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THEATER : Slipping Tony a Mickey? : American theater can’t dismiss Disney dollars, but it can deride the product. So how will ‘Beauty and the Beast’ fare at the Tony Awards? ‘Passion’ stands in the way. How much more drama do you need?

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<i> Patrick Pacheco is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

“What this year’s Tony Awards ceremony needs,” says Broadway producer Richard Jay-Alexander, “is the theater’s equivalent of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. A real fight-out fraught with tension that’ll get people to tune in.”

There’s only one category that might qualify among the 20 that will yield winners tonight on the 48th annual CBS telecast, and that is the race for one of the two top Tonys--best musical.

The traditional Broadway Establishment, represented by the Shubert Organization and the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical “Passion,” is facing off against the new 800-pound kid on the block--”Beauty and the Beast,” produced by Disney, whose well-financed and maverick ways have sent tremors through the small, cliquish industry.

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“Passion” leads with 10 nominations, but “Beauty,” the most expensive musical ever mounted on Broadway, has nine.

What’s at stake is not only prestige and a marketing boost. The winner will also signal where the Establishment power stands in an industry increasingly anxious about its commercial future (despite the fact that ticket sales are up).

Of course, the Tony Awards are also about art and quality on Broadway, and that certainly will play a role in selecting the winners. But, according to most insiders, the politics are more pronounced than usual this year, partly because neither musical has managed to muster much enthusiasm among the 678 Tony voters--producers, the media and representatives of theatrical unions and organizations. It’s also because the Broadway theater itself appears to be in more of a state of flux than usual.

“We’re going through a rather convulsive period of time, especially in the musical theater,” says James Freydberg, a New York producer (“Fool Moon”) who recently took a lease on the Coronet Theatre in Los Angeles. The paucity on Broadway of strong, influential activist voices like the late Joseph Papp’s has taken its toll. “Nobody knows what to do,” Freydberg added, “so they’re doing revivals. That’s not producing, that’s presenting. Things seem to be in an odd holding pattern.”

Indeed, the best musical revival category has four strong contenders--”Carousel,” “She Loves Me,” “Grease” and “Damn Yankees.” But the Tony nominating committee practically had to be whipped and hogtied to come up with four best musical nominees. A minor scandal erupted on the day the nominations were announced because the committee balked at adding the two other shows that were eventually nominated--”Cyrano,” a Dutch import based on the Edmond Rostand classic, and “A Grand Night for Singing,” a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical revue--both of which have closed.

“I’d have understood if they’d eliminated that category altogether,” said producer Margo Lion (“Jelly’s Last Jam”). “ ‘Beauty and the Beast’ really is a world apart. It doesn’t have anything to do with what the rest of us are doing. And ‘Passion’? It’s new and daring, but its appeal is not very broad. So what you have is one show of limited artistic quality and wide commercial appeal pitted against a show of ambitious artistry and limited accessibility.”

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“I like both musicals,” said Robert Straus, a Broadway general manager. “The problem is that there are only two productions to show for a whole season. I’d like more choice.”

By coincidence, “Beauty and the Beast” and “Passion” share themes. Both inspired by movies, the musicals, to some extent, are about physical and spiritual beauty.

Based on Disney’s enormously popular animated feature, “Beauty and the Beast” is an extravagant $12-million retelling of the 18th-Century French fairy tale about an ugly beast in an enchanted castle who tries to win the heart of a bookish young girl.

When the show opened last March at the Palace, many reviewers likened it to a Disney theme-park event and spent about as much space on the all-stops-out merchandising in the lobby as on the all-stops-out production. Damp notices, however, had little effect at the box office and the show is this season’s hottest ticket.

“Passion” is the musical adaptation of a 19th-Century Italian novel of dark and obsessive love. The fatal attraction here is between a plain, consumptive woman and a handsome soldier. Unlike the cuddly pair at the heart of the Disney spectacular, Fosca and Giorgio are an intense but doom-ridden duo, playing out their disturbing and dissonant affair in a severe and cerebral $4.5-million production at the Plymouth.

Following a troubled preview period in New York, the show opened to mixed but respectful notices. Buoyed by the magical name of Stephen Sondheim, the adventurous show has been drawing moderately well, but most people agree that it must win the Tony to have a viable run, because of its difficult subject matter.

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If “Passion” prevails, there is speculation that “Disney-bashing,” as it has been characterized in the press, will have had something to do with it. Much has been written about the less-than-warm welcome extended by the theater Establishment to the rich and powerful entertainment conglomerate since its arrival on Broadway. Eyebrows were immediately raised when Disney chose a director, choreographer and set designer whose experience stemmed largely from creating theme-park productions.

Giving notice that they intended to do things their own way, including putting up all the money themselves, Disney’s executives aroused the envy and skepticism of many of Broadway’s elite, who have to scramble, sometimes for years, to raise financing for a show. In an industry with so few major players, there was concern that a company with such deep pockets might shift the balance.

“We haven’t been entirely surprised by the so-called ‘bashing,’ ” said Robert McTyre, who produced “Beauty and the Beast” for Disney. “But we’re getting standing ovations every night and selling out, so we did something right. We have a particular point of view and appeal and we believe there’s room for that on Broadway and for ‘Passion’ as well.”

The Broadway community’s mixed feelings have been compounded by the Disney Co.’s commitment to renovate 42nd Street’s New Amsterdam Theatre, thus spearheading the long-delayed redevelopment of the tawdry Times Square area. When news of Disney’s deal with the city, which included tax abatements and a low-interest $21-million loan, first surfaced, longstanding Broadway theater owners protested they were entitled to some of the same favorable tax breaks.

Still many producers have expressed the hope that Disney’s muscle will help to bring down steep union costs that are making musicals prohibitively expensive to mount.

“I’m delighted that Disney’s on Broadway,” said producer John Hart of Kardana Productions, which co-produced “Guys and Dolls” and “Tommy.” “I think ‘Beauty and the Beast’ misses on the emotions, but its sense of spectacle will bring a lot of new and younger people into the theater. Quite frankly, I worry about them turning Times Square into a theme park. I don’t want to come to work in a monorail and get my morning cup of coffee from Minnie Mouse.”

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A more commonly stated fear is that a company as rich as Disney will repeatedly come up with the money to create a product that will do little to advance--and may even be detrimental--to the art form of theater itself.

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Of course, even the Broadway pros have not exactly been successful with musicals this season. Harold Prince and Tommy Tune--the two directors most successful in combining artistry with commerce in the proportions that Tony voters love--are notably absent from among the nominees. Tune had a disastrous flop with “The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public” last month and Prince’s new show is a revival of “Showboat,” a 67-year-old musical that opened in Toronto and won’t be in New York until the fall.

Gordon Davidson, artistic director of Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum, which is nominated as co-producer of three of the four best play nominees (“Twilight,” “Perestroika,” “Kentucky Cycle”), suggests that too much emphasis is being placed on “Beauty and the Beast” as the litmus test of future Disney involvement.

“Money can’t buy quality,” he says. “But it can’t hurt. The next venture for Disney will tell us more than ‘Beauty,’ and it may not be quite so easy to adapt in the same way. They’re very smart people. I think they’ve learned a lot and may reach out to more traditional artists next time.”

Disney’s McTyre agrees that may be the case but thinks the repeated comparisons to theme-park entertainment are “ludicrous.”

“We’re going to do things that are Disney-branded, but we’re going to look for original things as well.”

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Where “Beauty and the Beast” to a certain extent came to Broadway as a pre-sold hit, “Passion” took a more perilous route. Unlike most original American musicals, which these days go through years of development and workshop productions, the latest Sondheim-Lapine collaboration was in previews within six months of its only workshop production at Lincoln Center.

“I think it would send a terrific signal if ‘Passion’ won,” the Taper’s Davidson said. “It’s great whenever works that are of a certain boldness and ambition can be acknowledged. It encourages risk-taking from other quarters.”

“As a writer in the theater, I see a growing tendency toward frivolousness,” said writer-director Richard Maltby (“Miss Saigon”). “Steve’s on the artistic cutting edge.”

Yet, for all the reverence and respect accorded to Sondheim by the Broadway community, there is still a nagging sense among some that a vote for the esoteric “Passion” over “Beauty” sends a misleading signal to the general public.

“I know the lyrics of ‘Company’ better than the national anthem,” says John Hart, “but I’m not comfortable voting for ‘Passion.’ Broadway is in danger of becoming like opera--too expensive, too elite and no longer part of people’s vocabularies. When I attended ‘Passion,’ I was stunned by its failures to connect with an audience.”

A Broadway press agent who wished to remain anonymous put it even more bluntly. “ ‘Passion’ needs the win to stay alive,” he says, “but it won’t promote Broadway business in the long run. If the average tourist goes to see it because it won the Tony over, say, seeing ‘Crazy for You,’ then it’s likely to scare them off. The effect of it winning will be fascinating, if ironic. After all, the Tony is supposed to not only promote excellence, but also promote Broadway business.”

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It is neither Sondheim nor Disney’s responsibility, of course, to create products that will please the Tony voters. In the end, awards often have little to do with real merit. The recent past is littered with examples of musicals that won the best musical Tony and never recouped their investment while on Broadway (“Will Rogers Follies” is one). Furthermore, Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George,” which lost to “La Cage aux Folles” in 1984, appears to be growing in stature as “La Cage” recedes into memory.

While many voters express the wish that they could vote on nominees that more confidently combined artistic excellence with commercial appeal, the problems with the Broadway musical will persist long after the envelopes are discarded.

“The sadness in the American theater at this moment is that even many of our hits are not new work,” Maltby said. “Even ‘Tommy’ is 25 years old. Leave Steve (Sondheim) out and there are not many new and talented creators around, and I’m not sure that Disney’s arrival on the scene is going to change that.”

“You know what the irony is in all this,” said one voter. “Steve’s Oscar is for ‘Sooner or Later,’ a song from ‘Dick Tracy’ that Disney produced, and James Lapine’s last movie, ‘Life With Mikey,’ was also released by one of their companies. We may all end up working for Disney, sooner or later.”

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