Revival of South Pacific takes 5 Tony Awards

The lavish revival of “South Pacific” took five prizes, including director of a musical, and “Boeing-Boeing, a 1960s sex farce filled with slamming doors and eager stewardesses, was named best-revival play, as the 2008 Tony Awards got under way Sunday.

Bartlett Sher, who oversaw “South Pacific,” thanked the show’s legendary creators, composer Richard Rodgers, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, its original director and co-author Joshua Logan and James Michener, who wrote the novel on which the show was based.

“They were kind of incredible men, because they seem to teach me particularly that in a way I wasn’t only an artist but I was also a citizen,” Sher said. “And the work that we do in these musicals or in any of these plays is not only important in terms of entertaining people, but 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.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the music and lyrics for “In the Heights,” rapped his way through his acceptance speech for best score, saying: “I know I wrote a little show about home. Mr. Sondheim, look, I made a hat. (a reference to a lyric in Sondheim’s ‘Sunday in the Park with George’) But there never was a hat — it’s a Latin hat at that!”

And “In the Heights” managed two other musical prizes — for the choreography of Andy Blankenbuehler and for orchestrations.

But Stew, the star and co-creator of “Passing Strange” took the prize for best book of a musical.

“Yeah, yeah. Um. Yeah,” said the almost speechless performer, who did not expect awards to be given out so early. “I thought this going to happen like an hour from now. I was looking for some M&Ms in my pocket.”

He said that he and his team created the project on an “organic” level. “We dealt with this play like a kid or a good meal,” he said.

“Gypsy” celebrated with two featured performer awards. Boyd Gaines won his fourth Tony, this time for portraying Herbie, the good-natured candy salesman in the show. And Laura Benanti, who plays the musical’s title character, the ugly duckling who grows up to become the glamorous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, also was victorious.

Rondi Reed, who portrays the flighty sister-in-law in “August: Osage County” received the featured-actress play award. Reed, from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, was effusive in her thanks to “the audiences, the people on the street … my Steppenwolf family … my on-stage family … everyone in my life who ever put up with me, believed in me, kicked me in the butt and told me I could do it.”

Jim Norton, who played a cantankerous blind Irishman in “The Seafarer,” took the featured actor-play prize and told the audience: “This has to be one of the happiest days of my life. I can’t believe it.”

“South Pacific” received awards for sets, costumes, lighting and sound of a musical. The design prizes for play were divided — two went to “The 39 Steps” for sound and lighting, while “August: Osage County” took set design and “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” costumes.

The CBS telecast from Radio City Music Hall opened with an elaborate number from Disney’s “The Lion King,” now in its second decade on Broadway, and finished with host Whoopi Goldberg, walking out dressed as the crab from another Disney musical “The Little Mermaid.”

But it was the battle between “In the Heights” and “Passing Strange,” two shows created by Broadway newcomers, for the top prize of best musical that excited most theatergoers.

“Both shows are stories of cultural experiences that are so different from your standard Broadway fare and are told with styles of music that are equally different,” says Howard Sherman, executive director of the American Theatre Wing, which presents the Tonys each year with the Broadway League, the theater trade association.

“In the Heights” is the joyous celebration of the immigrant experience, specifically Latino life in the upper reaches of Manhattan, while “Passing Strange” looks at the highly personal odyssey of a young, middle-class man as he comes of age during a rock-, sex- and drug-filled journey to Europe.

Also nominated for best musical were “Cry-Baby,” Broadway’s second attempt to adapt a John Waters film for the stage, and “Xanadu,” a campy send-up of a nearly forgotten 1980s roller-disco movie.

Equally fierce was the contest for best-musical revival, with the main contenders being two classics from Broadway’s golden age: “South Pacific,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic tale of romance and racism during World War II; and “Gypsy,” the ultimate backstage story of one mother’s determination to make her daughter a star.

“But in many ways, this was the year of the play,” says Sherman. “And the variety was enormous — old, new, American, English, Irish.”

In a season that offered 36 productions, 23 of them were plays — 10 new works and 13 revivals.

Already a Pulitzer Prize winner, “August: Osage County” is Tracy Letts’ look at the bitter backbiting of an Oklahoma family, presided over by an acidulous matriarch. For the record, the other fine nominees were Conor McPherson’s “The Seafarer,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll” by Tom Stoppard and “The 39 Steps,” Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of the Hitchcock film.


Despite an abundance of plays, it was a disconcerting year for Broadway. A crippling 19-day stagehands strike last November shut down more than two dozen shows during a particularly lucrative time of year, resulting in millions of dollars in losses. The strike most likely prevented the theater from having its first-ever billion-dollar season.

The total gross for the season, according to the Broadway League, was $937.5 million, about a million dollars shy of the previous year. Attendance slipped slightly, too, to 12.27 million, down from 12.3 million in the preceding season.

None of the new musicals proved to be smash hits at the box office, compared to successes from past seasons such as “Jersey Boys” or “Wicked.” The season’s most difficult ticket turned out to be the nearly 60-year-old “South Pacific.”

More than a few shows were counting on Tony victories to boost business. Sunday’s winners in 26 competitive categories were voted on by 795 members of the theatrical community. The Tonys were founded by the Wing in 1947. -AP

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