'Heights,' 'August' Nab Top Tony Awards

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 mu

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 "In the Heights," including best 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 unusual nature of the evening when he said, "It's surreal, absolutely surreal. A year ago when I was at my home theatre and my home town, the idea of standing here holding this, a year later ... this is absolutely a surreal experience."

Miranda, creator of "In the Heights" and winner of a Tony for best score, said he wasn't trying to shake up Broadway 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 theatre music back together. They used to be good friends a long time ago."

The one-named Stew, creator of "Passing Strange" and who won a 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. "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 were also 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, best actor in a play, 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. The audience was by turns amused and bemused but, as Rylance told reporters later, "It has some kind of meaning for me." If he was the only one who saw it, that seemed to be okay by him.

Deanna Dunangan of "August: Osage County," a 34-year veteran of regional theatre, 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 known primarily as an opera star, earned best actor in a musical for "South Pacific."

The play started at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre and, 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 didnt have the allure, but it held all the allure." She also stressed that the company didn't establish a national reputation for itself--or for members such as John Malkovich and Gary Sinise--until it brought its first production to Gotham, an Off-Broadway revival of Sam Shepard's "True West."

But there was also 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 the equivalent of a first-round knockout, 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 castmates 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 Stream 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 break-out, runaway hit musicals such as "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 by 9-2, including seven for "South Pacific." In addition to best revival, it took the Tonys for best actor (Paulo Szot) and director (Sher).