Tony Awards 2008: Nominations–In the Heights and South Pacific

May 14, 2008–The musicals “In the Heights” and Rodgers & Hammerstein revival “South Pacific” led the nominations for the 62nd Tony Awards, with 13 and 11 mentions, respectively, while the seven nominations for “August: Osage County” make Tracy Letts’ family saga the lead play.

Announced Tuesday morning by David Hyde Pierce and Sara Ramirez at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, the nominations highlight a new kind of diversity.

Old-fashioned Broadway shows like Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” and Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein,” didn’t get major nods. The nominating committee remained impervious to star power, and actors such as Kevin Kline, Jennifer Garner, Terrence Howard, James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman, Frances McDormand and Nathan Lane were not included.

An Off Broadway transfer about a Hispanic community in a gentrifying Upper Manhattan neighborhood, “In the Heights” set the bar high with dozen mentions, including musical. Composer Lin-Manuel Miranda got two nominations, for score and lead actor, while the show also drew mentions for Quiara Alegria Hudes’ book, Thomas Kail’s direction and Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography, along with nods for featured thesps Olga Merediz and Robin De Jesus, orchestrations, sets, costumes, lighting and sound.

Thomas Kail was the sole director of a new show to make the final cut for helming a musical. He competes with Bartlett Sher for “South Pacific,” Sam Buntrock for “Sunday in the Park With George” and Arthur Laurents for “Gypsy,” each of which earned nominations in key categories. That trio also squares off in the musical revival, with “Grease” taking the fourth slot.

Among the seven nominations for the Pulitzer Prize-winning “August: Osage County” were play, director (Anna D. Shapiro), two for leading actress (Deanna Dunagan, Amy Morton) and another for featured actress (Rondi Reed). A transfer from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company that came to Broadway with its original cast largely intact, Letts’ award front-runner stands to put an American drama back in the spotlight after two consecutive years of top prizes going to Brit imports (Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys” in 2006, Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia” in 2007).

Other nominees: Tom Stoppard’s exploration of the intersection between Central European politics and 1960s music, “Rock ‘n’ Roll”; Conor McPherson’s booze-soaked dance with the devil, “The Seafarer”; and Patrick Barlow’s comic Hitchcock riff “The 39 Steps” each racking up a handful of noms, including for the top prize.

Contenders for play revival included British productions “Boeing-Boeing” and “Macbeth” go up against homegrown stagings of “The Homecoming” and “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.”

In contrast to the record-breaking 2001 Tony sweep of “The Producers,” Brooks’ follow-up outing, “Young Frankenstein,” took just three nominations, for featured thesps and Robin Wagner’s set. “The Little Mermaid,” the latest from Disney Theatrical Prods., hooked two, one for score and one for lighting.

The downtown rock musical “Passing Strange” and spoofy comedy “Xanadu” also made the cut for top tuner, the one award that legiters agree can have a noticeable impact on box office. The fourth slot in the category went to surprise contender “Cry-Baby,” and not as expected to “A Catered Affair.”

“Cry-Baby” received four nominations, including book, score and choreography. The Harvey Fierstein-John Bucchino musical “A Catered Affair” took three.

Of the seven nominations for “Strange,” four were earned by creator-star Stew, giving him the most personal mentions of any single nominee, with spots in the races for book, lead actor, original score (with co-composer Heidi Rodewald), and orchestrations (also with Rodewald).

Among Tony contenders, “Passing Strange” would benefit the most from awards attention. A transfer from Off Broadway’s Public Theater, the coming-of-age tale about a middle-class black Angeleno’s journey of self-discovery through countercultural Europe won raves after its February Rialto opening but has consistently struggled to attract audiences.

Lead actress in a musical looks to be one of the toughest contests, with the three shoo-in nominees, Patti LuPone (“Gypsy”), Kelli O’Hara (“South Pacific”) and Faith Prince (“A Catered Affair”), joined by Kerry Butler (“Xanadu”) and Jenna Russell (“Sunday in the Park With George”).

Appearances by big-name stars failed to win over the Tony nominating committee despite the commercial strength of their shows. Notably absent was Mike Nichols’ revival of Clifford Odets’ “The Country Girl,” with Freeman, McDormand and Peter Gallagher. Also Missing were Claire Danes in “Pygmalion,” Kline and Garner in “Cyrano de Bergerac” and Lane in David Mamet comedy “November,” which landed co-star Laurie Metcalf a mention for featured actress.

Several film and TV crossover talents were acknowledged, however, including Laurence Fishburne for “Thurgood,” Rufus Sewell for “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Patrick Stewart for “Macbeth,” S. Epatha Merkerson for “Come Back, Little Sheba” and Bobby Cannavale for “Mauritius.”

“Cyrano” was overlooked in the revival race (it scored a single nomination for costumes), as was the current hit “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” the all-black staging of Tennessee Williams’ melodrama, whose cast of stars left off the Tony roster includes Jones, Howard and Phylicia Rashad.

The nominations provided significant endorsement of the work of New York’s nonprofit theaters. Roundabout Theater Company scored a total of 20 noms for “Sunday in the Park With George,” “The 39 Steps” and “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”; Lincoln Center Theater took 11 for “South Pacific”; Manhattan Theater Club landed one each for “Top Girls,” “Come Back, Little Sheba” and “Mauritius”; and the Public earned seven for “Passing Strange.”

Lifetime achievement honor will go to seven-time Tony winner Stephen Sondheim, the composer whose musicals “Sweeney Todd” and “Company” have received revivals in recent seasons.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater took the annual Tony for a regional theater. The late orchestrator and arranger Robert Russell Bennett, whose original orchestrations are heard in the current revival of “South Pacific,” will receive a special posthumous award for his work.

About 800 people will vote on the Tony Awards, due to be handed out in a June 15 ceremony at Radio City Music Hall hosted by Whoopi Goldberg, in a telecast that CBS will air live.

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