The Tonys, they are a-changin’

[21 May 2008]

By Linda Winer

Newsday (MCT)

This is the time of year we dump on the committee that chooses the Tony Award nominations. In the twilight of the Broadway season, the theater world heaves with lists of egregious omissions and commercial sellouts aimed at the handful of (mostly little-known) theater experts (23 this year) who shape the memories for history and for the tourists.

This year, I’m going to skip my outrage list - well, some of it - and acknowledge the care and open-mindedness that came up with last week’s unpredictably brave distillation of a remarkably vital and messy year.

Oh, I have my incredulities and heartbreaks. No Kevin Kline for “Cyrano de Bergerac?” Best revival nominations for the dowdy “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” but not for the flinty “Top Girls”? Garlands of delight for the unrelentingly dopey, inexplicably adored “Boeing-Boeing,” but not a single citation for the black “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (starring James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad, Terrence Howard and Anika Noni Rose) or for Mike Nichols’ quietly majestic revival of “The Country Girl” (with Morgan Freeman, Frances McDormand and Peter Gallagher)?

In general, however, the nominations recognize that the winds on Broadway - like the politics in the country, perhaps - are blowing this year for change, for diversity, for youth. “August: Osage County,” Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning dysfunctional-family drama, is the big favorite among the new plays, despite the absence of a single famous name in the cast or creative team.

The big musical machines - Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein,” Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” - have been shut out of the major slots. Instead, the smart money is on first-time creative teams: “In the Heights” (topping the nominations with 13), an old-fashioned musical with new-fashioned Latino material by composer-star Lin-Manuel Miranda; and “Passing Strange,” a hipster black-identity rock concert/ musical by composer-star Stew.

Everyone expected these two to sweep the nominations. But instead of sprinkling the CBS telecast (June 15) with stardust from the hot-ticket mediocrity of “Young Frankenstein” and “Mermaid,” the nominators filled the remaining musical slots with edgy fun from two smart-dumb adaptations of cult-comic movies, “Cry-Baby” (John Waters’ bad taste/good-values sensibility plus first-time Broadway composers) and the delirious “Xanadu,” (yes, based on the Olivia Newton-John film floppola of 1980).

But this was hardly a season that has neglected the best in American musical theater. Revivals of three of the most glorious - “South Pacific,” “Sunday in the Park With George,” “Gypsy” - are so pleasurable that competition in the categories is almost painful. An old-time diva smackdown will be between Kelli O’Hara as a deliciously delicate Nellie Forbush in “South Pacific” and Patti LuPone as a gutsy bulldozer of a Mama Rose in “Gypsy.” And the new faces off with tradition in the brilliantly innovative digital scenery for “Sunday” and the luscious craftsmanship of “South Pacific.”

The nominations make few concessions to crass demands for road-ready crowd pleasing, but the one concession is a doozy. Right up there with the three musical-revival masterworks is “Grease,” the bulletproof money machine cast by plebiscite on reality TV. Shameless.

In most other ways, this is a list that shuns marquee names for British actors, theater insiders and little-known newcomers. I admire the resistance to star-licking celebrity culture, and love that the nominators reached all the way back in the season to remember David Pittu’s wild assortment of comic caricatures in “Is He Dead?” and Bobby Cannavale’s dangerously sweet lowlife in “Mauritius.”

What bothers me, however, is the snobbism in segments of the theater community, an overreaction to Hollywood that automatically rejects stage achievements of actors who happen to be more famous in movies and television.

This how-dare-they? isolation and defensiveness have led to the shunning of impressive crossovers by Jennifer Garner (“Cyrano”) and Terrence Howard (“Cat”). The anti-Hollywood nuttiness even makes people deny the major stage work that some stars (conspicuously, Frances McDormand and Morgan Freeman) have done previously in New York.

As might be expected, more nominations come from work that opened recently than in quality plays already closed. Whether you blame short memories or box-office considerations, this is as it has always been. Producers wait to open until the last weeks before the spring cutoff - you know, just in case a few nominations can catapult shows onto the national telecast and summer tourism.

This season, however, was meant to be different. Plays - an astonishing number of serious revivals and new work - shot out of the autumn as if someone had fired a cannon into the Broadway fluff.

It was a brave and intelligent new way to treat the commercial theater, but we’ll never know if such adventure would have changed the shape of Broadway in ways beyond the influx of young musicals.

The 19-day stagehands’ strike sapped the momentum necessary for audiences to respond to praise for Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming,” Tom Stoppard’s “Rock `n’ Roll” and Conor McPherson’s “The Seafarer,” to name a few of the adventures that closed before they had a chance to thrive.

So it’s a good list of nominations. The season, however, was better.

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