Small-scale fare wins out over popular hits

Broadway’s caught the indie spirit.

The 2008 Tony nominations, announced May 13, underscore the increasing tendency of legit awards to lavish attention on smaller-scale, less conventional fare over mass-market commercial undertakings — just as in Hollywood, arthouse offerings continue to dominate the Oscar race and riskier cable skeins turn heads at the Emmys.

Take this year’s Tony lineup of tuner contenders.

Big-budget tentpoles “The Little Mermaid” and “Young Frankenstein” earned only a handful of secondary acting and design nods between them, while the competish for the top musical trophy includes “In the Heights,” a tale about the Hispanic community in Upper Manhattan that brings Latin rhythms to the Rialto; “Passing Strange,” the semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story of black rocker Stew; and “Xanadu,” a scrappy spoof of the notorious 1980 roller disco flop.

Even the fourth slot in the category and the only large-scale entry of the bunch, “Cry-Baby,” is based on a pic by one of the original indie film mavericks, John Waters.

“It’s Sundance,” says nominated “Xanadu” book writer Douglas Carter Beane of this year’s Tony race. “I swear I just saw Parker Posey in ski attire.”

Unconventional, younger-skewing legit offerings have been on the rise for several years now, a shift that became apparent when underdog “Avenue Q” snatched Tony gold away from mega-budgeted “Wicked” in 2004. Last year again seemed to serve as a bellwether season when a sexually explicit rock musical about angsty teens, “Spring Awakening,” became an industry darling and swept the Tonys, besting commercial heavyweights like “Curtains” and “Mary Poppins.”

But as many legiters point out, arthouse offerings have nabbed the spotlight in prior seasons.

“When ‘Rent’ opened, they said the same thing,” says Kevin McCollum, a producer of “In the Heights” who made his first Rialto splash with the grungy update of “La Boheme” in 1996. “I think what Broadway is responding to is contemporary music, the music of its time.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s nominated score for “Heights,” for instance, owes as much of a debt to hip-hop and salsa as it does to Rodgers & Hammerstein, while “Strange,” also up for score, is geared to look and sound more like a rock concert than a razzle-dazzle Broadway show.

As if to highlight the artist-driven nature of those two tuners, both Miranda and Stew are competing not only for score kudos but also for lead actor in a tuner. Stew personally received four noms (two with “Strange” co-creator Heidi Rodewald), including book and orchestrations.

Still, the Tonys didn’t entirely toss aside old-school offerings. After all, three of the most-nommed shows of the season were critically praised revivals: Lincoln Center Theater’s “South Pacific,” the Roundabout’s “Sunday in the Park With George” and “Gypsy.”

The fact that two of these productions, “South Pacific” (11 total noms, second only to the 13 of “Heights”) and “Sunday in the Park” (nine noms), are produced by nonprofit theaters on their own stages, is another cause for rancor erupting from the commercial/not-for-profit divide.

The parallel with the film and television industries is significant.

Since cable shows like “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City” started regularly stealing their thunder at the Emmys, networks complain that big-business pressures would never allow them to produce those edgier programs. And since the rise in the early ’90s of Oscar-bait indies like “The Crying Game” and “Pulp Fiction,” market-driven Hollywood studios have griped repeatedly that the Academy Awards have become a specialty film monopoly, often barely distinguishable from the Spirit Awards.

Given the smaller community and rampant cross-pollination of Broadway, folks tend to be less outspoken in their criticisms. But commercial legit producers have been heard griping about the Tony dominance and critical embrace of shows produced with the perceived cushion of the not-for-profit financial model.

“I really think it’s only a few of them that feel that way, but I’m aware of what sometimes gets said behind my back,” says LCT a.d. Andre Bishop. “I’m sorry they feel that way. In my view, the not-for-profit theater has brought a lot to commercial Broadway, and the commercial producers have brought a lot to the nonprofit.”

It’s clear, however, that the one-time perception of Broadway as a showcase for megawatt spectacle is becoming obsolete. The key Tony races every year now feature big-budget muscle going mano a mano with smaller, quirkier, often more artistically ambitious shows. While box office powerhouse “Monty Python’s Spamalot” took the top prize in 2005, it was prevented from anything approaching a sweep by eccentric mini-musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and rarefied romance “The Light in the Piazza,” both of which nabbed their share of awards.

Nonprofit productions, Off Broadway and regional transfers have steadily elevated their profile on Broadway as producers show increasing willingness to look beyond the traditional musical model. Some experiments, like “Grey Gardens” or “Caroline, or Change,” are unable to match their critical success with commercial results. Others, like this year’s short-lived “Glory Days,” which closed on opening night after an ill-advised transfer from Virginia’s Signature Theater, make it painfully clear that not every aspiring upstart belongs in the big leagues.

But when modestly scaled tuners like “Spelling Bee” or “Spring Awakening” click, their rapid path to recoupment can leave big-budget brethren gasping in the dust.

Industry vets who take a long view see the current crop of nominees as just another turn in a long history of shifts in Rialto vogue.

“Broadway has been changing, maybe imperceptibly, over the years,” says Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the Shubert Org, which owns 16 Rialto houses and is a producer of “Passing Strange.” “It’s too early to tell, but maybe we’re entering a new part of the evolution.”

And as some members of the old guard acknowledge, it may be too early to declare “indie legit” the force of the future.

“They all say this is the year of young musicals,” says Arthur Laurents, the 89-year-old book writer of “Gypsy” who’s up for a Tony for his direction of the current revival. “But people are always desperately looking for the ‘year of.’ “

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