Or, Why In the Heights Won Best Musical and Passing Strange Walked Away with Next to Nothing
The 2008 Tony Awards renewed my hope for the future of musical theatre and it wasn’t simply the fact that the Tony voters actually selected the best in each category this year. It was the spectacle of The Lion King’s opening performance, the indomitable Patti LuPone garnering a standing ovation for her performance of "Everything’s Coming Up Roses," the reaction of generations of theatre people to RENT’s farewell performance, and the large number of winners who stood on stage expressing their sincere gratitude for just being allowed to work in theatre. But, most of all, it was the fact that the Lin-Manuel Mirandas took the night with barely a glance back at Stew and his attempt at the autonomous musical.
Just looking at Stew, the creator and self-styled star of the mostly autobiographical Passing Strange, is enough to see how full of himself the man is. Sporting ever present sunglasses, a bright wardrobe, and an irritating take-me-as-I-am personality, Stew announced to the New York Times, as if it were a badge of honor, that he can count the number of times he’s been to the theatre on one hand. He speaks about musical theatre as if it were the most inferior of art forms, in need of his vulgar, over-loud version of reform. "In high school," he said, "when you're a rock 'n' roll stoner, your mortal enemies are the thespians. We thought that musical theater was the dorkiest thing in the world and had nothing to do with the music we listened to. And quite frankly we still feel that way." With all his talk about being an "outsider," one gets the overall impression that the man enjoys being on the fringe and will do all he can to remain there, as if appealing to a wider variety of people were some form of selling out.
Then there’s Lin-Manuel Miranda. Being a Latino on Broadway, Miranda is also a minority; what Stew would call an "outsider." But where Stew harbors this not-so-veiled dislike for Broadway, Miranda is a Broadway baby. He may have grown up in the mostly Latino community of Inwood at the top of Manhattan, with all its hip-hop and salsa influences, but just watching his reaction to the RENT tribute performance is enough to see how much he adores musical theatre. Like many Broadway fans his age, his first show was The Phantom of the Opera and his first Broadway obsession, RENT. It was only right that this theatre fanboy took home some of the biggest awards of the evening. Upon winning for an original score riddled with homages to shows like West Side Story, he burst into an unrehearsed rap and gave some love to Sunday in the Park with George, exclaiming, "Mr. Sondheim, look, I made a hat where there never was a hat! It's a Latin hat at that!"
Miranda did what every good creator does: he loved what came before. In bringing that love together with his love for the present, he created an old-fashioned show that nevertheless "illuminates the stories of the people in the street."