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Serious Topics Win Big on Broadway


An eclectic group of Broadway shows dealing with serious topics won the top US theater honors at New York's 61 annual Tony awards. From an 8.5-hour, three part drama focusing on 19th century Russian intellectuals to a musical about teenage sexual repression in 19th century Germany, correspondent Barbara Schoetzau reports issue-oriented shows beat the competition on Broadway this year.

After years of criticism for staging too many revivals and productions based on hit movies, Broadway proclaimed a banner year for inventive, unconventional and serious productions.

The British import Coast of Utopia broke the Broadway record for a drama, winning seven Tonys, including the honors for best play, director, and supporting actor and actress. The huge and expensive production, staged by the non-profit Lincoln Center Theater, was considered risky because it took over the company's entire Broadway season.

But it won both critical and popular support for its vivid depiction of Russian intellectual life in the middle of the 19th century as revolution swept across much of Europe. British playwright Tom Stoppard accepted the best play award for the epic production.

"I feel a bit nostalgic, actually, because this year it is 40 years since I first came here with a play, and I am sentimental enough to want to start by thanking the New York theater for having me, for good times and good friends," said Tom Stoppard.

In the musical category, it was big night for Spring Awakening, a show that began as a small off-Broadway production last year. The musical about teenage sexuality won eight Tonys, including all the awards for music, choreography and direction.

Veteran actor Frank Langella took home the best actor in a play award for his portrayal Richard Nixon in another British import, Frost/ Nixon, a drama based on a series of interviews between the former US president and television commentator Sir David Frost. Langella, who has played everyone from Cyrano de Bergerac to Dracula during his long career on stage and in movies, saluted his competitors.

"Once we are here I suppose we all want to win," said Frank Langella. "But I think we must honor the common bond in us, the struggle, the striving for success, because that's a race you simply cannot lose."

Links to political figures were not limited to dramas. The awards for best actress and best supporting actress in a musical went to Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson for their roles as two eccentric relatives of former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in Grey Gardens, a musical based on a 1970s documentary that has a cult following.

Even the award-winning revivals this year treated relatively serious topics.

Stephen Sondheim's mediation on the loneliness of single people, Company, won the musical revival award.

Journey's End, a drama depicting the harsh realities of war, took top honors for drama revivals. The play, which takes place in a trench during the First World War, won critical acclaim for its exquisite ensemble acting, but failed to draw audiences and closed just before the award ceremony. Producer Bill Haber said making money was not the goal of the producers.

"In 100 years, this play has never been a commercial success, but we wanted to ask you all, dare ask the question to each of us," he asked. "Is there not a better way for human beings to resolve conflict than war? Is there not a better way?"

The Tony awards are voted on by theater industry professionals and journalists. They are named in honor of Antoinette Perry, a founder of the American Theater Wing, which co-sponsors the awards. The ceremony was broadcast nationwide.

While legitimate theater does not have the worldwide reach of US movies, Broadway had its biggest ever last year with more than 12 million people attending shows.