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‘Lion King’ Wins 6 Tonys, Including Best Musical

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Disney overcame the skepticism of the traditional Broadway powers and was fully welcomed into the fold Sunday as the company’s “The Lion King” won the Tony for best Broadway musical.

The giant entertainment company had received only a lukewarm critical response for its first Broadway venture, “Beauty and the Beast,” which failed to win the best musical Tony in 1994. However, Disney’s hiring of avant-garde artist Julie Taymor to direct and design costumes for “Lion King” sent the company’s artistic credibility soaring even before the show opened. And on Sunday, Taymor won the Tony for best director of a musical.

After accepting the award for best musical, Peter Schneider, president of Disney’s theatrical wing, told reporters backstage: “We’re thrilled and shocked. ‘The Lion King’ clearly touched audiences, it touched the critics, the theater community. This is icing on the cake.”

The victory for Disney’s dramatization of the popular animated fable came at the expense of archrival “Ragtime,” a tale of clashing cultures in the early years of the 20th century, which had its U.S. premiere last year in Los Angeles.

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“Lion King,” which reportedly cost about $20 million, also won the competition for most Tonys, taking home six of the statuettes, compared to four for “Ragtime,” which nonetheless took home Tonys for best score and best libretto of a musical.

Taymor’s Tony, and that of Garry Hynes as director of the play “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” marked the first time that a woman had won for direction.

Taymor, who received her award after Hynes, cracked: “I’m so happy to be following in a long line of awards for women directors.”

In the evening’s biggest upset, Yasmina Reza’s “Art” was named best Broadway play, defeating 27-year-old playwright Martin McDonagh’s “The Beauty Queen of Leenane.”

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“Art” depicts three men who argue over a white painting that one of them has purchased. One of the play’s producers, Sean Connery, did not address the audience to accept the award because of a shortage of time on the telecast, but told reporters backstage that a movie of “Art” will be made, but only after the play has taken advantage of its commercial potential.

“Cabaret,” produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company, was named best revival of a musical. Sunday night’s broadcast included a sample of the lascivious performance of Alan Cumming, winner of a Tony for best actor in a musical.

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The 52nd annual Antoinette Perry “Tony” awards ceremony was held at Radio City Music Hall in New York, with talk show star Rosie O’Donnell hosting. It came as the culmination of the 1997-98 Broadway season, which was expected to be the most lucrative in history. Final figures will be released later this week.

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According to the League of American Theaters and Producers, which co-produces the Tonys with the American Theatre Wing, 11.3 million people saw a Broadway show this season, the highest figure in nearly 20 years. Grosses are expected to climb to $545 million, up from $499 million in 1996-97.

Behind the scenes, the battle between “Ragtime” and “The Lion King” was a struggle between Broadway’s two newest powers, Disney and Toronto-based Livent. In recent weeks, the rivalry had assumed a more personal flavor as former Hollywood super-agent Michael Ovitz took over Livent in what was seen by many observers as a challenge to his former boss, Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Ovitz had nothing to do with “Ragtime,” however, which was assembled by former Livent CEO and impresario Garth Drabinsky, who continues to run the company’s creative affairs. Neither Eisner nor Ovitz attended the Tony ceremony.

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Terrence McNally, who won a Tony for writing the libretto for “Ragtime,” referred in his acceptance speech to a recent controversy involving his latest play, “Corpus Christi.” That play, which includes a gay Christ-like character, was withdrawn from the schedule of the Manhattan Theatre Club after anonymous threats of violence but was restored to the schedule after protests from the theater community and assurances of tight security.

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“You came together when I was in trouble,” McNally told the assembled Broadway community. “You came together overnight. It was a time of oppression and you spoke up. Our voices were heard, and we won. I’m very grateful for that.” Holding up the Tony award, he said, “This is for freedom.”

Backstage, McNally told reporters that audiences “have a right to stay home . . . but they can’t tell us what to write or not to write.”

“Ragtime’s” Audra McDonald won her third Tony. Her pattern has been to win a featured actress Tony every other year--she won for “Carousel” in 1994 and for “Master Class” in 1996.

The winners:

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* Play: “Art,” by Yasmina Reza

* Musical: “The Lion King”

* Revival/Play: “A View From the Bridge”

* Revival/Musical: “Cabaret”

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* Book of a Musical: Terrence McNally, “Ragtime”

* Original Score: Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, “Ragtime”

* Director/Musical: Julie Taymor, “The Lion King”

* Director/Play: Garry Hynes, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane”

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* Leading Actor/Play: Anthony LaPaglia, “A View From the Bridge”

* Leading Actress/Play: Marie Mullen, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane”

* Leading Actor/Musical: Alan Cumming, “Cabaret”

* Leading Actress/Musical: Natasha Richardson, “Cabaret”

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* Featured Actor/Play: Tom Murphy, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane”

* Featured Actress/Play: Anna Manahan, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane”

* Featured Actor/Musical: Ron Rifkin, “Cabaret”

* Featured Actress/Musical: Audra McDonald, “Ragtime”

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* Scenic Design: Richard Hudson, “The Lion King”

* Costume Design: Julie Taymor, “The Lion King”

* Lighting Design: Donald Holder, “The Lion King”

* Choreography: Garth Fagan, “The Lion King”;

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* Orchestrations: William David Brohn, “Ragtime”

* Special Tonys: Denver Center Theatre Company; attorney Edward E. Colton; set designer Ben Edwards. A Tony Honor for Excellence in the Theater to International Theatre Institute of the United States

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Times staff writer Don Shirley reported from Los Angeles, correspondent Patrick Pacheco from New York.

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