'Contact' sport: Tony's tussle over musical categories

Broadway's best compete for awards Sunday

"Art" is on display in Washington, D.C. "Titanic" sinks eight times a week in Green Bay, Wis. "Miss Saigon" has taken up residence in Birmingham, Ala. And in Columbus, Ohio, they're fighting "The Civil War."

All these shows were launched on Broadway, and have joined dozens of regional productions spread out across the country.

Because of Broadway's wide appeal, Sunday's 54th annual Tony Awards ceremony (CBS, 9-11 p.m.), broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall and hosted by Rosie O'Donnell, generates interest well beyond the Great White Way. The show will be preceded by a one-hour program on PBS during which the first 10 awards will be handed out.

One of the biggest controversies this year centers around the nominees for Best Musical. Included among the nominees is "Contact," labeled a dance play by its creators, Susan Stroman and John Weidman. But the Broadway musicians union, Local 802, protested its eligibility, saying that no live musicians are involved in the performances.

Traditionally, musicals have been comprised of spoken scenes, songs, and dances, with classics such as "South Pacific," "Hello, Dolly!" and "My Fair Lady" setting the standards. "Contact" features three vignettes told primarily through dance, although there are snatches of dialogue underscored with recorded music.

In response to this controversy, the Tony Awards Administration Committee announced last week that it will create a new category: "special theatrical event." Ms. Stroman, nominated for four Tonys this year as both director and choreographer for "Contact," and the much-heralded revival of Meredith Willson's "The Music Man," defends the nomination.

"This is a unique piece. I love musicians," Stroman says. "I even have them on stage during the opening of 'The Music Man.' What I haven't heard mentioned is that we are paying royalties for every song we use, which means that all those musicians are earning money, and probably enough to pay for seven orchestras.

"Overall, though, I think these controversies are blown out of proportion. 'Les Mis' has no dance at all. Does that mean it's not a musical? I think it doesn't matter, all these definitions."

In fact, last year's Best Musical winner, "Fosse," also broke with tradition. That production is made up of dance segments from the shows choreographed and directed by the legendary Bob Fosse. There is no book, no story, and no spoken dialogue.

Entries challenging "Contact" for Best Musical include "James Joyce's The Dead," a play with Irish parlor songs and original music interspersed; "Swing!" a series of lively, crowd-pleasing sequences built around swing and Lindy Hop dancing; and "The Wild Party," by Michael John LaChuisa and George C. Wolfe.

Only "The Wild Party" conforms strictly to the traditional definition of a musical. "Aida," the Disney spectacular with songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, failed to make the list. And "Dirty Blonde," a play written by and starring Claudia Shear, based partly on Mae West, features a few songs, but received a nomination for Best Play.

Insiders will watch to see if Stroman moves successfully from her two-time Tony Award status as a choreographer - for "Crazy for You" and "Showboat" - into that rare field of musical directors who came from the ranks of choreographers. That realm includes Mr. Fosse, Michael Bennett, and Jerome Robbins.

This year's awards also include a mother pitted against her daughter. Rosemary Harris, a nominee for Best Actress in a Play for her role in Noel Coward's "Waiting in the Wings," faces daughter Jennifer Ehle, who stars in a revival of Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing."

Michael Blakemore may also make history. His work as director has been chosen in both categories: Best Play for "Copenhagen," and Best Musical for the revival of "Kiss Me, Kate."

Eleven plays and 10 musicals were vying for nominations. One popular favorite, Sam Shepard's play "True West," written nearly 20 years ago, is only now making its debut on Broadway in a spectacular production directed by Matthew Warchus. Actors Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly have taken on the unusual task of alternating roles with each other, in the story of two brothers with clashing personalities. All three received nominations. The new Arthur Miller play, "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan," is also in contention for Best Play, having moved to Broadway after an Off-Broadway run last year.

The awards are voted on by about 700 members of the theatrical profession. Among the special honors to be bestowed are a lifetime-achievement Tony to actress Eileen Heckert and one for special live theatrical event to "Dame Edna: The Royal Tour," now playing on Broadway.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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