2008 Tony Awards: Old pros and new voices

A preview of the surprisingly hot competition for most of Broadway's coveted awards.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Last year's Tony Awards lacked drama in the major categories, with heavy favorites "Spring Awakening" and "The Coast of Utopia" nabbing best play and musical, respectively. This year – with the possible exception of the Tracy Letts play that has generated so much buzz – we're back to a world of uncertainty. Which outsider show will bring home the night's big prize for best musical: "Passing Strange" or "In the Heights"? And which beloved masterpiece – "South Pacific" or "Gypsy" – will nab the golden statuette in the surprisingly competitive best-musical-revival category? Here are our predictions for who will and should win trophies in eight of the major categories. Tune in to the 62nd annual Tony Awards telecast (Sunday, 8 p.m. ET, CBS) to find out what happens.

Best Play

Will Win/Should Win: "August: Osage County"

Recommended: 'Les Misérables': 15 memorable quotes

Also nominated: "The 39 Steps"

If there's a sure bet at this year's Tony ceremony, it's Mr. Letts's "August: Osage County," which already won the Pulitzer Prize and stands as this season's runaway critical darling. The absorbing dysfunctional family drama combines the acid humor and ferociousness of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" with the insidious secrets and self-deluding lies of Eugene O'Neill's masterpiece "Long Day's Journey Into Night." The bad behavior on display includes adultery, incest, pill-popping, and pedophilia, and despite the radioactive revelations, the play remains a relentlessly entertaining – and deeply moving – piece of drama. Tom Stoppard won this award last year for his epic "Coast of Utopia" trilogy, so it's doubtful he'll score a repeat with the lauded "Rock 'n' Roll." The young Irish writer Conor McPherson penned a sublime meditation on loneliness, self-loathing, and redemption with "The Seafarer," but his best plays are still ahead of him.

Best Musical

Will Win: "In the Heights"

Should Win/Could Pull Off an Upset: "Passing Strange"

Also nominated: "Cry-Baby," "Xanadu"

Both of the leading contenders for best musical, "In the Heights" and "Passing Strange," serve as beacons for the future of the musical form. Adventurous, underdog shows that originated off-Broadway, they're brimming with the kind of characters and music rarely seen or heard on the Great White Way. Set in the barrio and populated with a vibrant mix of working-class Hispanics, Lin-Manuel Miranda's "In the Heights" deftly melds salsa, reggae, reggaeton, and, most encouragingly, hip-hop, into its standout score. While the show is a crowd-pleaser, the tissue-paper-thin book and sentimental dramatic conflicts keep it from stacking up against the sardonic humor, deep feeling, and wistful regret of "Passing Strange," about a young man searching for his artistic voice in a strange and sometimes hostile world. Written by and starring African-American musician Stew, "Passing Strange" at first feels like a glorified concert laced with rock and R&B grooves. But thanks to its indelible shape-shifting cast, incisive book, and poignant tale of the sacrifices an artist makes to pursue a creative life, the show stands as one of the freshest and most exhilarating pieces of musical theater since, well, last year's indie rock-infused Tony winner, "Spring Awakening."

Best Revival of a Musical

Will Win: "South Pacific"

Should Win: "Gypsy"

Also nominated: "Sunday in the Park With George," "Grease"

This year's biggest Tony showdown pits the first Broadway revival of "South Pacific" (since the original won best musical in 1950) against what many theater fans consider possibly the greatest musical ever written, "Gyspy." Based on Patti LuPone's heartwrenching performance in the twin climaxes of "Gypsy" – "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Rose's Turn" – the show should be the hands-down favorite. But critics and audiences have been drooling over the sterling revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's postwar classic thanks to its expert direction by Bartlett Sher, breathtaking set design, and sublime score, featuring landmark tunes such as "Some Enchanted Evening" and "There's Nothing Like a Dame." While "South Pacific" may have been pioneering for 1949, its simplistic, soft-shoed, and self-congratulatory treatment of racial intolerance feels a bit tacked on and pales in comparison to the brutal self-delusions and savage irony that made "Gypsy" a modern classic.

Best Revival of a Play

Will Win: "Macbeth"

Should Win: "Les Liaisons Dangereuses"

Also nominated: "Boeing-Boeing," "The Homecoming"

The bloody and bloodcurdling, modernist production of "Macbeth," starring Patrick Stewart, seemed to divide theatergoers, as did Harold Pinter's provocative masterpiece "The Homecoming." So my vote goes to "Les Liaisons Dangereuses." The stylish revival has been unfairly maligned by some critics, but in Rufus Norris's hands, the play shifts effortlessly between farce and tragedy and serves as a damning indictment of the plight of women in a male-dominated society. The entrancing pas de deux of deception, manipulation, and betrayal between Laura Linney's calculating Marquise and Ben Daniels's seductive Valmont is a pleasure to watch.

Best Performance By a Leading Actor in a Musical

Will Win: Lin-Manuel Miranda

Should Win: Stew, "Passing Strange"

Also nominated: Paulo Szot, "South Pacific"; Daniel Evans, "Sunday in the Park With George"; Tom Wopat, "A Catered Affair"

Mr. Szot boasts a pitch-perfect tenor, not to mention palpable chemistry with co-star Kelli O'Hara, but his performance as Emile de Becque felt a little stiff. Look for this award to go to one of the fresh-faced Broadway newbies. Stew will probably garner the nods for Best Book and/or Best Original Score, so we guess Mr. Miranda will bring home the gold for his rapping skills and ebullient performance as a barrio-dwelling bodega owner.

Best Leading Actress in a Musical

Will/Should Win: Patti LuPone, "Gypsy"

Could Pull Off an Upset: Kelli O'Hara, "South Pacific"

Also nominated: Jenna Russell, "Sunday in the Park With George"; Faith Prince, "A Catered Affair"; Kerry Butler, "Xanadu"

Two years ago, Ms. LuPone and Ms. O'Hara were facing off in this same category. Then LaChanze in "The Color Purple" scored the big upset. Could there by another spoiler this year? O'Hara oozes charm and vivacity as the irrepressible Nellie Forbush. But Mama Rose is the role LuPone was born to play, and she brings the full weight of her enormous talents to bear. It's almost historic. This would be her first Tony for best actress in a musical since her iconic turn in "Evita" almost 30 years ago. Really, folks, it's Patti's turn.

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play

Will/Should Win: Patrick Stewart

Could Pull Off an Upset: Ben Daniels, "Les Liaisons Dangereuses"; Laurence Fishburne, "Thurgood"

Also nominated: Mark Rylance, "Boeing-Boeing"; Rufus Sewell, "Rock 'n' Roll"

You know a Tony category is chock full of worthy contenders when Kevin Klein gets left off the list for his luminously low-key performance in "Cyrano de Bergerac." Royal Shakespeare Company veteran and big- and small-screen star Patrick Stewart has already become the first actor to receive a Tony nomination for playing the title role in the Scottish play. Count on him making it so and walking away with the gold statue.

Best Performance By a Leading Actress in a Play

Will Win/Should Win: Deanna Dunagan or Amy Morton, "August: Osage County"

Could Pull Off an Upset: Eve Best, "The Homecoming"; S. Epatha Merkerson, "Come Back, Little Sheba"

Also nominated: Kate Fleetwood, "Macbeth"

In yet another mind-bogglingly competitive category, Ms. Dunagan, as the pill-popping matriach, or Ms. Morton, as the steely, sharp-tongued daughter, stand as the favorites for their wildly entertaining performances. But if the two Steppenwolf Theatre Company regulars split the vote, look for "Law and Order" veteran Ms. Merkerson or powerhouse British import Eve Best to sneak in for the win.

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