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Intimate outdoes spectacle at Tonys

'Heights,' 'Strange' beat out 'Frankenstein'

The 2008 Tony race for musical may best be remembered as the year that the mega-budgeted “Young Frankenstein” from Mel Brooks and “The Little Mermaid” from Disney Theatricals were not nommed.

All of a sudden, “Cry-Baby,” capitalized at a big but not huge $12.5 million, looks gigantic in comparison with the nominated competish of the medium-size “In the Heights” and the downright tiny “Passing Strange” and “Xanadu.”

“It’s a come-from-behind victory,” says “Cry-Baby” producer Adam Epstein. “I always thought ‘Cry-Baby’ was subversive and edgy, but in this season we seem pretty mainstream.”

Epstein goes so far as to compare the current Tony race to Hollywood: “Like the Oscars, it feels we’re in competition with indie flicks. I thought we’d be the equivalent of an independent movie, but we turned out to be the tentpole film.”

“Small” is a relative term when it comes to talking about Broadway. But there’s no denying that this year’s three other Tony-nommed musicals skew toward the small scale — be that in terms of numbers (actors and musicians involved), scope, intent or even emotional range.

The most obvious component is numerical. “Passing Strange” — the rock ‘n’ roll autobiography starring its creator, singer-songwriter Stew — features an onstage band of four (not counting Stew) and six actors (again exempting the creator-star). That’s small indeed for a musical on the Great White Way. Yet the campy 1980s homage “Xanadu” boasts little more in terms of people power: 10 characters and a band of four.

“In the Heights,” with a cast of 27, approaches the numbers traditionally associated with Broadway musicals, even as it departs from the norm thanks to its one-set barrio and a Latin-pop score played by a lean 11-member band.

“We’re doing a commentary on the state of popular entertainment in this day and age,” says Rob Ahrens, “Xanadu’s” lead producer, referring not just to his show. “We pushed things a bit further since we didn’t have to appeal to everyone. ‘Passing Strange’ has done a similar thing. It’s an unconventional structure that works.”

For “Passing Strange,” the Rialto was ironically a berth of last resort. “We resisted a Broadway run for years,” says Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater, whose association with the show dates back to its genesis in 2004. “We considered nightclub venues. But it became clear that outfitting a club would be prohibitive and that our best bet was to do what we’d resisted: make it a Broadway show.”

Conversely, Jeffrey Seller, one of the lead producers of “In the Heights,” insists that the Great White Way is exactly where his show should be, even though it originated Off Broadway. “I think it was a very predictable move,” he says. “It has the same values as ‘Avenue Q’ and ‘Rent’ in that they are original, contemporary and take place in New York City. I think bringing it to Broadway was the kind of move one makes with a musical with a big score, lots of dancing and a heartwarming story. What makes it exciting is that an aria right out of the Broadway tradition follows ‘96,000,’ which employs hip-hop, rhythm and blues and everyday pop.”

In the last three years, Tony has thought small (“Spring Awakening,” 2007), medium-size (“The Jersey Boys,” 2006) and big (“Spamalot,” 2005). It’s obvious that 2008 will be the tuner tie-breaker.

TIP SHEET

What: American Theater Wing’s Tony Awards
Where: Radio City Music Hall
When: June 15
Telecast: CBS 8 p.m. ET/PT
Host: Whoopi Goldberg
Web: TonyAwards.com

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