THE American rock’n’roll musical Memphis and the British production of the play Red, about the artist Mark Rothko, emerged as early leaders in the Tony Awards on Sunday night. All but eclipsing those shows, however, was the unusually powerful star wattage at Radio City Music Hall, full of the well-known figures from film, television and music who became dominant forces on Broadway during the 2009-10 season.

Among them were the actors Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, who won best actor and actress in a play for their galvanising portrayals of a 1950s married couple in the revival of August Wilson’s Fences.

A visibly surprised Scarlett Johansson won the first acting award of the evening, as best featured actress in a play for her Broadway debut in the revival of Arthur Miller’s View From the Bridge. “I don’t know what to say,” said Johansson. “Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve wanted to be on Broadway. Here I am. Unbelievable.”

Red won for Michael Grandage’s direction, as well as for lighting, set, and sound design in a play. The young British stage and film actor Eddie Redmayne won as featured actor for the drama, portraying an assistant to painter Mark Rothko (played by Alfred Molina).

The Tonys are Broadway’s highest honour and one of the most insider-driven awards competitions in the American entertainment industry. And in a season without a runaway hit show the Tonys spread the love around.

Actress Katie Finneran won her second Tony Award for featured actress in a musical for her brief, scene-stealing turn in Act II of Promises, Promises. Levi Kreis won best featured actor in a musical for Million Dollar Quartet. And Terry Johnson won for best direction of a musical, La Cage aux Folles, another import from Britain.

Memphis won the major Tonys presented before the telecast began: best book of a musical, best orchestrations, and best score.

Tonys host Sean Hayes opened the ceremony with a bit of political humour by welcoming “any closeted right-wing politicians watching the show in secret”.

He also shared a warm moment with his Promises co-star, Kristin Chenoweth, that doubled as a riposte to a Newsweek writer who questioned whether openly gay men like Hayes could play love-struck straight men like his character in Promises.

“I just wanted to say, break a leg, you’re gonna be great,” Chenoweth said – after which the two looked longingly at each other, and then exchanged a long, smouldering kiss.

Appearing onstage were Mark Sanchez, New York Jets quarterback and avowed musical theatre fan, and performers Paula Abdul, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas and Helen Mirren – none of whom were in Broadway shows last season.

Also prominently represented were the cast of television show Glee, the best weekly advertisement for musical theatre in years, with Broadway show tunes regularly featured on the one-hour fictional depiction of a high school glee club.

At Sunday’s rehearsal Glee star Lea Michele sang Don’t Rain on My Parade from Funny Girl, a song she performed on the show this season, and one she could be performing on Broadway if she ends up cast in the original Barbra Streisand role for the Broadway revival planned for 2012.