Reaching new 'Heights'

At Tonys, musical comes out ahead of Waters' 'Cry-Baby'

June 16, 2008|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,Sun theater critic

Lin-Manuel Miranda might have grown up In the Heights, but his current address is on top of the world.

Last night, the theatrical love song that Miranda penned to his childhood stomping grounds of Washington Heights won the 2008 Tony Award for best new musical.

Miranda first began to work on his tale of the close-knit Manhattan neighborhood in 1999, when he was a sophomore at Wesleyan University. When the top Tony was announced, he was hoisted atop the shoulders of the members of the cast. Earlier in the evening, he delivered a witty acceptance speech for best original score in the same hip-hop rhymes he uses in his show:

"I've dreamed about this moment, and now I'm in it / Tell the conductor to hold the baton for a minute ..."

Though Cry-Baby, which is based on John Waters' 1990 cult film, was nominated for four Tony Awards, it was shut out. Even the award for best choreography, which had been thought likely to go to Rob Ashford, went instead to Andy Blankenbuehler of In the Heights.

Baltimore's venerable Pope of Trash himself introduced the show's quintessential jailbreak number, "A Little Upset." As usual, Waters had a unique perspective on the event:

"I wonder if there are any actual prisoners watching the Tony show tonight," he said. "Talk about a new minority."

But Baltimore didn't go entirely unrepresented. Catherine Zuber, a Center Stage associate artist, won for best costume design - for an astounding fourth year in a row.

Alas, she didn't win for the poodle skirts and leather jackets that she put together for Cry-Baby, but for the '50s-era beachwear she designed for South Pacific. Though both shows hail from the same era, their sensibilities couldn't be more different.

It was some enchanted evening for South Pacific, which picked up seven Tonys, the most of any show, including best revival of a musical.

Bartlett Sher, South Pacific's director, thanked the creators of the original musical, including the composing team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, saying they taught him "that our country was really a pretty great place, and that perhaps it could be a little better, and perhaps, in fact, we could change."

As expected, August: Osage County won best play, snapping up a total of five Tonys, the second greatest number. In the Heights captured four Tonys, and Gypsy snagged three.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that one critically acclaimed show - Passing Strange - won just one Tony, for best book of a musical, and the much-praised revival of Sunday in the Park With George took home none at all.

In his acceptance speech, August's playwright, Tracy Letts, took a swipe at the current trend in commercial theater when he thanked the Broadway producers "who decided to do something amazing: stage an American play on Broadway with theater artists."

August also picked up awards for best direction of a musical (Anna D. Shapiro), best actress (Deanna Dunagan) and best featured actress in a play (Rondi Reed).

Everything came up roses for Gypsy. Though it missed out on the best musical prize, it dominated the acting awards. Patti LuPone, as expected, was named best actress in a musical; Laura Benanti was lauded for best featured actress and Boyd Gaines as best featured actor in a musical.

Boeing-Boeing, a lighthearted spoof of the airline industry set in the 1960s, won best revival of a play.

And leave it to that show's star, Mark Rylance, the American who has spent his professional career in Britain, to inject a note of unpredictability into the evening, while picking up the award for best actor in a play.

In his acceptance speech, Rylance eschewed the usual thanks to seemingly deliver a lecture on fashion:

"In the city, wearing some kind of uniform is helpful," he said, "a policeman, a priest, etc. Driving a tank is very impressive. ... If you're in the woods, far from any human civilization, it is a good idea to wear orange."

Confused? You're not the only one.

The Regional Theater Tony went to Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, while Stephen Sondheim, whose musicals have garnered seven best musical Tonys and one Pulitzer Prize, received the lifetime achievement award.

Sondheim has fashioned a career from exploring the nuances of ambivalence, and that quality was on display in his acceptance speech.

Though the songwriter did not pick up his award in person, an associate read a message in which he thanked his collaborators.

"The more venerable you get, the harder it gets living up to the praise bestowed on you," Sondheim wrote. "I, or rather we, promise you more achievement."

The live broadcast from Radio City Music Hall in New York was hosted by Whoopi Goldberg, who elicited a mixture of laughter and boos when she quipped that Baltimore native Thurgood Marshall was "the only African-American Supreme Court justice" - a gibe at conservative judge Clarence Thomas.

"Well, I forgot," Goldberg said in a mock apology.

The Tonys traditionally includes staged numbers only from those shows nominated for best musical. But in an effort to broaden the ceremony's populist appeal, all 13 musicals that debuted on Broadway this season performed on stage - in addition to such favorites from past seasons such as The Lion King and Rent.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

Select winners

Best New Musical: In the Heights

Best New Play: August: Osage County

Best Revival of a Musical: South Pacific

Best Revival of a Play: Boeing-Boeing

Best Actor in a Musical: Paulo Szot, South Pacific

Best Actress in a Musical: Patti LuPone, Gypsy

Best Featured Actor in a Musical: Boyd Gaines, Gypsy

Best Featured Actress in a Musical: Laura Benanti, Gypsy

Best Actor in a Play: Mark Rylance, Boeing-Boeing

Best Actress in a Play: Deanna Dunagan, August: Osage County

Best Featured Actor in a Play: Jim Norton, The Seafarer

Best Featured Actress in a Play: Rondi Reed, August: Osage County

For a complete list, go to baltimoresun.com/tonys

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