The bittersweet musical Once captured eight Tony Awards on Sunday, including best direction of a musical, best lead actor in a musical and the top musical prize itself.

The inventive play Peter and the Starcatcher was next with five awards, but most every show came away with something to celebrate.

Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park, the remarkably perceptive Pulitzer Prize-winning play about race and real estate, won the Tony for best play.

'I was a little girl with a potbelly and afro puffs, hyperactive and overdramatic. And I found the theatre, and I found my home.'—Audra McDonald, named best lead actress

Audra McDonald was named best lead actress in a musical and her The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess was named best musical revival. This is her fifth Tony Award, 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 theatre, and I found my home," McDonald said. Looking at her daughter, she said her big night wasn't as wonderful as the night her daughter was born.

Her one-time co-star in 110 in the Shade, Steve Kazee, a 36-year-old rising star and guitar player with matinee idol looks, emerged as best actor in a musical, and broke down thinking of his mother, who died Easter Sunday.

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Host Neil Patrick Harris performs at the 66th Annual Tony Awards on Sunday in New York. (Charles Sykes/Invision/Associated Press)

 Another new star, Nina Arianda, won best leading actress in a play, beating stiff competition from Tracie Bennett, Stockard Channing, Linda Lavin and Cynthia Nixon.

Accepting the award from presenter Christopher Plummer, Arianda admitted something very personal to the 82-year-old Plummer: "You were my first crush!" she squealed.

Hoffman fails to secure lead acting Tony

In perhaps the biggest shock of the night, James Corden nabbed the lead acting Tony Award in a play for his clownish turn in the British import One Man, Two Guvnors. He beat out the favourite, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Death of a Salesman.

Corden directed most of his comment to his girlfriend, Julia, who gave birth to his son a year ago and whom he intends to marry soon. 

"I would not be holding this if it wasn't for her. She made me say `us' instead of `I' and `we' instead of `me' and I love her," he said. 

'There's not a person in this theatre that doesn't know what it is to be a salesman — to be out there in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine.' —Mike Nichols, Death of a Salesman director

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. On winning, he said the play has a special meaning for those who work in the theatre.

"There's not a person in this theatre that doesn't know what it is to be a salesman — to be out there in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine," he said. "As we know, a salesman has got to dream. It goes with the territory."

The reworked version of the Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess managed to come home with more and more prestigious awards than a revival of Stephen Sondheim's Follies.

Diane Paulus, the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater, adapted it for Broadway with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and Obie Award-winning composer Diedre Murray.  

The team condensed the four-hour opera into a two-and-one-half-hour musical, eliminated a lot of the repetitiveness and tried to deepen the characters. Their effort generated headlines when purists including Sondheim complained that a musical treasure was being corrupted.

Theatre audiences disagreed, with fans cheering the new work, which featured songs such as Summertime and Bess, You Is My Woman Now.

Once beats out Newsies

Once, a musical based on the low-budget 2006 film about an unlikely romance between a Czech flower seller and an Irish street musician in Dublin, went into the night with a leading 11 nominations. Newsies was supposed to challenge it, but only came up with two awards. 

Making it count

The Tony Awards show is serious business and the exposure in front of millions is priceless. Many shows that are suffering pre-summer slumps are counting on a bump from the telecast. Godspell producer Ken Davenport, for instance, was warned that his production's future may hinge on making a splash at the ceremony.

Overall, the health of Broadway is good, with shows yielding a record $1.14 billion in grosses this season, and total attendance reaching 12.3 million. The only concern is that audience numbers were flat, meaning higher ticket prices are pushing the overall box office take.

Composer Alan Menken, who has more Oscars than any other living person, captured his first Tony for Newsies. The win for Newsies is particularly sweet since when he and lyricist Jack Feldman originally wrote the songs for the 1992 film of Newsies, he was given another sort of award: a Razzie.

Judy Kaye won for best actress in a featured role in a musical in Nice Work If You Can Get It, laying a temperance worker who turns out likes to drink and hangs from a chandelier at one point. It's Kaye's second Tony — she also won for The Phantom of the Opera.

"I guess chandeliers have been very, very good to me," she said to a burst of laughter. She dedicated the award to her father, who died last week.

Judith Light, who plays an acerbic alcoholic in Other Desert Cities, won for for best featured actress in a play. Michael McGrath won for best actor in a featured musical role from Nice Work If You Can Get It.

Ceremony jam-packed with performances

The show at the Beacon Theatre actually began with a nod to the past, with host Neil Patrick Harris joining with the cast of The Book of Mormon for their opening number of Hello! from the 2011 musical winner. The show ended when Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the co-creators of Mormon, handing out the final award.

Christopher Gattelli, who thrillingly combined ballet with bold athletic moves in Newsies, won the best choreography Tony. It is his first award; he previously was nominated for South Pacific in 2008.

The three-hour telecast was packed with stars and performances from musicals, plays and revivals. The explosion of performances is an attempt to showcase as much on Broadway as possible. One performance wasn't even on location — the song from Hairspray was performed from a cruise ship in the Caribbean Sea.