Tonys hail fresh voices

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The spirit of the 62nd annual Tony Awards was captured perfectly early Sunday evening when Bartlett Sher of "South Pacific" was talking to reporters about winning the trophy for best director of a musical just as Lin-Manuel Miranda of "In the Heights" was accepting the prize for best score.

The Sher-led revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic about race and war earned the most awards of any production with seven, perhaps indicating a weak season on Broadway for original work. Yet the four awards for "Heights," including new musical, and the five for the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "August: Osage County" showed that the Main Stem is eager to welcome new voices.

Tracy Letts, author of "August," noted the nature of the evening, saying, "It's surreal, absolutely surreal. A year ago, when I was at my home theater in my home town, the idea of standing here holding this, a year later … this is absolutely a surreal experience."

Miranda, creator of "Heights" and winner for score, said he wasn't trying to shake up Broadway with his hip-hop influenced musical set in a Dominican Manhattan neighborhood but, in a way, bring it back to its golden days.

"It's my job to write the best musical I can," he said. "I'd like to bring popular music and theater music back together. They used to be good friends a long time ago."

Stew, creator of "Passing Strange" and winner of the Tony for best book of a musical, echoed that thought, but he also seemed to relish the non-conformist of nature of his show, which features a hard-driving rock 'n' roll score about a young African-American man adrift in Europe.

"It wasn't my intention to write something new," he said. "It was my intention to put music on the stage that people are actually listening to."

Several of the winners in the acting categories also were relative newcomers to Broadway. Mark Rylance, a native of Britain, where he is known as much for his stewardship of the Globe Theatre as he is for his acting, earned a Tony in his Broadway debut for best actor in a play in the revival of "Boeing-Boeing." He proved just how out-there he can be by delivering Louis Jenkins' prose poem "The Back Country" in lieu of an acceptance speech. Rylance told reporters later, "It has some kind of meaning for me." If he was the only one who saw it, that seemed OK by him.

Deanna Dunagan of "August," a 34-year veteran of regional theater, also earned a Tony in her Broadway debut for best actress in a play. "Nothing I did in regional theater could ever prepare me for this," she said. Paulo Szot, a Brazilian opera star, earned best actor in a musical for "South Pacific."

The play started at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre; with seven previous productions on the Main Stem, it is not exactly a Broadway novice. But the company has taken pride in being outside the mainstream, both geographically and artistically. Rondi Reed of "August," who earned the Tony for best featured actress in a play and has been with the company since 1979, said Steppenwolf has a yin-yang relationship with New York.

"We had a phase where we were very, 'We don't need New York,' " she said. "I think we were 17 years old at the time. … It didn't have the allure, but it held all the allure." She also stressed that the company didn't establish a national reputation for itself until it brought its first production to Gotham, an off-Broadway revival of Sam Shepard's "True West."

But there also was plenty of room for Broadway veterans. Patti LuPone earned best actress in a musical for her turn as Mama Rose in the revival of "Gypsy." If there were any doubts who might earn the award for best actress in a musical, they were eradicated 30 minutes into the show, when she delivered a bravura performance of "Everything's Coming Up Roses."

It was the second Tony for LuPone, who won for the title role of "Evita" in 1980. She made sure to note the time lapse in her acceptance speech: "It's wonderful to devote yourself to working on the Broadway stage and then every 30 years or so pick up one of these." Her castmate Boyd Gaines won his fourth Tony, for best featured actor in a musical, while Laura Benanti earned her first.

The Tonys are the night where Broadway sings the song of itself, but in some ways the Main Stem was a bit off-key this season. It failed to set new boxoffice records for the first time in three years, largely because of a 19-day strike by its stagehands, and there were no breakout, runaway hit musicals like "Spring Awakening" last year and "Jersey Boys" the year before.

Perhaps the strongest indication of the weak year for musicals is seen in the 11 categories where new and revived work competed against each other. Revivals beat originals nine to two, including seven for "South Pacific."

Andrew Salomon is the news editor for Back Stage East.
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