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‘King,’ Queen’ rule Tonys

Women directors make stage history

In a Tony awards ceremony marked by a few surprises, a little bit of history-making and much enthusiasm for the season’s offerings, the face-off between Broadway’s “The Lion King” and “Ragtime” culminated with the feline emerging triumphant, taking six nods to “Ragtime’s” four, and most significantly the top award for best new musical.

The Roundabout Theater Co.’s revival of “Cabaret” also took four top awards at the 52nd annual ceremonies, as did Martin McDonagh’s “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” while history was made, twice over, when “Beauty Queen’s” femme director Garry Hynes took the helming nod for a play, and minutes later “Lion King’s” Julie Taymor did the same for musicals — and earned one of the evening’s warmest ovations.

“Ragtime’s” respectable runner-up status isn’t likely to cheer Livent topper Garth Drabinsky, who ceded control of his company on Friday to Michael Ovitz, as Livent shareholders approved Ovitz’s purchase of a controlling stake in the beleaguered company. In addition, Livent’s fortunes are tied to the performance of “Ragtime” in a manner that the giant Disney corporation’s are certainly not to “Lion King.” While both shows are Broadway hits, “Ragtime,” with touring productions doing variable business on the road, needed the publicity boost more than “Lion King.”

Although many references were made to the season’s rich crop of straight plays, the Tony voters spread the wealth pretty thinly, giving four nods to McDonagh’s “Beauty Queen,” which took the awards for best director, featured actor Tom Murphy (who thanked McDonagh for his “great feckin’ story and great feckin’ lines,” a tribute that went out live on CBS), featured actress Anna Manahan (whose speech was as simply moving as Murphy’s was amusingly profane) and lead actress Marie Mullen.

But the big one, the best play nod, surprisingly went to Yasmina Reza’s “Art.”

Of the 21 shows nominated in 21 categories, the Tonys were split among just six: “Lion King,” “Ragtime,” “Cabaret,” “Beauty Queen,” “A View From the Bridge” and “Art.”

The first hour of the show, broadcast on PBS before CBS took over for the latter two, was dominated by the contest between “Lion King” and “Ragtime,” with eight of the first nine awards going to one or the other. “Lion King” predictably swept the design awards, picking up the nods for Taymor’s costumes, Richard Hudson’s sets, Donald Holder’s lighting as well as Garth Fagan’s choreography. “Ragtime” kept apace, picking up key nods for Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s score and orchestrations, and Terrence McNally’s book.

In one of the evening’s biggest surprises, Audra McDonald, who appears to be incapable of losing a Tony award, picked up her third prize in as many tries for “Ragtime” (she previously won featured actress in a play for “Master Class” and featured actress in a musical for the Lincoln Center revival of “Carousel”). The favorite in the category had been “Lion King’s” Tsidii Le Loka, who got a special mention from Rosie O’Donnell, who hosted the show and was one of the telecast’s producers.

O’Donnell, Broadway’s biggest booster, opened the show with a lyrical rewrite of “Chicago’s” “Roxie”: “I try to sing like Patti LuPone, but I sound like Rhoda Morgenstern.” She wasn’t kidding, of course, but her cohorts more than made up for any vocal shortcomings: She was joined by LuPone, a svelte Jenni-fer Holliday, (who, when she opened her mouth, looked like she could swallow Radio City) and Betty Buckley, singing snippets of their signature Broadway tunes in an enthusiastically received number.

The Roundabout Theater Co. had a spectacular night, with its productions of “A View From the Bridge” and “Cabaret” picking up the Tonys for best play and musical revival. “Cabaret” also won awards for lead actress Natasha Richardson, lead actor Alan Cumming and featured actor Ron Rifkin. “View’s” Anthony LaPaglia won the best actor in a play nod. The Roundabout’s total take, from its 17 nominations, was a more than respectable six, all in top categories.

It now remains to be seen what impact the awards will have on the box office of the winners, and how long some of the losers will last on the boards. Last year, when there were no clear favorites — and few hits — among the new plays and musicals going in to the ceremony, the Tony gave new life to “Titanic,” “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” and, due to a strong performance segment, “The Life.” But this year the big winners — “Lion King,” “Ragtime,” “Cabaret,” “Beauty Queen” and “Art” — are already hits.

“Cabaret’s” win could spell doom for the struggling “1776,” while “View” could use a B.O. boost from its pair of statuettes. Other Tony-less shows includ-ing “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and “Honour” may not make it through the summer — or the month.

While “Lion King” and “Ragtime” are both doing sellout business, both will benefit from the national TV exposure, although neither shows’ performing segments compared to the theatrical experience.

“Ragtime’s” rousing opening number’s effect was somewhat diminished by its unwieldy feeling on the TV screen, and even “Lion King’s” still more spec-tacular opening lost some of its wondrous grace in the translation: That elephant looked a lot more awkward lumbering across the stage at Radio City than it did at the New Amsterdam. It earned an ovation from the audience nonetheless. Segs from “Cabaret,” “Scarlet Pimpernel,” “Sound of Music” and “1776” were pleasant without being knockouts.

In fact, perhaps because it didn’t attempt to compete in the spectacle business, but relied merely on the considerable vocal and histrionic talents of its two stars, Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner, “Side Show” made a magnificent impression, perhaps the best among the superabundance of musical segments. But of course, that show’s closed.

The regional theater award, along with a $25,000 check from Clairol, went to the Denver Center Theater Co., and lifetime achievement awards were given to theatrical attorney Edward E. Colton and set designer Ben Edwards. A Tony for excellence in theater was given to the Intl. Theater Institute of the United States.

Accepting his fourth Tony, for “Ragtime’s” book, McNally gave one of the evening’s most pointed (though not network-broadcast) speeches. Referring to the recent brouhaha over the cancellation of his play “Corpus Christi” at the Manhattan Theater Club, he thanked the theater community for its support.

“You came together when I was in trouble, and you spoke up, and I am very grateful for that,” McNally said. “Without you, I wouldn’t be standing up here either, and eventually none of us would.”