, a feature-actor winner for his performance in the revival of August Wilson's "Joe Turner's Come and Gone."
"It has taken me 46 years to come from that seat, up these steps, to this microphone," said Robinson, who thanked his mother in Bellevue, Wash., "who's 98 years old … who encouraged me and raised seven children single-handedly."
And Liza Minnelli championed her parents — Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli — when her "Liza's at The Palace" took the special theatrical event prize.
"This is exquisite," Minnelli said, asking for a list of people to thank because she didn't think she was going to win. "Lastly, I want to thank my parents and the greatest gift they ever gave me, Kay Thompson," her godmother. Minnelli recreated part of Thompson's club act as part of her Palace entertainment.
The awards show, televised by CBS, opened with a dizzying, exuberant montage of the season's musicals, starting with "Billy Elliot" (and Elton John at the piano). It then worked its way through other shows including "West Side Story," ''Guys and Dolls," ''Rock of Ages," Dolly Parton with performers from "9 to 5," Liza Minnelli, the cast of "Hair" and finally a stage-filling rendition of "Let the Sun Shine In" with all the casts.
Bret Michaels bumped into a set after cavorting in the "Rock of Ages" number with his band Poison, and was slightly injured.
The huge opening was a number that the show's host, Neil Patrick Harris called "the biggest and most expensive in the history of the Tonys. "And that is why I an your host tonight — I am on TV," said the charming, self-deprecating Harris.