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Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, ‘Memphis,’ Win Top Tony Awards

Denzel Washington
Denzel Washington on Broadway as a trash collector who once dreamed of playing pro baseball, in "Fences." The revival of the August Wilson drama, at the Cort Theatre, is staged by Kenny Leon. Photographer: Joan Marcus/Boneau/Bryan-Brown via Bloomberg

“Memphis,” a crowd-pleasing show costing roughly $12 million about a white disc jockey in the 1950s and a black female R&B singer he champions, won the Tony Award for top Broadway musical last night in New York.

Movie stars Denzel Washington, Scarlett Johansson and Catherine Zeta-Jones won acting Tonys. Washington gained the award for best actor in a play, as an embittered former baseball player in the Negro Leagues in August Wilson’s “Fences,” which was named best play revival. Co-star Viola Davis won the lead actress award, her second Tony. John Logan’s two-character drama about the painter Mark Rothko, “Red,” was named best new play.

The musical revival nod went to “La Cage aux Folles,” a comedy about a lovably insecure middle-aged drag queen in the South of France. Its star, Douglas Hodge, also won.

Thirty-nine shows opened on Broadway last season -- the year ended May 2010 -- pulling in a total of $1 billion, about the same as the year earlier. The average ticket sold for $85.78, up from $67 five years ago, thanks to “premium seats” that retail for as much as $350. The Tonys exclude off-Broadway, home to some of the city’s best drama.

While the night’s selections offered few surprises, Sean Hayes of television’s “Will & Grace” and a nominee for the revival “Promises, Promises,” was a game host at Radio City Music Hall. Promoting next season’s offerings, he appeared as Spider-Man, from the delayed Julie Taymor-directed musical, and little orphan Annie, of “Annie.” which is scheduled to be revived.

Star Presenters

Befitting a Broadway that depends on stars to sell tickets, presenters included Will Smith, Kelsey Grammer, Raquel Welch, Cate Blanchett, and Michael Douglas. Douglas’s wife, Zeta-Jones, performed “Send in the Clowns” from “A Little Night Music,” shortly before she won a Tony for the role. A performance by Green Day, whose music was the basis of best-musical nominee “American Idiot,” was replete with explosions. In all, there were at least 16 numbers.

Johansson won for best supporting actress in a play, for the hit $2.3 million revival of Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge.”

She thanked the late playwright Miller, and her costar Liev Schreiber, “for teaching me never to anticipate anything, and through that finding magic in the unexpected.”

Hayes’ “Promises” cast-mate Katie Finneran, playing a hilarious lush, won for supporting actress in a musical.

“Just focus on what you love,” she said to young people watching on TV. “It is the greatest passport, the greatest roadmap to an extraordinary blissful life.”

Star-Crossed Romance

“Memphis” is loosely based on the 1950s disc jockey Dewey Phillips (played by Chad Kimball). The show, about a star-crossed interracial romance and birth of rock and roll, was conceived by George W. George, a Broadway and movie producer, about a decade ago. He died of complications from Parkinson’s disease in 2007.

Without a celebrity to entice tourists, it sold $540,000 of tickets in the week ending on June 6, less than half its potential. Randy Adams, a lead producer of “Memphis,” said $12 million was raised for the show. It ultimately cost $10.5 million, he said.

The best musical runner-ups are as much concerts as drama: “Fela!,” about the Nigerian pop musician and activist Fela Kuti; the Green Day rock opera “American Idiot” and “Million Dollar Quartet,” about a real-life 1956 jam session with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Tony Blues

Levi Kreis won for featured actor in a musical for his performance of Lewis, which included virtuoso blues piano playing.

David Bryan, the keyboardist for the rock band Bon Jovi, won best new score for his “Memphis” songs, with lyrics by Joe DiPietro. In a weak season for new music, two of the score nominees were plays -- “Fences” (Branford Marsalis) and the short-lived “Enron.”

“Red” won for director Michael Grandage, lighting, scenic and sound design and for supporting actor Eddie Redmayne.

Logan, best known as a screenwriter, collaborated with Stephen Sondheim in London on the 2007 film “Sweeney Todd.” He said in an interview that Sondheim nudged him to write “Red.” Set in 1958, it features Rothko (Alfred Molina) and his evolving relationship with a fictional studio assistant when the artist was painting murals intended for Manhattan’s Seagram Building. Rothko later reneged on his agreement and the works wound up at the Tate.

Paintings ‘Transfixed’

“They just transfixed me and they wouldn’t let go,” Logan said of the paintings. “To me, it’s a play about fathers and sons, students and teachers, mentor and protégé, old and young.”

The Tonys are a product of the trade association Broadway League and nonprofit American Theatre Wing. They’re selected by 769 voters. In July 2009, the Tony Awards Management Committee dropped about 100 journalists and critics from voting, citing the “possible conflicts of interest” of critics voting for shows they champion. After an outcry from journalists, who said they were more independent than producers who have financial interests in shows, the Tonys restored about two dozen critics as voters, beginning next season.

CBS television broadcast three hours of the four-hour show last night.

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