Annaleigh Ashford holds her Tony Award in the press room.
Eight years after making her Broadway debut in Legally Blonde The Musical, Wheat Ridge native Annaleigh Ashford is now a Tony Award winner.
Ashford, 29, was honored with theatre’s highest prize tonight for her widely praised role as the eccentric ballet dancer Essie opposite James Earl Jones in the Broadway revival of the classic American comedy You Can’t Take It With You.
“I can’t believe I am standing here on the Radio City Music Hall stage for the worst dancing that ever happened on Broadway,” Ashford said to great laughter.
She thanked her two families, both of the real and You Can’t Take It With You varieties. Of her husband, Joe Tapper, and her biological family – including mother Holli Swanson sitting in the very back row of Radio City with Ashford’s sister and father, she said, “Thank for being weird and silly and loving me unconditionally.”
She avoided the the trap of possibly leaving anyone out of her thanks by saying: “Thank you to every friend I’ve ever had, every teacher I have ever had, and everybody I have ever met.”
Reached after the ceremony, Ashford’s mother told the DCPA NewsCenter: “We are in heaven. This is a dream come true. We screamed. And we may have peed our pants a little bit.”
(Photo: Annaleigh Ashford prepares for the Tony Awards ceremony. Photo courtesy Holli Swanson.)
The other actresses nominated in Ashford’s category were Patricia Clarkson (The Elephant Man), Lydia Leonard (Wolf Hall Parts One & Two), Sarah Stiles (Hand to God) and Julie White (Airline Highway).
Colorado’s other native nominee, Beth Malone, was up for Best Leading Actress in a Musical for Fun Home, the groundbreaking story of a woman dealing with the aftermath of her father’s suicide. The award went to the long-suffering Kelli O’Hara, who played Anna in a revival of The King & I.
O’Hara, who has been nominated for six Tony Awards but had not won before tonight, kept up an unusual Broadway winning streak: No actress who has ever headlined a Broadway production of The King & I has ever not won a Tony Award.
Malone, a graduate of Douglas County High School in Castle Rock and the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, starred last year in the DCPA Theatre Company’s newly reimagined The Unsinkable Molly Brown. She was considered a Tony Award longshot in part because the musical is a true ensemble piece, and her role of Alison is shared among three actors of different ages. However, she also had some momentum as the only nominee playing an original character.
Her disappointment was no doubt tempered by Fun Home‘s win as Best Musical. Fun Home is the first musical in Broadway history to feature a lesbian protagonist. Based on Alison Bechdel’s best-selling graphic memoir, Fun Home is a refreshingly honest coming-of-age story about seeing your parents through grown-up eyes. It was adapted for the stage by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, who together won Tony Awards for best book and score of a musical – an accomplishment that even Ashford noted in her post-awards press conference.
“Two years ago, Cyndi Lauper became the first woman ever to win for Best Score,” said Ashford, who co-starred in that winning production of Kinky Boots. “I remember that being such a milestone, and it’s great to see women continuing the trend.”
(Photo: Beth Malone’s name is called by Tony Award presenter Neil Patrick Harris.)
Another Colorado native, Denver East High School graduate Rebecca Eichenberger, plays several roles in An American in Paris, which won four awards. Spencer Ross of Denver is one of the show’s producers.
Listen to our five-minute conversation with Annaleigh Ashford the day after the Tony Awards.
British writer Mark Haddon‘s heartbreaking and technically ingenious The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time won for best play. Like Fun Home, it features a most uncommon protagonist: A 15-year-old with an unstated condition similar to Asperger syndrome. The tormented math savant is accused of killing the neighbor’s dog, which sets him off on a harrowing journey to the big city. The play’s title quotes the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1892 short story Silver Blaze.
The Tony Awards were remarkably spread out this year, with Fun Home and Curious Incident leading the way with five awards each, and An American in Paris and The King & I earning four.
The Tony Awards are often seen as a primary means for Broadway to introduce big new national touring productions to the American heartland audience. Fun Home marks the second straight year when Tony voters honored arguably the most daring and least commercial of all the nominees. The DCPA jumped on the 2014 Tony Award-winning best musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (Feb. 16-28). Fun Home has announced a national tour to begin next year, but no cities have yet been announced.
Broadway producer (and prominent theatre blogger) Ken Davenport called Fun Home’s surprise win over An American in Paris no less than David besting Goliath.
“This is a shocking upset,” Davenport wrote. “Let this forever prove that there is no block of touring presenters who vote for the shows they think will play in their theatres around the country to greater success. Got it? There is no road vote. Avenue Q beat Wicked. Gentlemen’s Guide beat Aladdin. And Fun Home beat Paris, just to name a few.
“Never before have I been more proud of our industry than last night, when it rewarded this achingly beautiful new musical that challenges today’s audiences. More people will see Fun Home because of that Tony. And the world will be just a little bit of a better place because of it. And that’s the power of theater.”
Ashford made her stage debut in Denver at age 9 in Theatre Group’s Ruthless the Musical. She played an aspiring child actress who hangs a rival girl from a catwalk with a jump rope so she can star in the school play, Pippi in Tahiti, The Musical.
Ashford, who came home to the Denver Center in April to perform her acclaimed cabaret show, Lost in the Stars, has been on an astonishing professional roll. She has appeared in five big Broadway productions. She was called “a sly comic genius” by The New York Times. She provided a voice in the biggest animated movie on the planet – Frozen. And she has returned to her delicious role as prostitute Betty DiMello on Showtime’s Masters of Sex.
Her first Tony Award nomination came in 2013 for playing Lauren in Kinky Boots. This fall, she returns to Broadway as a dog who threatens to break up a marriage in A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia. After the Tony Awards ceremony, Ashford said she will be enrolling in obedience classes with her dog in Los Angeles starting next week.
“Hopefully at the end of this I will be better trained – and so will my dog,” she quipped.
Ashford graduated from Wheat Ridge High School at age 16 and from Marymount Manhattan College at 19. She was asked in the press room whether she would have any advice now for her younger self.
“I would have told myself to slow down,” she said. “I was really racing the clock back then, and there are times when I wish I had taken it a little easier on myself, because that time is a special time.”
While other young women her age were just starting college at 19, Ashford found herself living at The Y in New York in a room so small, she could touch the two walls across at once.
“So that was a depressing year,” she said.
No comparison to 2015, to be sure.
“I was just thinking about how different my life is from from five years ago,” she said. “I was working as an actor, but not always consistently, and I so was reminded how lucky we are to just have a job as an actor. And so the slower times and the quieter times just make me that much more grateful for the faster times – and moments like this.”
Annaleigh Ashford prepares before the ceremony with her family, including husband Joe Tapper. Photos courtesy Holli Swanson.
2015 TONY AWARDS
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
BEST REVIVAL OF A PLAY
BEST REVIVAL OF A MUSICAL
The King and I
BEST DIRECTOR OF A PLAY
Marianne Elliott, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
BEST DIRECTOR OF A MUSICAL
Sam Gold, Fun Home
BEST ACTRESS IN A PLAY
Helen Mirren, The Audience
BEST ACTOR IN A PLAY
Alex Sharp, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
BEST ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL
Kelli O’Hara, The King and I
BEST ACTOR IN A MUSICAL
Michael Cerveris, Fun Home
BEST FEATURED ACTRESS IN A PLAY
Annaleigh Ashford, You Can’t Take It with You
BEST FEATURED ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL
Ruthie Ann Miles, The King and I
BEST FEATURED ACTOR IN A PLAY
Richard McCabe,The Audience
BEST FEATURED ACTOR IN A MUSICAL
Christian Borle, Something Rotten!
BEST BOOK OF A MUSICAL
Fun Home, by Lisa Kron
Fun Home, Music: Jeanine Tesori, Lyrics: Lisa Kron
BEST SCENIC DESIGN OF A PLAY
Bunny Christie and Finn Ross, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
BEST SCENIC DESIGN OF A MUSICAL
Bob Crowley and 59 Productions, An American in Paris
BEST LIGHTING DESIGN OF A PLAY
Paule Constable, for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
BEST LIGHTING DESIGN OF A MUSICAL
Natasha Katz, for An American in Paris
Christopher Wheeldon, An American in Paris
Christopher Austin, Don Sebesky, Bill Elliott, An American in Paris
BEST COSTUNE DESIGN OF A MUSICAL
Catherine Zuber, The King and I
BEST COSTUNE DESIGN OF A PLAY
Christopher Oram, Wolf Hall: Parts 1 and 2
SPECIAL TONY AWARDS
Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre: Tommy Tune
John Cameron Mitchell, Hedwig and the Angry Inch
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