Photo: Courtesy the Tony Awards

Tony Awards host Neil Patrick Harris on stage Sunday night with the cast of Kinky Boots, the Best Musical winner that got its pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago. 

Not one, but two productions with serious Chicago roots staged serious upsets at the Tony awards Sunday night, and they couldn’t have been more polar opposite in nature.

Before the theatrical elite could even get their ball gowns squished into their seats, Kinky Boots, the campy Harvey Fierstein-backed musical about a drag queen who becomes the muse of a cobbler (it had its pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago, an occasion that prompted this Q+A with the show's lyricist, 80s siren Cyndi Lauper), upset the British import Matilda for Best Musical.

Later, the Chicago actor Tracy Letts trumped a beloved Oscar winner, Mr. Tom Hanks himself, the star of the Nora Ephron play Lucky Guy, for Best Leading Actor in a Play. Letts's dark-and-stormy portrayal of George in Steppenwolf's Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—Edward Albee's marriage-shredder, which later to transferred to Broadway—is one of those that, if you witnessed it, had the potential to stick with you all season. Especially if you were about to walk down the aisle (like I was at the time of the Chicago run in late 2010).

Letts wasn't alone. Pam MacKinnon, the director of Virginia Woolf, also took home a Tony for Best Director.

As Steppenwolf artistic director Martha Lavey said in her acceptance speech last night, for best revival Tony, Chicago is a “great, great theatre town.” But to put a finer point on it, this is what happens in a city where it’s perfectly acceptable, at least once or twice in a season, to let commercial considerations take a backseat to artistic ones. 

Earlier this year, Lavey talked to Chicago about the misguided notion that the city is a farm team for New York theatre (an idea that New York magazine posited in this 2012 article about Letts). How do you react when people say that? I asked. Her answer:
 "I don’t have any sort of resentment toward it. This is a sophisticated theatre town. Not just with the artists, but with the audience too. In Chicago, there is a big appetite for what we do, but also for what the Goodman does, and TimeLine and Lookingglass. You can see a wonderful heterodox mix of stuff."

She said more about that later in the interview (this part did not make it to print, for space considerations): “We’re going about our business, and [New York theatres] are going about theirs. And they are different businesses. Commercial theatre is different; the host of considerations they have to make are different. I don’t angst about it. That’s the way it rolls…There are fantastic, experimental, multidisciplinary performance people doing things in New York that is way beyond the density of what is happening here. But there even the nonprofit theatres have to think commercially.”

The takeaway is that a smaller, more closely knit ecosystem can be as fertile as a glitzier, more expansive (and expensive) one. But Lavey doesn't need the Tony awards to remind her of that.