Tony Awards promise to serve up surprises on stage

If last year's Tony Awards ceremony resembled a coronation, this year's will be much closer to a horse race. With no clear favorite like 2001's "The Producers" (12 Tonys) looming over the proceedings, the 56th annual event will be filled with serious competition when the awards are broadcast Sunday from New York City (PBS, 8-9 p.m.; CBS, 9-11 p.m.)

Lively contests promise to serve up surprises in every category, from best musical, best play, and acting honors to the less publicized contests, such as choreography. Both the best play and best musical winners will be named from diverse lists of finalists.

Broadway is still assessing the value of adapting films into musicals, a practice that has a mixed history. Recent failures ("Footloose," "Saturday Night Fever") cast a shadow over two of this year's nominees for best musical.

"Sweet Smell of Success," by John Guare, Marvin Hamlisch, and Craig Carnelia, fared poorly with critics, though it has received seven nominations. It is inspired by the 1957 film noir classic of the same name, starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis.

"Thoroughly Modern Millie," with 11 Tony nominations, received mixed reviews. The musical by Richard Morris, Dick Scanlan, and Jeanine Tesori is based on the 1967 flapper movie comedy starring Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, and Carol Channing.

Rounding out the candidates for best musical are "Mama Mia!" and "Urinetown: The Musical!" "Mamma Mia!" by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus strings together hits of the Swedish pop group ABBA in a self-mocking style. Even more self-mocking, "Urinetown," by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman, is a wholesale send-up of the musical comedy form.

Who'll win? Of the 731 theatre professionals and journalists who vote, 45 are members of the Independent Presenters Network, who book shows into regional theaters, have all invested in "Millie."

Those backing "Urinetown" feel that its fresh, irreverent style deserves recognition. Innovation, however, has rarely triumphed in the Tonys' history. From "West Side Story" losing to "The Music Man" in 1958 to "The Who's Tommy" losing to "Kiss of the Spider Woman" in 1993, Broadway usually backs the more conventional choice. A split among "Millie" and "Urinetown" factions could lead to a win for "Mamma Mia!" "Sweet Smell of Success" is considered a long shot.

Separating the traditional from the cutting edge proves harder in the race for best play. Pulitzer Prize-winner "Topdog/Underdog," by Suzan-Lori Parks, is the likely choice, but its assaultive style and street-hustle content may alienate a segment of voters.

Revolutionary in his early career, veteran playwright Edward Albee now represents the establishment. But his "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" treads shocking territory in its exploration of taboo sexual practices. The lyrical epic "Metamorphoses," by Mary Zimmerman, weaves together mythological tales and theatrical innovation, making it more a revue than a play. The fourth contender, the Broadway debut of Ivan Turgenev's 19th-century classic "Fortune's Fool," in a reworked version by Mike Poulton, comes closest to a traditional play.

Reworked or reimagined interpretations dominate the revivals categories. On the musicals list, only two qualified. "Into the Woods," reflecting cuts and clarifications by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, swept audiences into a fractured fairy-tale universe that many found milder than in its original 1987 showing. And Susan Stroman's daring departure from Agnes DeMille's revered choreography in "Oklahoma!" injected muscle, brawn, and conflict into that American musical icon. Stroman may be challenged by double nominee John Carrafa.

Faithful reproductions of Paul Osborn's "Mornings at Seven" and Michael Frayn's "Noises Off" stand in stark contrast to their competitors for the best play revival. Director Richard Eyre's searing, fast-paced presentation of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," and director Howard Davies' lusty emphasis in Noel Coward's "Private Lives" have made audiences reexamine their opinions about both those works.

Another reinterpretation, of Henrik Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler," provided Kate Burton with a career-jolting role as the title character. Ms. Burton joined only two other women in Tony Award history to be nominated twice in the same year when her supporting performance in "The Elephant Man," which is still running, was also nominated.

Burton is up against Laura Linney in "The Crucible," Lindsay Duncan in "Private Lives," Helen Mirren in "Dance of Death," and Mercedes Ruehl in "The Goat," with Duncan, Ruehl, or Burton considered the probable winner.

An even more contentious race has shaped up for the lead-actor honor. All five designees – Alan Bates in "Fortune's Fool," Billy Crudup in "Elephant Man," Liam Neeson in "The Crucible," Jeffrey Wright in "Topdog/Underdog," and Alan Rickman in "Private Lives" – dominate their respective productions.

In "Millie," Sutton Foster, who plays Millie, heads the group vying for best actress in a musical, giving a crowd-pleasing performance built more on energy than on craft. A win for best actor in a musical for John Cullum in "Urinetown" could be a consolation prize if the show itself doesn't capture top honors. John Lithgow's dead-on sleaziness in "Sweet Smell" and Patrick Wilson's virile charm in "Oklahoma!" could also triumph.

In only its second year as a category, the best special-theatrical-event award may be the evening's only sure thing. In her one-woman show "At Liberty," veteran performer Elaine Stritch has been mesmerizing audiences ever since she opened last year off-Broadway and then moved uptown. She has never won a Tony Award.

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