Finally, Some Drama at the Tonys: Could ‘Passing Strange’ Upset ‘In the Heights’?

Photos: Carol Rosegg (Stew); Joan Marcus (Miranda); Courtesy of the American Theater Wing (Tony)

Despite the fact that most of the nominated shows are actually pretty good, this year’s Tonys look to be the most boring ever — because nearly every award has already been decided in the conventional wisdom. Best Play? August: Osage County, the Pulitzer-winning, hugely entertaining, three-and-a-half-hour cavalcade of family members saying mean things to each other. Best Revival of a Musical? South Pacific. Best Actress in a Musical? Patti LuPone. Best Actor in a Musical? Paulo Szot. Not that these weren’t all worthy recipients, but when a baker’s dozen theater writers all agree on most of the major awards, it suggests kind of a dull show.

But wait! Michael Riedel thinks that Best Musical — the big prize — might still be up in the air. Most everyone thinks the reggaeton romance In the Heights has the award locked up, but Riedel says that the power of Stew’s score, plus Stew’s ability to work the voters, makes Passing Strange a dark horse on Sunday night. “He and his porkpie hat have been all over town this past month, charming pretty close to all of the 765 Tony voters,” Riedel writes. Could it be true?

We doubt it. It’s one thing to give the Best Musical award to a show like Spring Awakening, which is rockish and fun but is still made by people who love musical theater and Broadway. It’s another thing to give the award to a show that consciously rejects Broadway tradition — to great effect, it must be said — written by and starring a guy who’s made it clear he doesn’t really care for, well, Broadway. “If you asked all of us, you could probably count the number of Broadway shows we’ve seen on two hands,” Stew says, describing himself as a guy “you have to drag to the theater.”

Contrast this to In the Heights, whose Lin-Manuel Miranda speaks enthusiastically about his love of musicals, and whose show embraces those traditions even as it spices them up with a touch of reggaeton and hip-hop. Sure, this makes the show a little more “energetic and bland,” as Riedel snipes, but it also makes it a much better crowd-pleaser than Passing Strange, even if Passing Strange is more innovative a show. Argue all you want about which musical is better, but if you were a Tony voter — that is, in most cases, a devoted Broadway lover — which one would you vote for?

On the other hand, by that logic, maybe Cry-Baby will win. Now that would be an upset!

Experts predict who’ll win the Tonys [Gold Derby/NYT]

Finally, Some Drama at the Tonys: Could ‘Passing Strange’ Upset ‘In the Heights’?