Living up to its fabled moniker as “the fabulous invalid,” Broadway survived a crippling 19-day strike by the stage hands’ union last fall.
One play, “August: Osage County,” was undeterred although temporarily derailed by the cancelled performances but went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and went on to become the major dramatic hit of the season. Despite the loss of playing time and revenue, the Broadway League announced that the season took in $937.5 million just a shade less the $938.5 million grossed during the previous season. Without the strike the season would have exceeded all previous box-office and attendance records.
Thirty six productions were ostensibly eligible for Tony Awards in 26 competitive categories. As is typical, there are always surprises among the nominees, but none more glaring than the omission from Best New Musical category of “Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein” and the Disney musical “The Little Mermaid.” Neither of these two big-budget musicals won cheers from a majority of the critics (I was in the affirmative minority). Both have proven to be very popular with theatergoers, however, with “Young Frankenstein” winning the Audience Award for Best Musical in a poll voted on by the general public. It also tied (with “Xanadu”) for Outstanding New Musical by the Outer Critics Circle.
Traditional commercial productions continue to have a harder row to hoe than those plays produced on Broadway by non-profit theaters such as the Roundabout Theater Company, Manhattan Theater Company, and Lincoln Center Theater. The Off Broadway non-profit Public Theater nurtured “Passing Strange,” which has now moved to Broadway with the help of the Shubert Organization. The commercially produced musical “Into the Heights” was a surprise hit Off-Broadway last season and with additional funding has made a successful move to Broadway.
The biggest hit of the season is the Lincoln Center production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” which will probably take some of the glow away from its strongest competitor in the Musical Revival category. “Gypsy,” although its star, Patti LuPone, appears to have a lock on the Best Leading Actress in a Musical. Restraining from naming which play or musical should really be the winner, I am ready to cast my educated guess.
The 2008 American Theatre Wing’s Tony Awards ceremony will be broadcast over CBS on Sunday evening June 15.
This critic’s picks appear in bold. An asterisk denotes the play or musical is still running.
Best New Play: Humor and tragedy co-exist brilliantly in Tracy Lett’s three-hour-plus Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “August: Osage County,” about a dysfunctional mid-west family gathering.* Politics and private lives collided in Tom Stoppard’s erudite “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” set in England and Czechoslovakia between 1968 and 1990. Four drunks and the devil play cards for high stakes on Christmas Eve in Conor McPherson’s “The Seafarer.” Patrick Barlow farcically re-mastered Master Hitchcock’s spy thriller “The 39 Steps.”*
Best New Musical: “Cry-Baby” is delighting fans of John Waters’ 1990 film about class and privilege and also those who have been embracing “Hairspray,” his other screen to stage, over-the-top, teen-propelled epic.* Fueled by rhythms of salsa and meringue and a warm-hearted story of Latinos in Washington Heights, “In The Heights” is exhilarating entertainment.* Younger audiences are especially enthused about “Passing Strange,” a part-rock concert, part-narrative, quasi-biographical, unconventional musical.* Never before has a rotten-to-the-core movie musical been turned into a deliriously funny stage musical as is “Xanadu.”*
Best Book of a Musical: “Cry-Baby” boasts a book Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan that is by turn unashamedly crude, unabashedly rude and unequivocally delightful.* The book by Quiara Alegria Hudes for “In The Heights” is a bit hokey, but filled with refreshing optimism.* Stew’s moralistic book for Passing Strange” supports his witty lyrics and vibrant music.* Writer Douglas Carter Beane’s wacky wit reigns supreme on earth as it does on Mt. Olympus in the roller disco delight “Xanadu.”*
Best Original Score
(Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theater: The music and lyrics by David Javerbaum & Adam Schlesinger perfectly capture the essence of dippy 1950s doo-wop for “Cry-Baby.”* The invigorating rhythmic rock and rap score for “In The Heights” by composer (and star) Lin-Manuel Miranda is irresistible.* There are enough charming new songs by composer Alan Menken and lyricists (the late) Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater for this stage version of the Disney musical cartoon “The Little Mermaid” to qualify as original score.* For “Passing Strange,” Stew and his collaborator, Heidi Rosewald, have composed a savvy and exciting score that skillfully departs from standard Broadway style.*
Best Revival of a Play: There’s no accounting for changes in taste as audiences appear to be enjoying “Boeing-Boeing,” an inane, but wonderfully acted and directed British farce that previously bombed on Broadway in 1965.* Despite the fact that we are still grappling to grasp the meaning of Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming,” it was superbly acted and directed. “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” is all about how the upper class went about the naughty in 18th century France.* Shakespeare’s Scottish Play (“Macbeth”) was reconstructed with great imagination and lots of blood.
Best Revival of a Musical: “Grease” is the musical that critics tend to loathe and the public chooses to love. What it’s doing here is a mystery.* Being the greatest musical of them all gives “Gypsy” every right, especially when a production is this good, to be revived with regularity. The first Broadway revival since it first opened in 1949 of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” should run at least as long as the original (five years).* A painting comes to life as do all the characters in this audaciously artistic production of Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece “Sunday in the Park with George.”*
Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play: Ben Daniels, a British actor making his Broadway debut, is terrific as the manipulative lover in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.”* Laurence Fishburne is giving a riveting solo performance as our country’s first African American Supreme Court Justice in “Thurgood.”* Mark Rylance is hilarious as the nerd who discovers his sexual side in “Boeing-Boeing.”* Rufus Sewell is memorable as the Czech PhD student who becomes embroiled in his homeland’s politics in “Rock ‘n’ Roll.” The power-thirsty Thane of Caldor was revitalized by Patrick Stewart.
Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play: Eve Best was tantalizing in “The Homecoming,” but she can’t be greedy, having won last year for “Moon for the Misbegotten.” This is the year for the astonishing Deanna Dunagan, as the domineering, drug-addled mother in “August: Osage County.”* Kate Fleetwood chewed up that damn spot in “Macbeth.” In “Come Back, Little Sheba,” Epatha Merkerson did what she could to get her little dog home and her husband sober. In “August,” the terrific Amy Morton’s character goes from menopausal hot flashes to cold bitterness.*
Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical: Daniel Evans is making an auspicious Broadway debut as the pointillist artist Seurat in “Sunday in the Park with George.”* In any other year, Lin-Manuel Miranda would win hands down as the amazing star and composer of “In The Heights.”* Stew also earned accolades as the star of his own remarkable creation “Passing Strange.”* Comely Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot assures us “Some Enchanted Evening” in “South Pacific.”* Tom Wopat gives a stirring performance as the father of the bride in the less than stirring “A Catered Affair.”*
Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical: Kerry Butler is heaven sent from Mt. Olympus in the wonderfully inane “Xanadu.”* But it’s the earthiness of Patti Lupone, as monster momma in “Gypsy” that that takes the crown.* The effervescent Kelli O’Hara tries to wash that man right outta her hair in “South Pacific.”* Faith Prince gives a poignant performance as the mother who wants “A Catered Affair” for her daughter.* Jenna Russell is marvelous as Seurat’s inspiration in “Sunday in the Park with George.”*
Best Direction of a Play: Nothing this season comes close to the cleverness with which Maria Aitken deployed directing “The 39 Steps.”* Conor McPherson directed his own play, “The Seafarer,” with expected indulgence. Anna D. Shapiro deservedly has a lock on this award for “August: Osage County.”* Matthew Warchus did a bang-up job keeping those stewardesses from mid-air crashes in “Boeing-Boeing.”*
Best Direction of a Musical: There is some controversy over the actual direction of Sam Buntrock for “Sunday in the Park with George.”* Never a dull moment “In The Heights” under Thomas Kail’s direction. Ninety-year-old Arthur Laurents is in top form directing “Gypsy.”* Bartlett Sher will get the Tony for his sublime direction of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.”*
Best Choreography: “Cry-Baby” would be crying without Rob Ashford’s exhilarating contributions.* Andy Blankenbuehler put the Latino heart beat into the pulsating dances in “Into the Heights.”* Christopher Gattelli put plenty of muscle and mirth into the dances for Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.”* Dan Knechtges keeps his company on the move on roller skates in “Xanadu.”
Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play: Bobby Cannavale, “Mauritius”; Raul Esparza, “The Homecoming”; Conleth Hill, “The Seafarer”; Jim Norton, “The Seafarer”; David Pittu, “Is He Dead?”
Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play: Sinead Cusack, “Rock n’ Roll”; Mary McCormack, “Boeing-Boeing”*; Laurie Metcalf, “November”; Martha Plimpton, “Top Girls”*; Rondi Reed, “August: Osage County”*
Best Performanced by a Featured Actor in a Musical: Daniel Breaker, “Passing Strange”*; Danny Burstein, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “South Pacific”*; Robin De Jesus, “In The Heights”*; Christopher Fitzgerald, “Young Frankenstein”*; Boyd Gaines, “Gypsy”*
Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical: De’Adre Aziza, “Passing Strange”*; Laura Benanti, “Gypsy”*; Andrea Martin, “Young Frankenstein”*; Olga Merediz, “In The Heights”*; Loretta Ables Sayre, “South Pacific”*
Best Scenic Design of a Play: Peter McKintosh, “The 39 Steps”*; Scott Pask, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”*; Todd Rosenthall, “August: Osage County”*; Anthony Ward, “Macbeth”
Best Scenic Design of a Musical: David Farley and Timothy Bird & The Knifedge Creative Network, “Sunday in the Park with George”*; Anna Louizos, “In The Heights”*; Robin Wagner, “Young Frankenstein”*; Michael Yeargan, “South Pacific”*
Best Costume Design of a Play: Gregory Gale, “Cyrano de Bergerac”; Rob Howell, “Boeing-Boeing”*; Katrina Lindsay, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”*; Peter McKintosh, “The 39 Steps”*
Best Costume Design of a Musical: David Farley, “Sunday in the Park with George”*; Martin Pakledinaz, “Gypsy”*; Paul Tazewell, “In The Heights”*; Catherine Zuber, “South Pacific”*
Best Lighting Design of a Play: Kevin Adams, “The 39 Steps”*; Howard Harrison, “Macbeth”; Donald Holder, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”*; Ann G. Wrightson, “August: Osage County”*
Best Lighting Design of a Musical: Ken Billington, “Sunday in the Park with George”*; Howell Binkley, “In The Heights”*; Donald Holder, “South Pacific”*; Natasha Katz, “The Little Mermaid”*
Best Sound Design of a Play: Simon Baker, “Boeing-Boeing”*; Adam Cork, “Macbeth”; Ian Dickinson, “Rock ‘n’ Roll”; Mic Pool, “The 39 Steps”*
Best Sound Design of a Musical: Acme Sound Partners, “In The Heights”*; Sebastian Frost, “Sunday in the Park with George”*; Scott Lehrer, “South Pacific”*; Dan Moses Schreier, “Gypsy”*
Best Orchestratrion: Jason Carr, “Sunday in the Park with George”*; Alex Lacamoire & Bill Sherman, “In the Heights”*; Stew & Heidi Rodewald, “Passing Strange”*; Jonathan Tunick, “A Catered Affair”*