Reading the Tony Awards Tea Leaves The Broadway season was notable for some auspicious debuts — chances are the Tony Awards for both best play and best musical will go to Broadway first-timers — and by some distinguished revivals. Jeff Lunden handicaps the race.
NPR logo Reading the Tony Awards Tea Leaves

Reading the Tony Awards Tea Leaves

Best-actress favorite Deanna Dunagan (front) and co-star Amy Morton in Tracy Letts' drama August: Osage County, the front-runner for best play at this year's Tony Awards. hide caption

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Quick Picks: The Favorites

  • Best Play: August: Osage County
  • Best Musical: In The Heights
  • Best Revival of a Play:
       Boeing-Boeing or Macbeth
  • Best Revival of a Musical:
       South Pacific

Relationships are forged and altered at the bodega in Best Musical nominee In The Heights. Joan Marcus hide caption

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Joan Marcus

Relationships are forged and altered at the bodega in Best Musical nominee In The Heights.

Joan Marcus

Patrick Stewart's performance in Macbeth may break the Scottish play's Tony curse. Alastair Muir hide caption

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Alastair Muir

Patrick Stewart's performance in Macbeth may break the Scottish play's Tony curse.

Alastair Muir

Perhaps the biggest drama of the 2007-2008 season on Broadway was the stagehands' strike, which shuttered most theaters for 19 days during one of the most lucrative times of the year — the Thanksgiving holiday.

The labor dispute, which pitted the producers and the stagehands against each other over work rules, forced several plays to postpone their openings; overall box office took a hit. For the first time in several years, both annual attendance and total ticket sales were down.

Still, the season was notable for some auspicious debuts — chances are the Tony Awards for both best play and best musical will go to Broadway first-timers — and by some distinguished revivals.

Here are my picks for Tony Awards in selected categories:

Best Play

August: Osage County
Rock 'n' Roll
The Seafarer
The 39 Steps

One of the big surprises this season was how many new plays were produced on Broadway: 11 in all. The clear front-runner in this category is August: Osage County, an import from the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago and the Broadway debut of playwright Tracy Letts.

His long (three-and-a-half hours) but entertaining portrait of a dysfunctional Oklahoma family has already won several major awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. Look for it to clean up in several categories: Deanna Dunagan, as the gargoyle of a matriarch, and director Anna D. Shapiro are both likely to take home trophies.

Honorable mention goes to Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll — a dense and moving examination of the power of pop music and the effect of politics in the Eastern Bloc — and to Conor McPherson's moody, funny The Seafarer, in which a group of drunken Irishmen find themselves playing cards with the Devil on Christmas Eve.

Best Musical

Cry-Baby
In The Heights
Passing Strange
Xanadu

Both In the Heights and Passing Strange were transfers from off-Broadway, and both introduced new voices to Broadway.

In Heights, it's the young songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda and book writer Quiara Alegria Hudes, who tell a somewhat sentimental story set in Washington Heights, infusing it with sounds rarely heard on Broadway: hip-hop and salsa.

In the case of Passing Strange, it's the middle-aged voice of an alt-rocker named Stew, who tells a somewhat sentimental coming-of-age story about a middle class African-American youth, infusing it with some straight-ahead rock and roll.

Both shows received extremely positive reviews, though Passing Strange has been struggling to find an audience. In The Heights has proved more commercially durable; look for it to take several categories, including best musical and best score.

Cry-Baby, based on the John Waters film, got generally negative reviews, though it might win best choreography for Rob Ashford's hilarious tap dance, performed by reform-school inmates with license plates on their feet. And Xanadu, a cheeky campfest based on the awful Olivia Newton-John film, may well win best book for its author, Douglas Carter Beane.

One of the most interesting aspects of this category is the two musicals that are missing from it: Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein and Disney's The Little Mermaid. Both shows were highly anticipated, received dismal reviews, appear to be commercially successful — and were almost completely ignored by the Tony nominating committee.

Best Revival of a Play

Boeing-Boeing
The Homecoming
Les Liaisons Dangerouses
Macbeth

All four nominees are strong in this category. The Homecoming received some of the best reviews of the season, but was a commercial failure; Les Liaisons Dangerouses, starring Laura Linney, got mixed reviews but has been doing well in its limited run at the nonprofit Roundabout Theatre.

The two serious contenders are Rupert Goold's striking, Soviet-era update of Macbeth, starring Patrick Stewart, and Matthew Warchus' successful reanimation of a tired '60s sex farce, Boeing-Boeing, featuring a comic tour-de-force from Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance in his Broadway debut. Either production could win — and either of the lead actors could win in their category, as well.

Best Revival of a Musical

Grease
Gypsy
South Pacific
Sunday in the Park with George

In any other season, the Roundabout Theatre's production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Sunday in the Park with George — which added clever animations to illustrate the artistic process of painter Georges Seurat — would win the Tony hands down.

But it's not any other season. Patti LuPone brought in her titanic interpretation of Mama Rose in Gypsy, under the direction of 90-year-old author Arthur Laurents, to ecstatic reviews.

And the Lincoln Center Theatre presented the first-ever Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific — to, yes, ecstatic reviews. Look for the latter production, directed with tremendous sensitivity by Bartlett Sher, to win best revival and take several Tonys (among them the lead-actor trophy for Paulo Szot as Emile de Becque).

But look for LuPone to win best actress in a musical — and for her cast mates Laura Benanti and Boyd Gaines to win in the supporting categories.

As a footnote, the Grease revival was the first Broadway show to cast its leads through a competition on a reality-TV show. Critics groaned — but audiences have been flocking to it.