Michael Coveney: New York honours Matilda with five big awards
First blood in the New York awards contest went to Matilda last night, as the show walked off with five top prizes, including best musical, at the Drama Desk awards presented by Whatsonstage.com's parent company, TheaterMania, in the city's Town Hall.
Director Matthew Warchus stepped up graciously to accept the book and lyrics prizes on behalf of Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin, while Bertie Carvel and Rob Howell were on hand to receive their featured actor and design awards. High fives and multiple congrats all round, guys.
So Kinky Boots was left tottering on its high heels in a corner, though Billy Porter came out fighting to win the outstanding actor in a musical award for his knock-out performance as drag queen Lola from the unlikely home town of Clacton-on-Sea in Essex.
The brilliant revival of Pippin won several awards, while the show everyone's talking about, Here Lies Love by film director David Byrne and DJ Fatboy Slim at the Public Theater, did well, too, winning the best music prize; and that sounded fully justified in the evening's highlight, a performance of "God Draws Straight" by three of cast.
Tom Hanks and Steve Martin sat good-naturedly together throughout the proceedings in the 1200-seater auditorium, both losing out in their nominated categories, respectively, for best actor in a play (that was Tracy Letts in a much-garlanded revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf) and outstanding music in a play (Martin had composed a score for As You Like It).
The disappointment didn't stop Steve from bounding on to the stage anyway, pretending to have misheard his name for that of Andrea Martin, featured actress in a musical for Pippin. So he got a big round for being a good sport, though the evening's sole standing ovation went to an elegant, frail-looking Cicely Tyson as best actress in Horton Foote's The Trip to Bountiful.
The pleasantly informal proceedings rambled on for nearly three hours, with no interval, and perhaps one or two appearances too many from the cast of Old Jews Telling Jokes; if only Steve Martin had stepped up again to help them out. But there was a strong sense of a community honouring its own. The glitz and hysteria can safely be left to the Tonys in three weeks' time.
The Tony show probably won't feature three puppeteers wearing chicken heads as award-winners, nor will Tom Hanks stay rooted to his seat for too long, I imagine, nor will a charming old moth-eaten critic nobody's heard of make a moving speech honouring an obscure lighting designer in honour of a theatrical caricaturist, Sam Norkin, who died aged 96 in 2011. We didn't even know there was another theatrical caricaturist apart from Al Hirschfield.
So it was an evening full of surprises, and much warmth, for the British contingent, who included Whatsonstage.com managing and editorial director Terri Paddock, West End producer James Seabright, theatre publicist (and my taller half) Sue Hyman, the Matilda mob and various back room boffins and agents.
The show was scripted by writer and record producer Bill Rosenfield, a good friend of the British theatre, and the only sour note all night was sounded by playwright Terrence McNally, presenting an award, when he took a smart swipe at New York Post columnist Michael Riedel. I'll leave others to speculate as to what might have been behind that little spat.
Other big gun awards presenters included Tommy Tune, Joe Mantello, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Jim Dale. And the night's most touching downbeat moment came when big, burly Richard Kind received the outstanding featured actor award for his part in the revival of Clifford Odets' The Big Knife, saying that he'd felt part of the Broadway community ever since he travelled into town as a kid to see the shows and that now, at last, he knew that the feeling was possibly reciprocated.