'In the Heights' leads 2008 Tony Awards nominees

by Howard Shapiro

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

14 May 2008


“In the Heights,” an exuberant new hit musical conceived by an actor-composer when he was in college, and with a book by a young Philadelphia playwright, received 13 nominations Tuesday for Broadway’s biggest prize, the Tony Award.

In a season ripe with memorable musicals, the first-ever Broadway revival of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s wartime story, “South Pacific,” led the nominations for best revival of a musical, with 11.

The straight-play category was topped by “August: Osage County,” a skewering, often hilarious look at a family in crisis. The comedy/drama, an import from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, has created a buzz that continues, for the raw power Tracy Letts unleashes in his script and exceptional acting in the production, and is considered a shoo-in for the best-play Tony.

“August: Osage County” was awarded best play by the New York Drama Critics’ Circle on Monday. The group, composed of Broadway critics, also awarded best musical to “Passing Strange,” a new hip-hop show about an African-American teenager who leaves California to find himself in Europe’s avant-garde. “Passing Strange” followed “In the Heights” in new musical Tony nominations Tuesday with seven, including best book and best actor - both for a personable theater artist who calls himself, simply, Stew.

“In the Heights,” about the gentrification of the Latino neighborhood called Washington Heights, at the northern tip of Manhattan, mixes salsa, hip-hop, rap and other musical styles and features some of Broadway’s most intriguing dancing. In addition to its best-musical nod, “In the Heights” received nominations for its music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who stars in the show and was nominated as best musical actor. Miranda began working on the show as a student at Wesleyan University.

The script for “In the Heights” earned Philadelphia playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes a nomination for best book of a musical.

Hudes, 30, spent four years working and reworking the dialogue while writing other plays, and says that much of the character development and the plot comes out of her experiences in North Philadelphia, where her parents own businesses and ran the popular El Viejo San Juan, formerly a restaurant on Girard Avenue.

Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography for the show, which sometimes engages cast members in simultaneous individual dances, is among its nominations.

The high-tech revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George,” which examines the artistic obsession of 19th-century French painter Georges Seurat and projects that onto his progeny, received nine Tony nominations. The Roundabout Theatre Company production’s nominations include best musical revival. A staging of “Grease” that stars a couple chosen by the TV audience of the NBC talent runoff, “Grease: You’re the One That I Want,” also was nominated for best musical revival, along with the dynamic “Gypsy,” starring Patti LuPone in a career-high performance as Rose, the stage-mother who’ll do anything to see her daughters in the footlights. LuPone was nominated for best musical actress.

In addition to “August: Osage County,” new works up for best play are Tom Stoppard’s “Rock `n’ Roll,” which considers the fall of Communism and the draw of rock music in one complicated metaphor; “The Seafarer,” Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s night of drunken and devilish mischief, and Patrick Barlow’s wildly kinetic “The 39 Steps,” a gag-a-minute spoof of Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller.

Along with “In the Heights” and “Passing Strange,” best new musical nominations went to two stage makeovers of movies: “Cry-Baby,” the just-opened take on John Waters’ film about `50s haves and have-nots, and “Xanadu,” which turns an almost universally disliked film into a sparkling, funny stage show.

One production was conspicuously absent from the best revived play nominations - or any Tony nominations: Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” with an all-African-American cast starring James Earl Jones and Phylicia Rashad. The production apparently failed to move the nominators, although it’s steadily drawing enthusiastic audiences.

Best revived play nominations went to “Boeing-Boeing,” about a traveling man who juggles girlfriends; the staging of Harold Pinter’s ode to sexual expression and repression, “The Homecoming”; a new Roundabout production of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”; and a stylish and riveting “Macbeth” that came from London to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, then to Broadway.

That production stars Patrick Stewart, who also was nominated for best leading actor in a play, along with Laurence Fishburne, vividly portraying the late U.S. Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall in a one-man show, “Thurgood.” Other nominees are Mark Rylance (“Boeing-Boeing”), Rufus Sewell (“Rock `n’ Roll”) and Ben Daniels (“Les Liaisons Dangereuses”).

Deanna Dunagan, portraying the pill-popping, take-no-prisoners momma in “August: Osage County,” was nominated as best leading actress in a play, as was Amy Morton, who plays her oldest daughter. S. Epatha Merkerson, whose portrayal of the stymied wife sparked the revival of William Inge’s “Come Back, Little Sheba,” also was nominated, along with Eve Best (“The Homecoming”) and Kate Fleetwood (“Macbeth”).

In addition to Miranda and Stew, best leading musical actor nominations went to Daniel Evans, who plays two parts in “Sunday in the Park with George,” Tom Wopat in “A Catered Affair,” and the commanding Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot, an opera singer who fully encompasses his mysterious character in “South Pacific.”

LuPone’s singular performance in “Gypsy” earned a best-musical-actress nomination, along with Kelli O’Hara, who builds a sweet but strong portrayal of South Pacific’s love-jolted ensign, Nellie Forbush. They’re joined by Kerry Butler, playing the wacky Muse descended from heaven to inspire a beleaguered artist in “Xanadu,” Faith Prince (“A Catered Affair”) and Jenna Russell (“Sunday in the Park with George”).

All productions that opened in Broadway’s 39 theaters since the Tony Awards last June were eligible for nominations. Twenty-three theater professionals chose the nominees, and 795 members of the theater community will choose the winners. The awards ceremony, hosted by Whoopi Goldberg, will be televised live on CBS on June 15 from Radio City Music Hall.

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