New blood invigorated Broadway

Rookies among strong crop of Tony nominees

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" on Broadway. Uh, wait. That's this fall when a musical version of Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" opens at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in September.

Not that Dickens' most quotable line from one of his most popular novels couldn't be applied to the now receding-from-memory 2007-08 theater season.

The worst of times? OK, not exactly Dickens' version of the French Revolution but a crippling 19-day stagehands strike in November. It left Broadway reeling in millions of dollars of losses, facing a disgruntled public and trying to salvage what had promised to be the best of times, the most play-heavy fall season in years.

The total gross for the season, according to trade group the Broadway League, was $937.5 million, about $1 million shy of the previous year. And attendance slipped slightly, too, to 12.27 million, down from 12.3 million in the 2006-07 season.

Out of the wreckage came one drama -- Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County" -- that managed to win nearly unanimous critical praise, survive the season and begin collecting every award in sight, with the Tony for best play assuredly in its grasp when the winners are announced Sunday at Radio City Music Hall. CBS will televise the ceremony beginning at 8 p.m. EDT.

The season was awash in players new to Broadway, from Letts to such performer-writers such as Stew of "Passing Strange" and Lin-Manuel Miranda of "In the Heights."

But Letts' examination of a supremely dysfunctional Oklahoma family, vividly brought to life by an accomplished ensemble of actors from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, wasn't the only fine play in town.

Conor McPherson's "The Seafarer," the story of a Christmas Eve poker game with one very devilish participant, was another. Tom Stoppard returned with "Rock 'n' Roll," a look at recent Czech history, primarily in the 1960s, and the music that came out of that era.

It's a real skill getting an audience to laugh. But David Mamet did it in "November," his scabrous comedy of presidential wheeler-dealering that features Nathan Lane at his most delightfully apoplectic and Tony-nommed Laurie Metcalf. Mark Rylance displayed remarkable physical comedy skills as a nerdy visitor to Paris, the setting for "Boeing-Boeing," an expertly resuscitated sex farce from the swinging 1960s.

Stew and company slowly built an audience for "Passing Strange," an unconventional musical biography that, despite critical cheers, wasn't an instant hit. But along with "In the Heights," look for them to score Sunday at the 2008 Tony Awards. Both are in serious contention for best musical.

Yet toughest ticket honors went to "South Pacific." Along with "Gypsy," starring the indefatigable Patti LuPone, and a projection-savvy production of "Sunday in the Park With George," nostalgia never looked or sounded better.