NEW YORK — The profane and hysterical “The Book of Mormon” took an early lead at the Tony Awards, snagging honors Sunday for best book, best direction of a musical, best featured actress and two technical awards. “War Horse” and “The Normal Heart” also netted key Tonys, including best play and best revival, respectively.
The best direction of a musical award went to Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker for “The Book of Mormon.” Parker — as well as co-writers Matt Stone and Robert Lopez — later returned to the stage to accept the Tony for the best book of a musical.
The top directing prize for a play went to Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris for the weepy “War Horse,” a World War I tale about horses told with puppets and actors. “We quite like it when people cry,” Morris cracked backstage.
Nikki M. James, who plays a potential love interest to a pair of missionaries who travel to Uganda in “The Book of Mormon,” dedicated the award to her dad, who died while she was in high school, and to her nephew Ozzie, who was born with kidney problems.
The show is one of the hottest in town and James said even cast members are having trouble getting tickets for their friends and family. “It’s amazing to know you’re going to walk out there every night and know you’re going to see a house full of people,” she said.
Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” won the best revival prize and two actors from the AIDS drama — Ellen Barkin and John Benjamin Hickey — also won. Barkin, making her Broadway debut, was declared the best actress in a featured role in a play, while Hickey took home the male equivalent honor.
“It’s the proudest moment of my career. Being involved in something this important is I think a once-in-a-career opportunity,” said Barkin. Hickey warned his family in Texas that they’d better not be watching the Heat-Mavericks game instead of the Tonys.
Kramer’s historic play about the beginning of an epidemic that has killed millions won the Tony 26 years after it was first mounted at the Public Theater. “Learn from it and carry on the fight,” he said. “Our day will come.”
John Larroquette, in his Broadway debut, won the award for best actor in a featured role in a musical for “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” He thanked his co-star Daniel Radcliffe, who was not nominated, saying that without the “Harry Potter” star he’d be “home, sitting in my underwear, watching this on television.”
“The Book of Mormon” won two awards before the telecast even began — best orchestration and best original score. Kathleen Marshall won for best choreography for “Anything Goes.” ”War Horse” won for best sound design of a play and best scenic design, and “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” got the costume award for flamboyant fantasies created by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner.
Host Neil Patrick Harris began the show at the Beacon Theatre with an exuberant, tongue-in-cheek song about how Broadway isn’t just for gay people any more. The number featured a bevy of dancing nuns, sailors, flight attendants and Mormons: “Attention every breeder, you’re invited to the theater!” He later mocked “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” sang with Hugh Jackson and rode one of the puppet horses of “War Horse.”
The ceremony was rolling along fine until Brooke Shields had to be bleeped after forgetting the lyrics and flubbing an opening song with Harris. “I can do eight performances a week but I can’t read a TelePrompTer,” she joked.
“The Book of Mormon” went into the Tonys with 14 nominations, one shy of the record held by “The Producers.” The show, by the creators of “South Park” and “Avenue Q,” has already been declared the season’s best musical by the Outer Critics Circle, the Drama League and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle.
The musical was the biggest new hit from a Broadway season that saw 42 shows open — 14 musicals, 25 plays and three specials. Box-office grosses soared to $1.08 billion while attendance reached 12.5 million, both up from last season.
If “The Book of Mormon” wins the biggest prize, it would be a considerable achievement for first-time Broadway playwrights Parker and Stone, who created the Emmy Award-winning “South Park” and feature-length films such as “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” and “Team America: World Police.”
A mix of high art and low, the Mormon musical pays homage to such stalwarts as “The King and I” and “The Lion King,” and references diarrhea, AIDS ravaged villages and sex with babies. A Mormon sacred book finds its way into a leading character’s rectum.
This year’s Tonys are on Manhattan’s Upper West Side after the ceremony was forced to leave its longtime home at Radio City Music Hall because Cirque du Soleil moved in. Tony producers picked the 3,000-seat Beacon Theatre, which has only about half as many seats as Radio City. CBS is televising the event.
If CBS censors will be on high alert thanks to the often foul lyrics of “The Book of Mormon,” they’ll be happy about one decision. Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play “The Motherf—- With the Hat” will be referred to simply as “The Mother With the Hat.”