I’m not a gambling woman. (About 30 years ago, a short-lived boyfriend took me to a dog track. He gave me $20 to bet and I stealthily pocketed it so I could afford something other than ramen noodles for dinner that week. Not my proudest moment.) Nevertheless, if I had chosen to place some bets on which shows would win what at the 68th Annual Tony Awards, I might have made a tidy little sum.

At least where the actors were concerned.

As expected, Bryan Cranston won Best Actor in a Drama for All the Way. And perennial audience favorite Neil Patrick Harris won Best Actor in a Musical for Hedwig and the Angry Inch. (I had my fingers crossed for Jefferson Mays [sorry, NPH], who plays not one, not two, but eight different hysterical leading roles in the Best Musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.) Mark Rylance won his second Tony for another gender-bending role as Olivia in Twelfth Night. And larger-than-life crowd-pleaser James Monroe Iglehart won as the genie in Aladdin. The men were not a big surprise.

The women, however, were a whole different story.

This year’s American Theatre Wing Tony Awards celebrated an incredible array of women—not only those who gave tour de force performances onstage, but a number of inspirational real-life figures as well.

The much-lauded A Raisin in the Sun won awards for Best Revival of a Play, Best Director (Kenny Leon), and Best Featured Actress (Sophie Okonedo, Oscar-nominee for Hotel Rwanda). When it first appeared on Broadway in 1959, playwright Lorraine Hansberry became the youngest American playwright (she was 29), the fifth woman, and the only African-American to win the Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play. She died of cancer just six years later, leaving an impressive legacy that makes you wonder how much more she might have done.

Billie Holiday was another amazing woman whose time on Earth was too short. This year, Holiday was channeled in Audra McDonald’s performance in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. In a tearful speech as she accepted Best Actress in a Drama, McDonald saluted a number of her inspirations:

“I want to thank all the shoulders of the strong and brave and courageous women that I’m standing on. I’m standing on Lena Horne’s shoulders. I’m standing on Maya Angelou’s shoulders. I’m standing on Diahann Carroll and Ruby Dee, and most of all, Billie Holiday. You deserved so much more than you were given when you were on this planet. This is for you, Billie.”

McDonald can afford to share her Tony with as many mentors as she likes. On Sunday night, she made history by winning her sixth, with at least one in each of the four Best Actress categories. But, even with her impressive credentials, this award wasn’t a shoo-in. McDonald’s fellow nominees included outstanding performers Tyne Daly (Mothers and Sons), LaTanya Richardson Jackson (A Raisin in the Sun), Cherry Jones (The Glass Menagerie), and Estelle Parsons (The Velocity of Autumn).

The Award for Best Actress in a Musical was also a tough race to call. Broadway divas Idina Menzel (If/Then), Sutton Foster (Violet), and Kelli O’Hara (The Bridges of Madison County) were joined by recording artist Mary Bridget Davies. Davies had already wowed audiences across the country in A Night with Janis Joplin before making her Broadway debut in the show this year. However, it was a different actress portraying a different musician who took home the Tony.

Jessie Mueller won the award for her portrayal of Carole King in the musical Beautiful. Mueller had been seen previously in (and Tony-nominated for) On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, as well as The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Nice Work If You Can Get It. Her win Sunday night was particularly exciting because earlier in the program, she performed a duet of “I Feel the Earth Move” with Carole King herself. This was only one of the many moments that felt less like a televised ceremony and more like a backstage party.

The Tony Awards is a glimpse into a close community of artists who appreciate craft and, in many cases, have sacrificed to devote their lives to it. Less glamorous maybe than the Academy Awards, there is also less emphasis on youth—except in the acknowledgement of theater education and its importance. In Hollywood, actors may love what they do, but they also seem to love the trappings of success. You see less of that at the Tony’s. It’s all about loving the theater.

In fact, if you too love the theater, there was very little not to love about this year’s Tony Awards program. All in all, it was a delight. Host Hugh Jackman (or, as he introduced himself, “Wolverine in tap shoes”) sang and danced and rapped (and hopped up and down and up and down in the opening number, a homage to 1953’s rather obscure movie Small Town Girl). Speeches were sincere and brief. Excerpts from nominated shows were exhilarating. In fact, the only time I was tempted to tune out was when Sting sang a number from his upcoming show The Last Ship. A big fan way back when (about the time I was living on ramen noodles, actually), I was a little disappointed. Sting’s lackluster, laid-back performance was in sharp contrast to the show’s other . . . well . . . showstoppers.

It may be acceptable (even cool) for rock icons to phone in a performance, but that’s not what you get from a Broadway star. This year’s Tony Awards was a celebration of the men—and particularly, the women—who give it their all eight shows a week.

And many of them lived on ramen noodles for years to have the privilege of doing so.

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