clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Elaine May, a comedy great with Chicago roots, wins first Tony Award at 87

‘Hadestown’ takes multiple prizes, and ‘Oklahoma!’ performer Ali Stroker makes history as the first actor in a wheelchair to win a Tony.

Elaine May accepts a Tony Award on Sunday at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
Theo Wargo/Getty Images

The legendary Elaine May won her first Tony Award on Sunday for playing the Alzheimer’s-afflicted grandmother in Kenneth Lonergan’s comic drama “The Waverly Gallery.”

The 87-year-old May got her start at the University of Chicago and the city’s influential Compass Players, and later made audiences roar with laughter in her 1960 Broadway debut, “An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May.”

Her award was for best leading actress in a play. Ever the wit, May told the Tonys audience that a factor in her win was her character’s death in the play and the response of Lucas Hedges, playing her grandson.

“My death was described onstage by Lucas Hedges so brilliantly,” she said. “He does it so heartbreakingly that, watching from the wings, I thought, ‘I’m gonna win this guy’s Tony!’ ”

As the screenwriter who adapted “Heaven Can Wait,” ‘’The Birdcage” and “Primary Colors,” and the script doctor who saved “Reds” and “Tootsie,” May won a 2016 career achievement award from the Writers Guild of America.

She was also an actress in such films as “A New Leaf,” ‘’Enter Laughing,” ‘’California Suite” and “Small Time Crooks.” In 2013, President Barack Obama presented her with a National Medal of Arts.

She beat out Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member Laurie Metcalf — who was in the running to win her third consecutive Tony — as well as Annette Bening, Laura Donnelly, Janet McTeer and Heidi Schreck.

A Philadelphia native, May was attending the University of Chicago in the 1950s when she met Nichols, who would become her comedy partner. Both helped create the Compass Players, a Chicago improvisational company that led to the launch of Second City.

May has said Chicago was an ideal setting for improv because if a set went sour, the actors could cleanse themselves afterward by jumping into Lake Michigan.

“You could [experiment] in Chicago and fail, and run out in the back to the lake,” May recalled in 2000 at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado. “In New York, you’d have to be careful. But Chicago is a very sophisticated town.”

“Hadestown,” the brooding musical about the underworld, nabbed eight trophies Sunday, including best new musical and a rare win for a woman director of a musical.

Both of the awards for leading roles in a musical went to performers seen in Chicago tryouts of shows that later went to Broadway: Santino Fontana for “Tootsie” and Stephanie J. Block for “The Cher Show.”

Fontana, perhaps best known for his singing role as Hans in “Frozen,” won in an adaptation of the 1982 Dustin Hoffman film about a struggling actor who impersonated a woman in order to improve his chances of getting a job.

Like him, Block was a first-time winner. One of three actresses to play the title character in the musical “The Cher Show,” she thanked “the goddess Cher for her life and legacy.”

The crowd at Radio City Music Hall erupted when Ali Stroker made history as the first actor in a wheelchair to win a Tony Award. Stroker, paralyzed from the chest down due to a car crash when she was 2, won for featured actress in a musical for her work in a dark revival of “Oklahoma!”

”This award is for every kid who is watching tonight who has a disability, who has a limitation or a challenge, who has been waiting to see themselves represented in this arena,” she said. “You are.”

Ali Stroker accepts the Tony Award for best performance by an actress in a featured role in a musical for “Oklahoma!”
Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

Rachel Chavkin, the only woman to helm a new Broadway musical this season, won the Tony for best director of a musical for “Hadestown.” She told the crowd she was sorry to be such a rarity.

”There are so many women who are ready to go. There are so many people of color who are ready to go.” A lack of strides in embracing diversity on Broadway, she said, “is not a pipeline issue” but a lack of imagination.

Bryan Cranston seemed to tap into the vibe when he won the Tony for best leading man in a play award for his work as newscaster Howard Beale in a stage adaptation of “Network.”

”Finally, a straight old white man gets a break!” he joked. The star, who wore a blue pin on his suit to support reproductive rights, also dedicated his award to journalists who are in the line of fire. “The media is not the enemy of the people,” he said. “Demagoguery is the enemy of the people.”

The cheers for women also got a boost when “The Ferryman” playwright Jez Butterworth handed the best play trophy to his partner, actress Laura Donnelly. A Donnelly family story inspired him to write the play.

Andre DeShields captured featured actor in a musical for “Hadestown,” his first Tony at the age of 73. In his speech, he gave “three cardinal rules of my sustainability and longevity.

”One, surround yourself with people whose eyes light up when they see you coming. Two, slowly is the fastest way to get to where you want to be, and three, the top of one mountain is the bottom of the next, so keep climbing.”

Corden, in his second stint as Tony host, was at his fanboy best, whether anxiously hiding in a bathroom with previous hosts Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles or trying to provoke a Nicki Minaj-Cardi B-style beef between usually overly polite and supportive Broadway figures. (Laura Linney and Audra McDonald finally obliged.) He also asked celebrities to sing karaoke during the commercials.

He kicked off the show with a massive, nine-minute opening number that served as a full-throated endorsement of the live experience, with Corden beginning it seated alone on a couch in front of a TV, overwhelmed by his binge options, before taking flight with dozens of glitzy dancers from this season’s shows, all filling the Radio City stage with an unprecedented volume.

”Live!/We do it live/And every single moment’s unrepeatable,” he sang. “Live!/We do it live/It can’t be hashtagged and it isn’t tweetable.” But the song ended with an acknowledgement that appointment TV — Corden mentioned a long list that included “Game of Thrones,” ‘’Fleabag,” ‘’Black Mirror” and “The Walking Dead,” among the options — is irresistible. He apologized to TV and blamed McDonald for making him criticize the small screen.

The first acting award went to Celia Keenan-Bolger, who won for best featured actress in a play for her role as Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” She noted that her parents read her the book when she was a child in Detroit and had burning crosses put on their lawn because they helped African Americans.

(Chicago audiences saw Keenan-Bolger in 2004, when she played Clara in the Midwest premiere of “The Light in the Piazza” at the Goodman Theatre.)

Bertie Carvel won best featured actor in a play for “Ink.” He said he wished he could be with his mother, hospitalized in London: “I love you, mum.”

Oscar-winning director and producer Sam Mendes won his first directing Tony Award for guiding “The Ferryman.”

”The Ferryman’s” Rob Howell took home two Tonys — for best play set designs and costumes. Robert Horn won for best book of a musical for “Tootsie.”

Early “Hadestown” wins were for scenic design, sound design, lighting design and orchestrations. The musical would also go on to earn singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell a Tony for best score.

Legendary designer Bob Mackie won the Tony for best costume designs for a musical for “The Cher Show,” getting laughs for saying “This is very encouraging for an 80-year-old.”

The dark retelling of “Oklahoma!” beat the lush and playful revival of the rival Golden Age musical “Kiss Me, Kate” to the Tony Award for best musical revival. “The Boys in the Band” was crowned best play revival.

Sergio Trujillo won the best choreography prize for “Ain’t Too Proud — The Life and Times of the Temptations,” saying in his speech that he arrived in New York decades ago without legal permission. “I’m here to tell you the American dream is alive,” he said.

Contributing: Darel Jevens