Top Broadway Musicals Are Hip Yet Old-Fashioned

This year at the Tony awards, we'll once again see great shows from the golden age of the American musical slug it out for a prize. The luminous new production of "South Pacific" is up against a fine version of the oft-resuscitated "Gypsy," starring the powerhouse Patti LuPone, in the category of best musical revival. But the success of such rehabbed classics always prompts a question: does the American musical have only a past—or does it have a future? Since the phenomenon of "Rent"—the 1996 show about a poor, arty crowd caught in the AIDS epidemic (which will finally close in September)—producers have been scouring for musicals that can bring contemporary themes to Broadway. Last year's hit "Spring Awakening," though set in late-19th-century Germany, fit the bill: a brilliant, quirky take on adolescent angst and repressed sexuality, powered by a rock score. Broadway can be merciless to the innocent. This year the much-hyped musical "Glory Days," written by two twentysomethings, became a theater history factoid when it closed after its opening night.

But there are two shows going head to head for the Tony for best new musical this week that seem custom-engineered to attract theatergoers born after Camelot—the musical or the Kennedy administration, take your pick. "In the Heights" is a euphoric love letter to an upper-Manhattan neighborhood that's home to Latino immigrants. "Passing Strange" is a rocking portrait of an artist as a young man. Both were conceived by and star charismatic fresh faces: Lin-Manuel Miranda, 28, who wrote a first version of "Heights" while still a Wesleyan sophomore, and the alt-rock musician known as Stew. These shows have been hailed as new blood for Broadway—and both are the work of terrific talents, inspired by their own backgrounds. But what's significant is that neither show really veers far from classic forms. Yes, "In the Heights" comments on contemporary issues of assimilation and gentrification. And its best numbers are heavily spiced with Latin or hip-hop flavor. But "West Side Story" featured Hispanic immigrant teens a half century ago, and the theme of assimilation is a touchstone of American theater. For all its exuberance, "In the Heights" is an old-fashioned musical, especially in its romantic subplots: the girl who makes it out of the neighborhood to Stanford but falls for a guy her father deems beneath her, the regular Joe who runs the corner bodega and quietly carries a torch for the prettiest girl in the 'hood. "Passing Strange" is less conventional—its coming-of-age saga is artfully told through its strong central character and songs with the wittiest lyrics around. Still, even "Passing Strange" contains the DNA of the ghosts of Broadway past. And that's an inspiring source.

Stew is the centerpiece of his own show, a rotund black musician with a shaved head and ultracool glasses whose delivery as the narrator of "Passing Strange" is as dry as a martini. Stew is an ironist—he once called his band the Negro Problem—and as we follow his rebellious alter ego (Daniel Breaker), we encounter a host of irreverent surprises. His hero may be from South Central L.A., but he's not ghetto fabulous; he's a middle-class kid whose biggest social problem in high school is that he likes punk, not R&B. And when he breaks away from his roots, he goes the distance: to Amsterdam and Berlin, where he has to fake ghetto fabulousness for the fascinated locals while consorting with the fringes of the Euro avant-garde. Though the character is new, the theme of stranger in a strange land belongs to a long dramatic tradition.

Neither Stew, 46, nor his collaborator Heidi Rodewald, who co-wrote the music and plays bass and sings in the terrific onstage band, ever set their sights on Broadway. Like "In the Heights," "Passing Strange" evolved slowly—you could say it stewed—from a downtown theater piece, most recently at the Public Theater in Manhattan. Stew had seen only one or two musicals before his own Broadway debut, but he knew the cast albums of shows such as Stephen Sondheim's "Company." And he used to house-sit for a guy who had a reel-to-reel tape recorder on which he and his friends discovered Noel Coward. "We were spellbound," says Stew. "When it comes to marrying lyrics to rhythm, Coward is the best." Stew is also aware of another writer-performer nominated, as he is now, for four Tonys: Anthony Newley. A few years back, he and Rodewald borrowed the album of Newley's 1962 "Stop the World, I Want to Get Off" from her mom. After Sondheim, Dylan and the Beatles, his favorite songwriter—in translation—is Jacques Brel.

With such antecedents, it's no wonder Stew feels at home on the stage, where each night he reaches out "across the fourth wall" to his often quiet, pensive audience. "To me the show is a party, but a party with information," he says. Still, "the Broadway audience is not that different from the downtown hipster audience. The show strikes the same emotional chord." Along with a few new power chords, too.