"Leading lady" took on a whole new meaning at the 1998 Tony Awards.

For the first time, women won Broadway's top prizes for direction - Julie Taymor, for her work on the Disney musical "The Lion King" and Garry Hynes for the Irish drama "The Beauty Queen of Leenane.""The Lion King" also was named best musical Sunday, but "Beauty Queen" was upended for best play by "Art," a three-character comedy by a woman - Yasmina Reza.

"It is another barrier coming down," Hynes said. "This situation reminds people about the fact that there are women working in the theater. I hope it will help them."

"I see little girls who come up to me or write to me and say, `I want to be a director,' " Taymor said. "If it can inspire young women to have someone who is doing it, I am very happy."

Taymor won a second Tony - for costume design - as "The Lion King," collected six Tonys, more than any other show. "Ragtime," the Disney musical's toughest competitor, picked up four Tonys, as did the revival of "Cabaret" and "The Beauty Queen of Leenane."

Although "Beauty Queen," the bleak tale of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship, failed to take the top drama prize, it dominated the acting awards, with three of its four cast members winning awards. Marie Mullen (the daughter), Anna Manahan (the mother) and Tom Murphy (a dim-witted neighbor) gave the most gracious speeches in an evening marked by some of the most heartfelt thank-yous heard in years.

Manahan mentioned all the people in Ireland "who were lighting candles for me," and said, "My heart is very full."

Like "Beauty Queen," "Cabaret," which won as best musical revival, was strong in the performance categories. Its two stars, Natasha Richardson as the failed chanteuse Sally Bowles and Alan Cumming as the lewd master of ceremonies, were winners. So was Ron Rifkin, who plays a Jewish shopkeeper in the Kander and Ebb musical.

It was the second year in a row that a Kander and Ebb show won best musical revival. Last year, it was "Chicago."

"Ragtime" unexpectedly provided Audra McDonald with her third Tony. The musical, based on E.L. Doctorow's novel about turn-of-the-century America, was strong in the musical categories - winning score, book and orchestrations.

Terrence McNally, who adapted the Doctorow book for the stage, was cheered by the crowd as he thanked the theater community for its support when his newest work "Corpus Christi" was canceled and then resurrected for production.

Anthony LaPaglia was named best actor for his role in the revival of Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge," which also was named best revival. Both "Bridge" and "Cabaret" were productions from the Roundabout Theater Company.

Yet it was Disney, now solidly established as a big Broadway player, that came off best. Beside Taymor's triumphs, "The Lion King," based on the enormously successful animated film, swept the production prizes - sets, costumes and lighting - as well as choreography, for Garth Fagan.

As Disney theater executive Tom Schumacher summed it up when accepting the best-musical prize, "Julie Taymor is a goddess - for her courage, passion and genius."

*****

Additional Information

The winners

The 1998 Tony Award winners announced Sunday:

Play: "Art" by Yasmina Reza.

Musical: "The Lion King."

Book of a Musical: Terrence McNally, "Ragtime."

Original Score: Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, "Ragtime."

Revival-Play: "A View From the Bridge."

Revival-Musical: "Cabaret."

Actor-Play: Anthony LaPaglia, "A View From the Bridge."

Actress-Play: Marie Mullen, "The Beauty Queen of Leenane."

Actor-Musical: Alan Cumming, "Cabaret."

Actress-Musical: Natasha Richardson, "Cabaret."

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."

Director-Play: Garry Hynes, "The Beauty Queen of Leenane."

Director-Musical: Julie Taymor "The Lion King."

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."

Orchestrations: William David Brohn, "Ragtime."