- Associated Press - Monday, June 11, 2012

NEW YORK (AP) - Once upon a time, a quirky film made on a shoestring turned into an unlikely Oscar-winner and, even more improbably, a Broadway show.

Now, “Once” has completed its Cinderella story, winning the coveted best-musical Tony award Sunday for its bittersweet love story that has captured the hearts of theatergoers, just as it did with movie audiences in 2006.

“Once” won eight awards in all, including for its lead actor, Steve Kazee, who brought movie-star looks and a soulful singing voice to the part of Guy, a street musician in Dublin who falls for a Czech immigrant flower-seller.

Kazee gave one of the most poignant speeches of a night that had many of them, paying tearful tribute to his mother, who passed away on Easter Sunday. He also thanked his cast mates, especially co-star Cristin Milioti, for helping him cope: “They carried me around and made me feel alive.”

“Once” triumphed over the more obviously commercial “Newsies” for the top prize, and that was a theme of the night _ many of the top-honored shows were neither big-budget nor star-driven, and a number had started off-Broadway in small theaters.

And the show with the biggest price tag of all, “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” was shut out in the two technical categories in which it was nominated, sets and costume design in a musical. The evening’s host, Neil Patrick Harris, made fun of that $75 million show’s early troubles when he started one bit hanging from the ceiling, Spidey-like; he then proceeded to get stuck in the air, or rather pretended to.

The Tony for best play went to Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park,” which had already won the Pulitzer Prize for its clever exploration of race in America, via a piece of real estate.

To no one’s surprise, Audra McDonald was named best lead actress in a musical for “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” which was named best musical revival. It was her fifth Tony Award, at only age 41, tying the competitive record held by Angela Lansbury and Julie Harris.

“I was a little girl with a potbelly and afro puffs, hyperactive and overdramatic. And I found the theater, and I found my home,” McDonald said, tearfully.

McDonald is an established name on Broadway, but the best-actress winner in a play, Nina Arianda of “Venus in Fur,” came out of nowhere to stun audiences, first off Broadway and then on, with her smoldering portrayal of a mysterious young actress auditioning for a play. In a very competitive category, she beat out veterans like Linda Lavin and Stockard Channing for the Tony.

Handed her award by actor Christopher Plummer, 82, Arianda, who is in her 20s, revealed that he’d been her first crush. “When that whistle was blown in `Sound of Music,’ you made my day,” she told the actor.

Later, at the packed post-Tony gala at the Plaza Hotel, where guests munched on everything from oysters and lobster to tiny little pastries, Arianda clutched her Tony and said she was feeling dazed. “I still don’t know where I am,” she exclaimed. Asked her plans after the show closed in a week, she said: “Vacation.”

Standing amidst a bevy of admirers in the Plaza’s Palm Court restaurant was James Corden, the British comic actor who won best actor in a play for the farcical “One Man, Two Guvnors,” an upset over Philip Seymour Hoffman for his Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman.”

“I’m shocked, and I’m thrilled,” Corden said. “No one could have imagined a better reception here for our play.” Asked if he had worried whether the show’s very British humor would appeal to American audiences, he said: “You hope, but you never know.”

Arthur Miller’s 63-year-old masterpiece “Death of a Salesman” won the Tony for best play revival and Mike Nichols won his ninth Tony for directing it. He said the play has a special meaning for many in Sunday’s audience.

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