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This column by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 2, 1999.

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Simon Saltzman on the Tonys

Tony Awards night is Sunday, June 6, but New Brunswick’s

Crossroads Theater is already celebrating its May award of the 1999

Tony for the nation’s Best Regional Theater. If that isn’t enough,

"It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues," a musical co-produced at

Crossroads and seen there last winter, is one of the four nominees

for Broadway’s Best Musical. The show’s rapid progress from regional

theater to Off-Broadway and on to Broadway, where it earned good reviews,

is due to the efforts of a New York producer with deep roots in New

Jersey, Eric Krebs.

Krebs, founder and first artistic director of George Street Playhouse,

is also the producer who successfully moved McCarter Theater’s imported

production of "Electra" to Broadway. "Electra" is

also up for three Tonys. Uta Hagen, who recently starred at the George

Street in her Off-Broadway hit, "Collected Stories," is one

of three recipients of this year’s Lifetime Achievement award, along

with Arthur Miller, and Isabelle Stevenson, chairman of the American

Theater Wing. Yes, New Jersey is making its mark at this year’s Tonys.

The 1998-’99 Broadway season, which included 14 musicals and 17 plays,

has not been a banner year for good new musicals. Large-scale musicals

were in shorter supply than intimate musicals that opted for a revue

format. Although the downbeat musical "Parade" was the only

one based on a book, and garnered nine nominations to lead all the

other shows, it was not an audience-pleaser and folded early in the

season.

While "Fosse," with eight nominations, has grown into a solid

hit, without major wins "Ain’t Nothing But the Blues" and

"The Civil War" may have to struggle to stay alive. With the

opening of "The Civil War," its composer Frank Wildhorn can

boast he is the first composer in two decades to have three musicals

("The Scarlet Pimpernel" and "Jekyll and Hyde") running

simultaneously on Broadway.

But, the plays, oh, the plays. These arrived to gladden

the hearts of theatergoers and critics who feared, not too long ago,

that legitimate drama was dying on Broadway. Strong new plays should

tempt those who only think of Broadway as a place for mega-musicals.

The 1999 Tony Awards, telecast live this year from the stage of the

Gershwin Theater, will have a decidedly pro-play atmosphere, signaling

this 1998-’99 season as one of the most memorable in decades. Attention

must be paid to a Broadway that hosts exceptional productions of plays

by Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O’Neill. In a tie

with six nominations each is the Goodman Theater revival of Miller’s

"Death of a Salesman," and Williams’ never-before-produced

1938 play, "Not About Nightingales." Coming by way of London

and earning five nominations is O’Neill’s mesmerizing, four-hour "The

Iceman Cometh."

Although new British plays seemed to dominate, there were not nominations

for any of the three plays — "The Blue Room," "Amy’s

View," "Via Dolorosa" — by prolific British playwright

David Hare. More surprisingly, the London award-winner "The Weir"

also failed to get a nomination. Another irony is found in the 17

nominations earned by "Parade," and "Fosse," both

of which were produced under the aegis of the bankrupt Livent Corporation.

While the nation’s television audience will undoubtedly be curious

about the nominations and winners in the 21 various competitive categories

for the American Theater Wing’s 53rd annual Antoinette Perry "Tony"

Awards, it will be the musical numbers that will attract us most.

Among the nominees for new and revived musicals, we can expect to

see production numbers from "The Civil War," "Fosse,"

"It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues," and the now-closed "Parade,"

as well as the revived "Little Me," "Peter Pan," and

"You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown."

PBS has earned the enthusiasm of Tony watchers with its lively, behind-the-scenes

"pre-game show" that begins at 8 p.m. This year’s program

will feature a backstage visit with the 19-member cast of "The

Iceman Cometh," interviews with Elizabeth Franz, Harold Prince,

and Matthew Bourne, and rehearsal footage of musical numbers directed

by Ann Reinking and Michael Mayer. The celebration continues from

9 to 11 p.m. on CBS with the customary pomp and circumstance.

Here are my musings and my calculated guesses for what the Tony committee

will pick as winners (in bold) in each of 21 categories.

Best New Play: "Closer" by Patrick Marber is a

red hot yet chilling look at the sex lives of four very unhappy unfulfilled

adults. The ferocious and funny "Lonesome West" by Martin

McDonough is about two ever-brawling Irish brothers, and is part of

the author’s Leenane-set trilogy that includes "The Beauty Queen

of Leenane." "Not About Nightingales" is a stunning prison

melodrama by a very young Tennessee Williams. Side Man by Warren

Leight is a tender and insightful memory play in which a young man

tries to come to terms with his alcoholic mother and his father, a

self-absorbed itinerate jazz musician, during the last days of the

big band era.

Best New Musical: I liked the picture-book structure of

"The Civil War" more than most of my colleagues. Like its

similar predecessor "Dancin’," "Fosse" is an exciting

dance-filled salute to the great choreographer. "Ain’t Nothin’

But the Blues" is a small gem of a show that traces the history

of the Blues. Parade may be the most depressing musical I’ve

ever seen, but it had a powerful book, ambitious score, and excellent

performances.

Best Revival of a Musical: "Annie Get Your Gun"

proves you can’t get a man with a lousy rewrite. The hilarious "Little

Me" was a tour-de-force for Martin Short. "Peter Pan"

is . . . "Peter Pan". You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

brought new wrinkles and renewed whimsy to Charles Schultz’s famed

cartoon characters.

Best Revival of a Play: Awesome acting lifts this "Death

of Salesman" into the sublime. Although Euripides was unable to

do the required rewrites, the revival of "Electra" still had

shock value. The Lincoln Center producers put Helen Hunt on an Arabian

Nights carpet for Shakespeare’s "Twelfth Night." The Iceman

Cometh is a masterworking of a masterpiece.

<B>Best Book of a Musical: Inane as it is, "Footloose"

has what is loosely termed a book by Dean Pitchford and Walter Bobbie.

A slim narrative thread by Charles Bevel, Lita Gaithers, Randal Myler,

Ron Taylor, and Dan Wheetman holds together "Ain’t Nothin’ But

the Blues." "Marlene" had a speech impediment, and so

did Pam Gem’s book. Depressing as Alfred Uhry’s book is, he gave Parade

a real and heartbreaking story.

Best Original Score: That audiences are able to sing a

tune or two of the "Footloose" score by Tom Snow, Eric Carmen,

Sammy Hagar, Kenny Loggins, and Jim Steinman is no small achievement.

Although Jason Robert Brown’s score for Parade is admirable,

its bitterness left a bad taste in your mouth. Frank Wildhorn and

Jack Murphy give a pop-tune flavor to "The Civil War." "Twelfth

Night" had a score by Jeanine Tesori. It did?

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play: Willie

Loman rises again with a towering performance by Brian Dennehy

in "Death of a Salesman." Brian O’Byrne was the more eccentric

brother in "The Lonesome West." Corin Redgrave gave us the

willies as the sadistic lecherous warden in "Not About Nightingales."

Kevin Spacey is brilliant amidst a stellar ensemble in the monumental

"The Iceman Cometh."

Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play: Stockard

Channing is a medieval lioness in "The Lion in Winter." Judi

Dench plays a veteran actress in "Amy’s View." How could

she go wrong? Marian Seldes is an eccentric (of course) dowager in

"Ring Round the Moon." Zoe Wanamaker gave "Electra"

its real charge.

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical: Brent

Carver was lynched in "Parade." Adam Cooper was the Swan who

seduced a prince (you had to be there) in "Swan Lake." The

versatile Martin Short played over a dozen roles in the dotty

"Little Me." Tom Wopat gets Bernadette Peters in "Annie

Get Your Gun," but not by a long shot.

Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical: As

convicted murderer Leo Frank’s wife, Carolee Carmello acted

with conviction and sang poignantly in "Parade." As the preacher’s

wife, Dee Hoty didn’t have to kick up her heels or do much of anything

in "Footloose." If not much else, Bernadette Peters sang Irving

Berlin’s great tunes in "Annie Get Your Gun." Sian Phillips

played "Marlene" for all it was worth . . . which was nothing.

Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play: Kevin

Anderson was the best Biff ever in "Salesman." Finbar Lynch

was terrific as the poet/prisoner in "Nightingales." Howard

Witt does more than be supportive as Willie’s neighbor in "Salesman."

Frank Wood is the "Side Man."

Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play: Claire

Bloom’s combustible passion almost ignited her red gown in "Electra."

With Judi Dench for a mother, Samantha Bond had to rise to the occasion.

Dawn Bradfield was a tough lass in "The Lonesome West." In

"Death of A Salesman," an incomparable Elizabeth Franz

makes Linda as immortal as her husband, Willie.

Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical: As

the daring daydreaming Snoopy, Roger Bart fights the Red Baron

in "Charlie Brown." Desmond Richardson brings extraordinary

grace to "Fosse." Ron Taylor feels the blues in "It Ain’t

Nothin’ But…" Scott Wise has the "Fosse" style down

pat.

Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical: Gretha

Boston sings "…the Blues." Kristin Chenoweth is a

knock-out as the new kid in the neighborhood in "Charlie Brown."

Valerie Pettiford makes "Sing Sing Sing" sexy sexy sexy in

"Fosse." Mary Testa gave us high Cs and low camp in "On

the Town."

Best Scenic Design: Nominated twice, Bob Crowley evoked

a lower Manhattan bar ("The Iceman Cometh") and the Persian

landscape ("Twelfth Night"). Riccardo Hernandez’ gloomy "Parade"

settings contributed to its demise. Richard Hoover turned the

difficult space at Circle in the Square into a nightmarish prison

for "Nightingales."

Best Costume Design: No tutus for the male swans among

the Les Brotherson costumes for Bourne’s "Swan Lake."

Santo Loquasto preferred basic black for "Fosse." John David

Ridge’s ball gowns shimmered ‘neath the "Ring Round the Moon."

Catherine Zuber’s designs for "Twelfth Night" were fantastical

haute Baghdad.

Best Lighting Design: Andrew Bridge ("Fosse")

Mark Henderson ("The Iceman Cometh") Natasha Katz ("Twelfth

Night") Chris Parry ("Not About Nightingales").

Best Choreography: Patricia Birch did what little there

was in "Parade." Matthew Bourne gave those swans in

"Swan Lake" a new pas or two. A.C. Ciulla keeps those frustrated

teens turning in "Footloose." Rob Marshall reminded us what

dancing in a musical used to be in "Little Me."

Best Direction of a Play: Howard Davies gave us

a new appreciation for the greatness of "The Iceman Cometh."

Robert Falls got himself the best cast one could hope for in "Death

of a Salesman." Garry Hynes is the referee paid to keep those

feuding Irish brothers from killing each other. Trevor Nunn’s direction

brilliantly balanced poetic realism and melodrama in "Not About

Nightingales."

Best Direction of a Musical: Matthew Bourne’s re-envisioned

"Swan Lake" was a stunner. Richard Maltby Jr. and Ann Reinking

paid reverential homage to "Fosse." Michael Mayer made everything

old seem new in "You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown." Although

Harold Prince couldn’t save "Parade," he tried.

Best Orchestration: Ralph Burns and Douglas Besterman,

"Fosse." David Cullen, "Swan Lake." Don Sebesky,

"Parade." Harold Wheeler, "Little Me."

The Tony Awards, Live from Broadway’s Gershwin Theater

on PBS and CBS Television, Sunday, June 6, 8 to 11 p.m.


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