Tony Insider Report: Star-Packed Tony Awards Mix Inside Jokes, High-Fashion and Surprise Winners at Radio City

From moments you missed at Radio City during commercial breaks to the star-studded official after-party at the Plaza Hotel, Playbill.com takes our readers inside the biggest night of the theatrical season, with our first-hand account of the 68th Annual Tony Awards. 

Billy Porter
Billy Porter (Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN)

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For those inside Radio City Music Hall, the starry and fast-paced 68th Annual Tony Awards were a blur of inside jokes, high-fashion dresses and gigantic stars elbowing past you in the packed lobby.

As with most years, there were some things that came across better at Radio City, and some things that came across better watching at home.

The hour-long off-camera pre-show, hosted by Billy Porter and Karen Ziemba, handed special Tony Awards for Lifetime Achievement and other unique achievements to recipients as varied as designer Jane Greenwood (veteran of 125 Broadway shows), and former Tony host Rosie O’Donnell, who referred chummily to Idina Menzel and Patti LuPone as “those other bitches,” and countered the audience reaction by saying, “This award [acceptance speech] will never be on TV so I can say whatever I want.” She said her main question about getting the Isabelle Stevenson Award for her humanitarian activities relating to Rosie’s Broadway Kids was “did it look like a real Tony?” It did.

Some awards in technical categories were given during the pre-show; some during commercials throughout the evening. Steve Canyon Kennedy, in a reference to the fact that Lady Day, despite having 16 songs, was deemed a “play with music” not a musical, won the Tony for Best Sound Design of a Play. He dryly commented, “I didn’t even know it was a play when I was asked to do it.”

As widely predicted, Jason Robert Brown won two Tony Awards, for Best Score and Best Orchestrations, for The Bridges of Madison County, which was not nominated as Best Musical and is now closed. The orchestrations acceptance speech came first, and fans tensed up for a JRB-brand biting of his host’s hand. But instead, we were treated to a gracious speech about how Bridges was, for him, “the most special experience in the world.” Ah, but when he won for Best Score he slipped this knife in, saying that his play-on music was “the only music from Bridges you’ll get to hear tonight.” His show did not do a segment on the Tonys.

Hugh Jackman
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

The 2014 Tony Awards spread the joy around. A total of 13 shows took home at least one award, and no show won more than four awards ( A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and Hedwig and the Angry Inch got four each). Next up was A Raisin in the Sun, which took three Tonys. Few prognosticators had predicted more than one.

Radio City was also treated to a special Tony overture, which made a medley of sources as diverse as this year’s nominees: a song from Gentleman’s Guide segued into “It Don’t Mean a Thing” from After Midnight, which merged into “I Feel the Earth Move” from Beautiful and “Never Had a Friend Like Me” from Aladdin.

During the televised opening, audience reaction modulated from delight to awe to confusion as host Hugh Jackman spent several minutes hopping non-stop from West 51st Street through the house, then backstage past the casts of various shows prepping, then up onto the stage. The sequence was a tribute to the “Take Me To Broadway” sequence in the 1953 Bobby Van film "Small Town Girl," but people in Radio City mainly missed the brief explanatory clip from the film. Concluding the bounceathon, Jackman quipped, “What a night to forget my dance belt.”

During commercials Jackman made a running gag of the small section of the audience that sat between the main stage and a pasarelle that arched out into the house. He referred to the semi-circular cluster of seats as the Tony Mosh Pit and regularly reported on their alleged shenanigans, including having a keg of beer.

Jackman also regularly reported the latest scores on the competing Giant-Mets and Heat-Spurs games. Interns at the American Theatre Wing served as seat-fillers this year, rushing to sit when audience members got up to accept an award, perform in a song or empty a bladder. The idea is to prevent the impression that there were any empty seats ever at such a prestigious event. However, the youngsters got their moment in the sun when they filled bleacher seats onstage during the Rocky segment. Sitting among them was at least one ringer—rapper LL Cool J.

Mark Rylance
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Speaking of Mr. J, he joined Jackman and fellow rapper T.I. in one of the evening’s highlights, a performance of a section of “Rock Island,” the opening number from the 1957 musical  The Music Man. In that number, a group of traveling salesmen on a train complain about how their business is changing. The rhythm of their conversation starts to match the clickety-clack rhythm of the train. Historians have pointed to Willson’s innovative use of rhythmic talking in his shows (“Rock Island” and “Trouble in River City” in Music Man, “I Ain’t Down Yet” in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, “She Hadda Go Back” in Here’s Love) as the earliest uses of rap in American culture. The performance was a shout-out across the generations from today’s rappers to the man who might be their stylistic father.

Among other speeches that needed a bit of perspective:

Playwright Robert Schenkkan, who won the Best Play Tony for his All The Way, remarked in his acceptance speech, “You go a long time between drinks of water in this town.” It’s been two decades since Mr. Schenkkan’s The Kentucky Cycle was nominated for a Tony (and lost, though it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama).

On both of the previous times Mark Rylance won Tonys in 2008 and 2011, he used his acceptance speech time to recite poems by Louis Jenkins. This time, accepted as Best Actor in a Featured Role in a Play, he used his speech to praise Sam Wanamaker, the American expatriate who was instrumental in raising money to rebuild Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, for which Rylance served as inaugural artistic director. The Tony-nominated revival of Twelfth Night originated there.

Afterward at the Tony Gala, a feast of seafood, sushi and decadent desserts, most of the big winners did not attend, but were whisked off to private after-parties hosted by the producers of their individual shows. Among those who did show up and pose for cell-phone photos with fans were Jefferson Mays of Gentlemen’s Guide and James Monroe Iglehart of Aladdin.