NEW YORK — At the Tony Awards, while “Once” was being crowned best musical, there was another sort of anointing going on — five first-time Tony winners, all under 40, were being hailed as Broadway’s next class.
Steve Kazee, Christian Borle, James Corden, Christopher Gattelli and Nina Arianda each walked away from the Beacon Theatre with a statuette Sunday and vindication for years of toil.
The handing over of the torch was perfectly summed up when two-time nominee Arianda, who had just won the best actress in a play Tony, gushed like a schoolgirl at the legend who handed her her trophy.
“You were my first crush,” she told 82-year-old Christopher Plummer. “When that whistle was blown in ‘Sound of Music,’ you made my day.”
To be sure, the night also belonged to some wily veterans, such as Mike Nichols, won his ninth Tony for directing “Death of a Salesman,” and composer Alan Menken, who has eight Oscars and now his first Tony for penning the music for “Newsies.” And the always-astonishing Audra McDonald snapped up her fifth award at the age of just 41.
But Tony night was also about a fresh crop of veterans who may not be well known to Americans outside Times Square, but who have been reliably first-rate performers over the past years. Now they’ve arrived.
Kazee, a 36-year-old rising star with matinee idol looks, won for being the gentle Irish hero in “Once.” He has been building his credits from replacement parts in “Spamalot” to an understudy role in “Seascape” to starring in “110 in the Shade” in 2007.
In one of the more touching acceptance speeches of the night, he quoted British poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy, “We are the music makers and we are the dreamers of dreams,” and then thanked the cast for helping him cope with the death of his mother.
Gattelli, a former dancer, has been working non-stop since he became a choreographer, and had not one but two Broadway shows this season — “Newsies” and “Godspell.” At 39, he has already choreographed such shows as “South Pacific,” ”13″ and “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”
Borle, too, has paid his dues. He’s gone from playing happy chimney sweep Bert in “Mary Poppins” to Prior Walter, a young man dying of AIDS in a recent off-Broadway revival of Tony Kusher’s “Angels in America.” He was in “Footloose” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” and then bigger roles in “Spamalot” and “Legally Blonde,” for which he got a Tony nod. He’s also a star of NBC’s “Smash” series about the making of a Broadway show.
Tony voters seemed to think that this was his time, especially after he stole the show in “Peter and the Starcatcher” as Black Stash, the pirate who will become Captain Hook in the play about Peter Pan’s origins.
“Thank you for making this so much fun, I feel very lucky that my sister Caroline and my mother are here tonight,” Borle said. “Thank you for making my mom very, very happy for this great honor and this perfect moment in time.”
Producers of the telecast may not be having as good a day-after as the young winners: The Tonys were seen by 6 million viewers, down significantly from last year’s 6.9 million, according to preliminary Nielsen figures released Monday.
Corden, in perhaps the biggest upset of the night, took home the best actor in a play award for his comic turn in “One Man, Two Guvnors,” the same statuette that many believed Philip Seymour Hoffman was going to win as Willy Loman in a revival of “Death of a Salesman.”
The 33-year-old Corden was last on Broadway in “The History Boys.” Since then, he co-wrote the hit comedy series “Gavin & Stacey” for BBC and wrote the memoir “May I Have Your Attention, Please?” He was the youngest in the best actor category, which was filled with Broadway establishment leading men.
The British actor was gracious in victory, honoring his competitors: “I have to say, John Lithgow, James Earl Jones, Frank Langella, and my favorite actor in the world, Philip Seymour Hoffman, to be on a list with you is enough,” he said.
But perhaps the night’s most impressive graduation was Arianda’s. She beat out her insanely talented elders — Tracie Bennett, Stockard Channing, Linda Lavin and Cynthia Nixon — to win the best actress in a play award.
The 27-year-old star of the kinky “Venus in Fur” had been a large reason David Ives’ play had transferred from off-Broadway in 2010 to a Broadway theater this season. In the meantime, she had wowed critics playing a far-from-ditzy blonde in “Born Yesterday.”
During her euphoric acceptance speech, the music swelled to try to coax her offstage. But she resisted. “I might not do this again, hold on,” she implored.
Chances are she will indeed. In fact, all five seem likely to be there again.