Back in 1979, Mary Kyte had just returned from working on the London company of "Annie" to visit her friend Gary Pearle, then a directorial assistant at Arena Stage. The Old Vat Room was available and needed a show. What it got was "Tintypes," a musical set at the turn of the century put together by Kyte.

The play, with much musical help from Mel Marvin, was a success here, a success off-Broadway and, in the eyes of the Tony committee, a success on Broadway. This week it was nominated for three Tonys: best musical and best book -- by Kyte -- and best featured actress in a musical, Lynne Thigpen.

Just whose idea it was to make a piece about the turn of the century isn't clear now, but Kyte says, "My first impression was 'Uchhh! This music is not right for 20th-century theater.' But then something mystical happened. You look at enough of those sepia-colored pictures and you realize that these are our grandmothers and grandfathers."

The fact that the play had a brief run on Broadway -- it played 93 performances earlier this season -- is still a sore point for Kyte but she demurs from blaming anybody. Now she is back at Arena staging and choreographing "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," which opened this week.

A few hours before the "Rosewater" opening she took time to talk about "Tintypes." "I didn't expect it," she said of the nomination for best musical. "We've been closed for so many months." And as for her own nomination? "Nothing has surprised me more. It's not a traditional book, you know." No it is not. The play is more of a pastiche of songs and scenes evoking the great era of immigration from 1890 to World War I.

Because of the "Rosewater" opening, Kyte was unable to attend the traditional Tony nominee luncheon. So she sent family instead. Her husband -- Gary Pearle.