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Tonys: Battle of the Ages : Theater: 'The Who's Tommy' representing the Young Turks and the Old Guard's 'Kiss of the Spider Woman' are in a tight race for best musical. 'Angels' looks to dominate the drama categories on Sunday.

June 05, 1993|PATRICK PACHECO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — When Broadway doles out its top honors in the annual Tony Awards ceremony Sunday night, most insiders are predicting that playwright Tony Kushner's "Angels in America"--nominated for nine awards--will walk away with a lion's share of the medals in the dramatic categories.

No suspense there. But the contest for the all-important award for best musical is shaping up to be a battle between the Young Turks and the Old Guard: "The Who's Tommy," the blockbuster based on the legendary rock opera nurtured at San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse, versus "Kiss of the Spider Woman," the musical from the Manuel Puig novel created by some of New York's most veteran talents, including director Harold Prince and Chita Rivera.

Although "Blood Brothers" and "The Goodbye Girl" are also nominees, handicappers agree that the race comes down to the generational split between "Tommy" and "Kiss."

"It comes up a lot," said Mark Zimmerman, a 41-year-old actor who, as a council member of Actors Equity, votes on the awards. "I'm excited personally because 'Tommy' represents a direction we should be going in to get a younger audience on Broadway."

Quick to argue the other side is Bernard B. Jacobs, president of the heavyweight Shubert Organization, which this year is not a producer of a show represented in the best musical category, although "Kiss" is in a Shubert theater. " 'Tommy' a new musical? It's 25 years old," he said.

Jacobs isn't saying where his votes are going, but his sentiments, echoed by other Tony voters, seem to underline the prevailing wisdom that "Kiss of the Spider Woman" will come away with the top prize--and that, surprisingly, it will do so on the strength of the perception that it is the more daring of the two shows.

"I'm leaning toward voting for 'Kiss,' " said Jim McLaughlin, a 42-year-old news producer for "Sunday Morning" on CBS, which will be televising the awards on a tape-delayed basis on the West Coast Sunday at 9 p.m. McLaughlin is one of the 670 producers, theater professionals, critics and journalists to whom ballots were issued.

"I remember 'Tommy' as something raw and revolutionary when I first heard it in 1969, but now it seems tamer. 'Kiss,' on the other hand, while flawed, seems to have the edge I find lacking in 'Tommy.' I am thinking of voting for Des McAnuff over Harold Prince, however, for best director. What he did with 'Tommy' was visually stunning," he said.

Such opinions will no doubt come as a surprise to anyone who followed the media blitz surrounding the opening of "Tommy," in which it was repeatedly hailed as a bold and adventurous new direction for Broadway: a rock musical that nevertheless looked at home on the stage of the venerable St. James Theatre.

In contrast, "Kiss" received mixed notices. There were raves for Brent Carver in the flamboyant role of the imprisoned gay window dresser and Chita Rivera for her role as the Spider Woman. (Both are clear favorites to win Tonys.) But "Kiss" came in for a lot of criticism for its songs (by John Kander and Fred Ebb) and book (by Terrence McNally)--which are competing against Pete Townshend's score for "Tommy" and his collaboration with director Des McAnuff on the book.

So what happened? The history of the Tony Awards is a lesson in the maverick impulses of the 670 voters--most of whom, one might add, are graying around the temples. (In Broadway terms, a "young turk" can be anyone under 50.) Historically, some of the winners seem unlikely in retrospect: "Music Man" over "West Side Story" (1958), "Nine" over "Dreamgirls" (1982), "Will Roger's Follies" over "Miss Saigon" (1991).

Quite often, Tonys have gone to whichever musical has opened successfully nearest to the close of the season. This year there was a fight for the finish line: "Kiss" opened days before the deadline for season nominations and two weeks after the opening of "Tommy."

"Tommy" is not without its vocal supporters, however. Richard Jay-Alexander, executive producer for Cameron Mackintosh--who for the first time in many years is not up for a Tony--said "Tommy" is almost certainly the preference among voting promoters and producers on the national touring circuit.

"What would you have an easier time selling?" he asked. "A musical like 'Tommy' or one about political torture, death and homosexuality?"

Traditionally the Tony Award for best play has not meant as much of a boon at the box office. For example, "The Grapes of Wrath" won the top honor and still closed with a complete loss of its investment. But Rocco Landesman, one of the many producers for "Angels in America," has been quoted saying that the Tony is very important for the commercial future of "Angels" whose fantastical subject matter and bitter themes are a hard sell to the mainstream public. "I would say it's decisive," he said. "A play as tough as this one without the imprimatur of the Tony . . . will have a tough go."

Any real competition to "Angels" is likely to come from Wendy Wasserstein's "The Sisters Rosensweig," a comedy starring Jane Alexander and Madeline Kahn.

By the time the last award of the evening--best musical--is announced, it is quite possible that the roll call of winners will include a fair share of both Young Turks and Old Guard. As Broadway celebrates its centennial year, the Fabulous Invalid appears to be tottering toward the millennium with some anxiety, insecure in the knowledge that the old formulas are no longer working but fearful, as always, of breaking new ground.

"It's a pained and ambivalent time," said Jay-Alexander. "But at least brave and new things are going on. (Audiences) are making up their own minds. If they're not interested in what you have to say, no awards in the world are going to help."

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