The Tonys get a new 'do'

Big hair, celebrity actors, and hit revivals have all boosted Broadway's bottom line.

But the theater community is looking to this year's nationally televised Tony Awards to make its case that the Great White Way is alive and kicking.

And one way to do it is to cater to a young audience.

"X-Men 2" star Hugh Jackman, making his Broadway debut this fall in the musical "The Boy From Oz," will host the 57th annual Tony Awards live from New York's Radio City Music Hall on Sunday night (CBS, 8-11 p.m.). A new generation of performers - from Marissa Jaret Winokur of "Hairspray" to Hollywood actor Philip Seymour Hoffman - will inject fresh energy and some surprises to the ceremony, just as they are doing on Broadway.

"It's been an exciting year in terms of seeing younger people on stage," says veteran actor and director Austin Pendleton, one of 710 Tony voters. "And those poets in 'Def Poetry Jam' were nothing short of amazing. As a result, we're seeing younger people in the audiences. And that's good news for the longer term, for Broadway's future."

A younger audience is part of the equation, but so are box-office dollars, which have increased slightly this year.

In a world where a $100 ticket is no longer unusual, the League of American Theatres and Producers announced last week that Broadway grossed $720 million during the 2002-03 season, an increase of 12 percent. Attendance jumped to 11.4 million, up from 4.3 percent the preceding year.

This is welcome news, because after 9/11, a long period of uncertainty followed, and a mid-season musicians' strike earlier this year closed down most shows for four days.

In these shaky economic times, it certainly helps to have familiar faces gracing Broadway stages. Joey Fatone of 'N Sync recently starred in the long-running rock musical "Rent," and Billy Joel's music is the basis for the Tony-nominated "Movin' Out."

Other stars familiar to audiences from film and TV who are up for awards include Stanley Tucci ("The Sopranos") for his starring role in "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune" and Antonio Banderas in "Nine." Banderas costars with Jane Krakowski ("Ally McBeal") and Mary Stuart Masterson, both nominees. Even film director Baz Luhrmann, whose "Moulin Rouge" shook up the movie musical genre, is represented, with his electric staging of 'La Bohème."

And when PBS, which has in recent years telecast the first hour of the ceremony, opted out this year, CBS stepped in and decided to carry the full three-hour event. This will permit a more generous amount of time for acceptance speeches and for more musical presentations.

Tony Awards executive producer Gary Smith sees this as a vote of confidence that the show will pull in more viewers, especially younger ones.

Mr. Smith says this year's award show will offer taped segments as "a means of expanding what home viewers can experience, to enjoy more examples of this new vitality...."

Hollywood studios may also be watching more closely this year. Pendleton points out that "because [this] year's Oscar winner, 'Chicago,' was based on a Broadway musical, everyone is paying more attention to the Tony Awards.

"The trend in recent years has been to take popular films and adapt them for the stage - shows like 'The Producers' and 'The Graduate.' Hollywood did have a very long history of turning Broadway productions into award-winning films, everything from 'The Sound of Music' to 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' That may now be returning."

To ensure a sense of continuity, established Broadway stars will also be part of the festivities. Musical numbers from the leading contenders will spotlight Bernadette Peters doing a number from "Gypsy," and Harvey Fierstein belting out a show-stopper from "Hairspray."

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