"In the Heights" and "Passing Strange," two shows created by Broadway newcomers, battled Sunday for the top prize of best musical as the 2008 Tony Awards honored the theater season.
"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. And the winner for best play surely will be no surprise when announced during the three-hour ceremony televised by CBS from Radio City Music Hall, 8-11 p.m. EDT.
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.