Tonys: 9 Close Contests in Sunday Night's Awards

Matthew Murphy; Joan Marcus
'An American in Paris' and 'Fun Home'

The widespread consensus is that Helen Mirren should clear space in her trophy cabinet. But several key categories this year are uncommonly tough calls.

While even the clearest frontrunners retain some degree of uncertainty until they get their hands on the gold, it's hard to find a prognosticator in town who hasn't already decreed Simon StephensThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time the winner of this year's Tony Award for best play.

Likewise, nobody is betting against Marianne Elliott, a previous directing winner for War Horse, to notch up a repeat victory for her imaginative staging of Curious Incident. That hyper-kinetic jolt of visceral theatrical storytelling places us inside the dizzying thought process of a 15-year-old boy with behavioral difficulties, a role unanimously tipped to land the lead actor in a play Tony for 26-year-old, fresh-out-of-Juilliard newcomer Alex Sharp.

Also among the virtual locks is Helen Mirren, who looks set to ward off strong competition from fellow Brits Carey Mulligan and Ruth Wilson to take home best actress in a play for her imperious but ineffably human turn as Queen Elizabeth II in The Audience, a role that already nabbed her a 2007 Oscar in The Queen.

But several top categories in this season's Tony race are unusually close calls, causing pundits to hedge their bets and injecting some welcome suspense into Sunday night's ceremony.

Here's The Hollywood Reporter's rundown of the nine most competitive honors of the 69th Annual Tony Awards:

1. BEST MUSICAL

The one award believed to have a significant impact at the box office often boils down to a tense faceoff between the audacious inventiveness of a show that pushes the stylistic boundaries of the form, and a popular success that finds fresh life in classic Broadway song-and-dance entertainment. The contest has gone both ways in the past, with scrappy underdog Avenue Q trouncing the glittering behemoth Wicked in 2004; and crowd-pleasing blockbuster The Book of Mormon besting the provocative artistry of The Scottsboro Boys in 2011.

Last year's Tony went not to the user-friendly Carole King bio-musical Beautiful, but to the more rarefied pleasures of the Edwardian black-comedy pastiche A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, transforming that commercially challenged production into a durable success.

This season's David vs. Goliath battle is between Fun Home and An American in Paris, which lead the nominations field with a dozen nods apiece.

The former is a layered emotional drama adapted from cartoonist Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir, about her own coming out and her struggle to understand the suicide of her closeted gay father. The first mainstream musical centered on a lesbian protagonist, the show was universally acclaimed in its premiere run at the Public Theater and has grown even richer and more affecting since its uptown transfer. But even its strongest supporters acknowledge that Fun Home will not be an easy sell for the summer tourist trade or on tour.

An American in Paris, on the other hand, comes with the imprimatur of a classic MGM movie musical and a title already ingrained in the pop-cultural consciousness. But what's most notable about one of the season's biggest surprises is how thoroughly it reconsiders the source material, notably through the expressive medium of dance. The setting is switched to a Paris still draped in the long shadow of Nazi Occupation, which allows the show's beguiling romance to soar even higher. With box office north of $1 million a week since opening, the musical has the makings of a popular hit, and many Tony forecasts give it a slight edge over Fun Home.

The big prize is pretty much a two-way race, but if there's a dark-horse possibility it's Something Rotten! That highbrow-meets-lowbrow musical comedy about two brothers in Elizabethan England angling to wrestle a piece of the theatrical market share away from Shakespeare has been steadily gaining at the box office, indicating that it might steal away a few Tony votes.

2. BEST REVIVAL OF A MUSICAL

The latest, superbly acted production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's evergreen The King and I is a sumptuous return to the lavish production values of Broadway's Golden Age, with a cast of 50 and a populous orchestra of 29. But there's a lot of love in the community for both of its rivals: On the Twentieth Century is a 1930s-set comedy from the illustrious team of Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Cy Coleman, which marks the first-ever Broadway revival of the 1978 show and gives stage darling Kristin Chenoweth a plum role that seems tailor-made for her gifts. And On the Town — another Comden and Green collaboration, with a beautiful, brassy Leonard Bernstein score played by another glorious full-size orchestra — brings lighter-than-air buoyancy and thrilling dance interludes to a musical that celebrates New York like few others.

The King and I has the edge, but don't be surprised if either of the other two contenders pull off an upset.

3. BEST REVIVAL OF A PLAY

Director Stephen Daldry's clear-eyed investigation of David Hare's Skylight boasts riveting performances from Mulligan, Bill Nighy and Matthew Beard — all three of them nominated — and it has the ever-topical theme of social inequality in its corner. The fact that it's still running also makes it more likely to register in voters' minds.

But while Skylight is the frontrunner, there's no shortage of admirers for the revival of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's 1936 chestnut about a family of New York eccentrics colliding with conservative normality, You Can't Take It With You, which is tipped to land a featured actress Tony for Annaleigh Ashford. And there's strong support also for the starry production of Bernard Pomerance's The Elephant Man. Bradley Cooper disappeared into the grotesquely disfigured John Merrick, flanked by Patricia Clarkson and Alessandro Nivola in a thoughtful reflection on deformity, beauty and hypocrisy in Victorian England that turned this old-fashioned play into something genuinely affecting.

4. BEST LEAD ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL

This is the major smackdown of the night. Kelli O'Hara ranks high among the most admired contemporary American musical-theater interpreters, and it seems inconceivable that with five previous nominations for work of extraordinary depth, she has never won. Her creamy soprano and emotional incandescence are put to impeccable use in The King and I. But restraint often gets overlooked in favor of more virtuosic gifts, and Kristin Chenoweth showcases those in abundance as the dowdy rehearsal pianist-turned-temperamental screen siren in On the Twentieth Century. Her casting is an unsurpassable symbiosis of performer and part, which means Chenoweth is favored to win, even with a few sentimental votes no doubt going to beloved veteran Chita Rivera, who at 82 is appearing in what may be her final leading role in The Visit.

5. BEST LEAD ACTOR IN A MUSICAL

There's not an undeserving potential winner here, but the smart money appears split between three chief contenders: Michael Cerveris for his psychologically complex portrait of a conflicted father and family man in Fun Home; ballet star Robert Fairchild, who proved himself not only a legitimate triple threat with charm to burn but also a worthy successor to Gene Kelly, no less, in An American in Paris; and Brian d'Arcy James, a charismatic Broadway favorite who centers the anarchic ensemble comedy of Something Rotten! on his capable shoulders. And just to make this category even harder to call, Ken Watanabe in The King and I and Tony Yazbeck in On the Town also have their partisans.

6. BEST FEATURED ACTOR IN A PLAY

The anointing of freshly minted stars is a quintessential part of Broadway lore, which makes Micah Stock, the sole newcomer in a major-name ensemble in the theater-biz comedy It's Only a Play, a prime candidate for Tony honors. But Nathaniel Parker is front-and-center for much of the five-and-a-half-hour marathon of Wolf Hall: Parts One & Two, playing a Henry VIII by turns petulant, manipulative, soulful and unscrupulous. And nobody should ever underestimate the Broadway community's Anglophilia. Nor should anyone rule out another Brit, Richard McCabe, as prime minister Harold Wilson in The Audience; or Nivola as the compassionate doctor in The Elephant Man.

7. BEST FEATURED ACTOR IN A MUSICAL

No other performer this season was handed such a prime piece of Tony bait as Brad Oscar, with his Act I showstopper, "A Musical," in Something Rotten! A giddy paean to the form in all its exuberant, unbridled excess, the song is one long deliriously accessible in-joke, and Oscar strikes comedic gold with his role as the soothsayer who sees a murky theatrical future of cats and chorus lines. But his castmate Christian Borle is no less disarming as a glamrock William Shakespeare, while two nominees from An American in Paris, Brandon Uranowitz and Max von Essen, brought nuanced characterizations and sublime musicality to their roles. But many are listing the presumptive favorite as Andy Karl, who showed his physical-comedy skills as the diva's muscled boy toy in On the 20th Century, and also scores points for surviving last season's big-budget flop, Rocky.

8. BEST FEATURED ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL

This is truly a tough one. Most forecasts tend to focus on two nominees from Fun Home, pitting Judy Kuhn, a Tony-less 30-year Broadway veteran giving a wrenching performance as the long-suffering wife who can no longer live in denial, against 11-year-old Sydney Lucas as the young Alison, who gets a poignant early inkling of her sexuality in the song "Ring of Keys." That more or less cancels out Emily Skeggs as the college-age Alison in the same show. And while Victoria Clark is Broadway royalty who classes up every production in which she appears, even she couldn't elevate the leaden Gigi.  But the featured actor races are often a source of surprise wins, so don't count out the remarkable Ruthie Ann Miles for her intensely moving work as the perceptive and devoted head royal wife in The King and I.

9. BEST DIRECTION OF A MUSICAL

An absolutely stellar category in which five worthy contenders demonstrate Broadway craftsmanship at its finest. Sam Gold brings aching sensitivity and emotional truth to Fun Home; Casey Nicholaw delivers all-out splashy razzle-dazzle and gut-busting laughs in Something Rotten!; John Rando guides us on a joyous time-travel jump back to the innocence of World War II America in On the Town; Bartlett Sher combines monumental scale with heart-stopping intimacy in The King and I; and Christopher Wheeldon is a magician able to navigate a wide dramatic spectrum in dance in An American in Paris — that would seem to guarantee him the choreography award, whichever way the prize for direction goes.

Depending on whether Fun Home or An American in Paris snags the top prize, expect Gold or Wheeldon to prevail. But Sher's consummate work on The King and I might also secure him a second Rodgers and Hammerstein win, after South Pacific in 2008.

The Tonys will be broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall on CBS at 8pm Sunday, with a West Coast tape delay, in a ceremony co-hosted by Chenoweth and Alan Cumming.

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