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Tony Awards embrace women, new and old, after close races

By Jill Serjeant

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Broadway crowned one its favorite female stars and embraced a bevy of newcomers at the Tony Awards on Sunday in some of the most closely contested actress races for years.

An emotional Audra McDonald, 43, made Tony Awards history with a record sixth performance win for her heartbreaking turn as jazz singer Billie Holiday in the play, "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill".

And Jessie Mueller, the fresh face who has captivated audiences with her uncanny portrayal of young songstress Carole King in the musical "Beautiful", won her first Tony.

McDonald, a classically trained singer and actress, has now won Tonys in all four play and musical categories. She tied with the late actress Julie Harris at six, but one of Harris's statuettes was for lifetime achievement.

McDonald, who also won a Tony for her last Broadway show, "Porgy and Bess" in 2012, won a lengthy standing ovation from the audience of actors, producers and directors at the Radio City Music Hall that left her shaking and in tears.

"I want to thank all the shoulders of the strong and brave and courageous women that I am standing on," she said. "And most of all Billie Holiday. You deserve so much more than you were given when you were on this earth."

McDonald also thanked her late parents for "not medicating their hyperactive girl" but channeling her energy into theater.

As for entering into Tony record books, McDonald appeared lost for words. "I am just completely overwhelmed and grateful and I don't believe it," she told reporters backstage.

Mueller, 31, who made her Broadway debut in 2012, emerged the winner in one of the closest Tony races - lead actress in a musical.

King, whose 1971 album "Tapestry" remains one of the biggest sellers of all time, poured praise on Mueller's performance.

"At that age, I had no idea who I was and what was good about me and not good about me," King said backstage. "It is a gift to see myself as the woman I was then and to actually like myself."

But Mueller's win meant another disappointing night for Kelli O'Hara, who had hoped her fifth Tony nomination might prove a charm when it came to taking home the award.

O'Hara, 38, was nominated as best actress in a musical for her role in the stage version of the best-selling romance and movie, "The Bridges of Madison County."

The show, which closed early last month, won Tonys for best original score and orchestration for composer Jason Robert Brown.

"Every composer in this room should be blessed to have Kelli perform their music," said Brown.

Other first time female Tony winners included featured play actress Sophie Okonedo of Britain in her Broadway debut in the revival of the 1959 play, "A Raisin in the Sun", about a struggling African-American family.

A delighted Lena Hall, 34, won her first Tony on Sunday for her supporting role as a man in the gender-bending musical, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."

(Reporting By Jill Serjeant; Editing by Patricia Reaney and Clarence Fernandez)

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