Witches, puppets, and a boy from Oz vie for Tonys

Tune in to the Tony awards on Sunday night and you may feel there's little going on culturally that doesn't involve characters who are green.

The most nominated show on Broadway is "Wicked" - which jauntily explores the early years of the witches of Oz, including the one who lived in the West and whose skin is a color only Shrek's mother could love.

The musical, which has been more popular with audiences than critics, has 10 nominations that could garner it a "Lord of the Rings"-style sweep at the awards show, which comes at the end of a season of mixed success for Broadway. But some attendees are counting on the Tonys to provide more variety than was displayed at this year's Oscars.

"I think it's going to be a very tight race in many categories," says Anika Noni Rose, nominated for her supporting role in the Tony Kushner civil rights-era musical, "Caroline, or Change." "We have a phenomenal amount of talent on Broadway this year."

The awards program, broadcast on CBS, is hosted for the second year by actor Hugh Jackman, whose transition from "X-Men" to Broadway is complete with his nomination as best leading actor in a musical for "Boy From Oz," about the late Australian entertainer Peter Allen.

In recent years, producers of the annual Antoinette Perry "Tony" awards have aimed at broader - and younger - audiences than usual, tapping popular figures like Rosie O'Donnell and Mr. Jackman to host. This year, performers will feature non-Broadway acts such as Tony Bennett and hip-hop artist Mary J. Blige. Capturing the energy of New York is also a goal, and performances from the nominated musicals and plays will be televised from around the city.

"This is not about converting football fans to watch the Tony awards, this is about getting theater fans to watch," says Jed Bernstein, president of the League of American Theaters and Producers.

Despite the enthusiasm in the run-up to the Tonys, there wasn't always a lot to clap about during this Broadway season, where one show opened and closed in the same night, some celebrity casting fell flat, and bad weather was blamed for a dearth of ticket sales during the winter. Recent positive signs have been the word-of-mouth success of the revival of the play "A Raisin in the Sun," with rapper Sean "P. Diddy" Combs in a starring role (though his co-stars earned the critical praise and Tony nominations), and the profitability of another Tony nominee, "Avenue Q," the irreverent musical featuring puppets.

"It's been kind of a mixed season," says Arthur Kopit, one of the writers of "Nine," which won the 2003 Tony for best musical revival. "I don't think there have been any musicals with both the popular and critical acclaim of [previous years' winners] 'Producers' or a 'Hairspray.' "

One of the most competitive categories this year is that of leading actress in a musical, in which the women playing the "good" witch and the "bad" witch in "Wicked" - Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel - are both nominated, along with Tonya Pinkins, the lead in "Caroline, or Change," Donna Murphy for a revival of "Wonderful Town," and Stephanie D'Abruzzo for her puppetry and vocal talents in "Avenue Q."

Contenders for Best Play include Pulitzer Prize winners "Anna in the Tropics," and "I Am My Own Wife." Those plays vying for Best Revival of a Play include "Henry IV" and "A Raisin in the Sun."

Around Tony time, critics often grouse that the awards don't reflect American theater as a whole. This year, a high-profile attack came from Daniel Okrent, the readers' representative of The New York Times. He called the awards "an artistically meaningless, blatantly commercial, shamefully exclusionary and culturally corrosive award competition."

Still, winning a Tony can affect the future of a Broadway production - from box office returns to touring. Those involved in the theater acknowledge the value of an award as a marketing tool, but are quick to add that the winners deserve their recognition.

"Nobody I know takes [the Tonys] like the Nobel Prize or even the Pulitzer," says Mr. Kopit, a Tony voter and a past nominator. "Yes, the Tonys are commercial, but they do honor excellence."

"The Tonys have never pretended to be anything other than a Broadway award," says Mr. Bernstein, addressing the charge that other New York and regional theater work is left out.

Those in contention try to keep the awards in perspective.

While Ms. Rose does not allow herself to concentrate too much on her nomination, she remains passionate about "Caroline, or Change." "It's very touching, and it's very honest, and it's time for us to recognize some honesty," she says.

"Caroline" is vying for Best Musical, along with "Avenue Q," which hasn't been shy about courting Tony voters.

The approach is in keeping with the humor of this saucy "Sesame Street" for adults: A note at the bottom of recent ads says the campaign is "Paid for by the Friends of Avenue Q Committee to win the 2004 Tony Award for Best Musical."

"We just kind of ... have fun with it and don't take it too seriously," says one of the "Q" producers, Kevin McCollum, who nevertheless adds, "But [we] are very serious about how good our show is."

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