Will upsets slow a Producers sweep of Tony awards?

TV and film stars will add their glamour to the live Sunday telecast of Broadway's answer to the Oscars

The 55th annual Tony Awards, honoring the best of Broadway, will combine two elements audiences love about theater - glamour and drama. Broadcast live this Sunday from New York's Radio City Music Hall, the ceremony once again will stretch for three hours over two networks: PBS (8-9 p.m.), then CBS (9-11 p.m.).

Competition in several races pits some well-regarded stage veterans against relative newcomers, creating a few cliffhangers. Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, Broadway's darlings because of their starring roles in "The Producers," have been tapped to co-host, and the ceremony's glamour component will be boosted by featuring an (almost) all-female lineup of presenters, including Glenn Close, Sigourney Weaver, Edie Falco, Jane Krakowski, Gwyneth Paltrow, Joan Allen, Doris Roberts ("Everybody Loves Raymond"), and Dame Edna (alias Barry Humphries).

Tough choices for voters

While the 25 categories are dominated by the musical comedy adaptation of the Mel Brooks film "The Producers" - its record 15 nominations making it a lock for best musical - other races offer difficult choices for Tony voters.

Brooks, enjoying attention for his first-ever Broadway outing, finds his musical score up against "A Class Act," the work of Edward Kleban, who previously wrote the lyrics for "A Chorus Line," and John Caird ("Les Miserables"), a co-creator of "Jane Eyre." But insiders predict an upset, with pop musician David Yazbek taking home the honors for "The Full Monty."

American playwrights have made a stronger-than-usual showing with three nods in the best-play category. Two first-timers to Broadway, David Auburn ("Proof") and Charles Busch ("The Tale of the Allergist's Wife") are up against two legendary writers, August Wilson ("King Hedley II") and British playwright Tom Stoppard ("The Invention of Love").

Filmgoers may give Gary Sinise the edge in the best-actor-in-a-play competition, for his snarling portrayal of McMurphy in the revival of Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." But Richard Easton, bringing the elderly English poet A.E. Housman to life in Stoppard's play, has built a solid stage career for more than half a century.

Wild cards in this slot include Irish actors Sean Campion and Conleth Hill, who were swept across the Atlantic in the new Marie Jones two-man saga "Stones in His Pockets." Brian Stokes Mitchell, in the August Wilson epic, was last year's winner in the musical version of this category for his leading role in "Kiss Me, Kate."

Mary-Louise Parker, the troubled daughter in "Proof," faces off against women who have each proved to be winners in the past: Tony winners Leslie Uggams and Linda Lavin, and Oscar winner Juliette Binoche. Television star Jean Smart completes the list, with Parker expected to triumph.

And while Nathan Lane seems a shoo-in for best actor in a musical for "The Producers," the female side of the category places Marla Schaffel, who sings the title character in "Jane Eyre," against seasoned performers Blythe Danner ("Follies"), Christine Ebersol ("42nd Street"), Randy Graff ("A Class Act"), and Faith Prince ("Bells Are Ringing").

Schaffel, starring in a show that has fared poorly, has nonetheless won respect for carrying the major portion of the production.

Even the featured-roles category offers tough choices. Cady Huffman, making her sixth Broadway appearance, may ride "The Producers" wave to the top, but singing legend Polly Bergen ("Follies") and comedy legend Kathleen Freeman ("The Full Monty") have strong support.

Opening with a nine-minute musical extravaganza, the CBS portion will bring excerpts from all the musicals to the viewing audience. The record-breaking, sold-out box-office response to "The Producers" means that, for many, this may be their only chance to see a portion of that show for quite a while.

And the stunning career of Susan Stroman, who brought "Contact" and "The Music Man" to Broadway just last year, should be enhanced with wins in both the direction and choreography categories for "The Producers."

Peek behind the scenes

The PBS segment offers an inside, backstage peek into the workings of Broadway. Along with the director, choreographer, designers, and book and lyrics awards, the program offers extensive interviews with these creators to show the diverse talents, resources, and financial commitments that a Broadway production requires.

Another little-known aspect of Broadway, the development process, can be glimpsed in the best-play category. All four entries began their journey to the Great White Way in nonprofit theaters, part of the shift away from commercial producers that Broadway has witnessed. The Manhattan Theater Club is especially noteworthy, having nurtured three of the four best plays, and one of the musicals.

A special Tony Award will be given to Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater, for outstanding achievements in regional theater production. And "Blast," the colorful, high-energy brass-percussion-marching-band musical, will receive a Special Theatrical Event award.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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