High 'Rent' District Theater: Funny things happened on the way as a 'La Boheme' update and 'The King and I' took the big musical prizes at the Tonys.

June 03, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"Rent" -- a groundbreaking rock musical about starving artists -- took home a wealth of Tony Awards at last night's ceremony in New York.

An updated retelling of Puccini's "La Boheme" set in New York's East Village, "Rent" won a total of four Tonys, including those for its score and book, both by the late Jonathan Larson, who died at age 35, shortly after the show's dress rehearsal. Larson's sister Julie accepted the awards, saying that her brother "dreamed of creating a youthful, passionate piece that would be pertinent and would bring a new generation to the theater. . . . Thank you all for embracing 'Rent' and with it my brother Jonathan."

"Rent's" win represents the third time the top honor has gone to a deceased playwright. The other posthumous winners were T. S. Eliot for "Cats" and Eugene O'Neill for "Long Day's Journey into Night."

"Rent" also won the featured actor award for Wilson Jermaine Heredia's portrayal of a transvestite.

The Tony for best play went to "Master Class," Terrence McNally's drama about legendary soprano Maria Callas. Although McNally also won last year, that program's time constraints prohibited him from making his acceptance speech on the air. This year, though he commented on his 40-second limitation, he did get a chance to speak, thanking "Maria Callas for bringing beauty and passion and integrity to my life."

"Master Class" won all three awards for which it was nominated. In the leading actress category, one of the few that seemed a sure thing in this year's highly competitive awards, Zoe Caldwell won her fourth Tony for her role as Callas. "Master Class," which played a pre-Broadway engagement at Washington's Kennedy Center last fall, also won a Tony for Audra McDonald's featured performance as a voice student who is initially cowed by Callas, and then defiant. In her acceptance speech, McDonald thanked her alma mater, Juilliard, where "Master Class" is set.

"Rent" and the season's other groundbreaking musical, "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk," were neck and neck for most of the evening and ended up winning the same number of awards.

The best choreography award went to "Bring in 'da Noise's" Savion Glover. The award was presented by Gregory Hines, with whom Glover appeared in "Jelly's Last Jam" four seasons ago. "Bring in 'da Noise" also won awards for lighting, for George C. Wolfe's direction and for Ann Duquesnay's featured performance. Wolfe and a tearful Duquesnay both dedicated their Tonys to deceased parents.

The evening's first award, for best musical revival, went to "The King and I," which also won awards for Donna Murphy's portrayal of Anna and for scenic and costume design. This production will be part of the Mechanic Theatre's coming season. "The King and I," which won the best musical Tony in 1952, is the third straight Oscar Hammerstein II musical to be named best revival, after "Show Boat" in 1995 and "Carousel" in 1994.

The award for best play revival was won by Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance," for which the playwright also won the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes. In addition, the production won Tonys for leading actor George Grizzard and for Gerald Gutierrez's direction. "I'd like to thank every single person I've ever met in my entire life," Gutierrez said in accepting his second Tony in two years.

August Wilson's "Seven Guitars," which had the most nominations of any new play, won only one award -- for Ruben Santiago-Hudson's featured role as a harmonica player in 1940s Pittsburgh.

Nathan Lane was named best actor in a musical for his portrayal of Pseudolus, a Roman slave in the revival of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." "This means a lot to me because, as you know, I'm an emotionally unstable, desperately needy little man," Lane said in his acceptance speech.

Lane was also the host of last night's awards. He began the festivities by leading the cast of "Forum" across the street to the Majestic Theatre, where the Tony ceremony took place.

He then made his first official appearance as host dressed in one of Julie Andrews' costumes from "Victor/Victoria" -- a reference to Andrews' much publicized request to be withdrawn from the nominations because, in her words, the rest of the participants in "Victor/Victoria" were "egregiously overlooked."

"Come on, you really thought she was gonna show up? That's about as likely as the Pope showing up at Madonna's baby

shower," Lane quipped.

In an effort to fit the telecast within its two-hour time slot, 13 of this year's 21 awards were presented an hour before the broadcast, then edited to make room for retrospectives celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Tonys. The first of these retrospectives featured Richard Burton and Andrews in "Camelot." Besides asking to be withdrawn from consideration as a nominee, Andrews also declined to appear as a presenter, although she has been the host of three previous Tony broadcasts.

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