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Tony Awards gave their (final?) regards to old Broadway

June 16, 2008 |  8:28 pm

The big winner at the Tonys last night appeared to be the integrity of the awards themselves as they celebrated two original new musicals ("In the Heights," "Passing Strange") and a play ("August: Osage County") that didn't — egad — contain superstars or too much glitter.

Thus we beheld Broadway's Tony Awards making one last valiant effort to stave off the crushing invasion of Hollywood and Las Vegas. It's a war that's already lost, of course, but at least there was a brief, heroic victory telecast last night on CBS.

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The battle lines were drawn when nominations came out last month. The lineup delivered blast after blast at celebrities (no Laura Linney, Kevin Kline, Frances McDormand Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!). The ones who managed to sneak in such as Patrick Stewart ended up suffering a humbling blow on awards night, as most pundits had predicted he would win.

Instead, Broadway rewarded new fare and its beloved veterans whose names aren't known much beyond the rialto — like "Gypsy" stars Laura Benanti (two-time past nominee finally winning her first) and Boyd Gaines (claiming his fourth, thus making him the biggest Tony winner among male actors). "Boeing-Boeing" star Mark Rylance was permitted to pull off an upset for best actor because he's a serious British thespian who used to be artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London. Patti LuPone is known out in the fly-over states, but only among geezers who remember her brief TV career ("Life Goes On," 1989-93).

While it was nice to see Broadway defending its own, what made such bravery sad was the realization that it doesn't have much sacred turf left to defend. Face it. Hollywood and Vegas have already taken over the Great White Way.

The Tonys' best-play winner "August: Osage Country" was the only successful new original drama on Broadway this year. The only other original play currently running is David Mamet's gawd-awful "November," which features famous faces (Nathan Lane, Laurie Metcalf) and wasn't even nominated. Almost all other current Broadway plays are revivals: "Boeing-Boeing," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" and "Top Girls," for example. Or else they're adapted from films like "The 39 Steps." More revivals are on their way, including "All My Sons" and "Equus."

Where were new plays by today's equivalents to Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller?

The same trend is true in the musical genre, of course. Look what won the most trophies last night: "South Pacific" set a new record for most wins by a musical revival (seven). Broadway stages are flooded with more trusty revivals like "Grease," "Gypsy," "Chicago" and "Phantom of the Opera."

The big new musicals tend to be adaptations of familiar Hollywood films, not edgy new fare by today's equivalent to Stephen Sondheim. The triumph of "In the Heights" suggested that there might be hope, but maybe just a little.

Two new film-to-stage adaptations, surprisingly, didn't nab nominations as best musical -- "A Catered Affair" and "Young Frankenstein" -- but two others did fill the category of only four nominees ("Cry-Baby" and "Xanadu").

Others currently on the boards: "The Lion King," "Mary Poppins" and "The Little Mermaid." Coming soon: "Billy Elliott" and "Shrek."

Inevitably, in the future, the Tonys will have to embrace some of these celluloid rip-offs just as they have in recent years -- like past best-musical winners "Hairspray," "The Producers" and even, arguably, "Spamalot."

Bottom line: old Broadway is dead. Gone are the days when its theaters boomed with dozens of daring original productions like "All My Sons," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "Equus" when they were still fresh and daring, spooking audiences and thrilling critics.

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Nowadays it seems impossible that their modern equivalents can be discovered, get funded and succeed. Today these plays may only prosper as revivals starring a Hollywood hunk or a reality TV star-of-the-moment. A few new productions managed to sneak through this year and Tony voters rallied to defend them — hurrah! — but this may have been a brief, shining moment — like Camelot — that may never emerge from the mists of commercial showbiz again.

(Photos: Marquis Theatre, Helen Hayes Theatre)


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