NEW YORK – Two actors from the revival of the AIDS drama "The Normal Heart" — Ellen Barkin and John Benjamin Hickey — won the first two acting Tony Awards on a night that promised to be a big one for a musical that sometimes jokes about AIDS — "The Book of Mormon."
Barkin won the award Sunday night for best actress in a featured role in a play and Hickey took home the male equivalent honor for their blistering performances in Larry Kramer's AIDS drama.
"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, who was making her Broadway debut. Hickey warned his family in Texas that they'd better not be watching the Heat-Mavericks game instead of the Tonys.
The best direction of a musical award went to Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker for "The Book of Mormon." The top directing prize for a play went to Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris for "War Horse."
Host Neil Patrick Harris began the Beacon Theatre show 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!"
Barkin's award kicked off a performance of the song "Brotherhood of Man" from the musical "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," featuring Daniel Radcliffe and John Laroquette.
"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.
"The Book of Mormon" went into the Tonys with 14 nominations, one shy of the record held by "The Producers," and is heavily favored to win at the very least the best musical crown.
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. It has also produced the fastest selling digital release of a cast recording in history.
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.
"The Book of Mormon," by Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone, follows the travails of two Mormon missionaries sent to Uganda to try to convert locals. If it 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 will be televising the event beginning at 8 p.m. EDT.
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."
Other musicals with large nominations include the revival of "Anything Goes" with Sutton Foster, "Sister Act" with newcomer Patina Miller and "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."
The evening will feature appearances from Christie Brinkley, Matthew Broderick, Harry Connick Jr., Viola Davis, Whoopi Goldberg, Kelsey Grammer, Joel Grey, Marg Helgenberger, Samuel L. Jackson, James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, Jim Parsons, David Hyde Pierce, Daniel Radcliffe, Vanessa Redgrave, Chris Rock, Brooke Shields, Robin Williams, Patrick Wilson and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Bono and The Edge will introduce a song they wrote for Reeve Carney and Jennifer Damiano from the trouble-plagued "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," which is set to finally open Tuesday and is not eligible for these awards. The two actors sing while being suspended on a platform, but there are no other aerial tricks and Spider-Man himself is nowhere to be found.
AP Television Writer Frazier Moore and National Writer Jocelyn Noveck contributed to this report.