Tonys: Hugh Jackman, Surprise Performances and More About Sunday's Awards Ceremony

Hugh Jackman
Hugh Jackman
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NEW YORK -- "You never know who's going to show." That's host Hugh Jackman's motto for this year's Tony Awards, which will be broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall on Sunday night at 8 p.m. on CBS. Jackman launched the campaign by making a surprise appearance at the nominations announcement at the end of April, and now with the actual show approaching, secrets and rumors are flying about what's in store.

"Broadway is where all the stars align," says Heather Hitchens, executive director of the American Theatre Wing, which produces the Tonys in tandem with the Broadway League. "If you're a music person, a film person, or a television person, everybody comes to Broadway."

Let's start with what we do know.

Jackman is hosting for the fourth time, and will be bringing his own personal style of showmanship to the performance. (According to his Instagram videos, there will be jumping and tap-dancing.) "He moves like Gene Kelly," says Warren Carlyle, who is choreographing the three-hour show and is also nominated in two categories as director and choreographer of After Midnight. Carlyle has known Jackman since they appeared in Oklahoma! together -- Jackman as Curly and Carlyle in the ensemble -- at London's Royal National Theatre in 1998. He also staged the hit one-man show, Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway in 2011.

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"He'll be on a lot," adds executive producer Ricky Kirshner, who with his partner Glenn Weiss make up White Cherry Entertainment. "He'll be doing things you'd expect him to do and things you wouldn't expect him to do."

Kirshner and Weiss (who also directs the telecast) have been the production team for the Tonys since 2003, and they've collectively won eight Primetime Emmy Awards, including the statue for outstanding special class program for the past three consecutive years. Weiss also won a Directors Guild Award for his work last year. The pair have signed on to continue working on the broadcast through 2016. But in the wake of last year's show -- which boasted 7.2 million viewers, marking a 21 percent increase over the year before and the largest audience since 2009 -- the pair have set themselves a high bar to top.

"There are more performances than last year, and it's killing us," Weiss jokes. "We're also trying to figure out what counts," Kirshner adds. "Mr. Jackman has a lot of presence in the show and some of them are little mini-performances or little songs that lead into something else, so we're counting those. We're up to 47 now. I’m kidding! I think we're at, like, 16-ish."

And not all those numbers have been announced, though about 14 of them have. Before 2008, only shows nominated for best musical and best revival were invited to perform. Now, any show with a nomination, along with upcoming productions or those having a noteworthy year -- such as Wicked celebrating its 10th anniversary this season -- might be given a coveted slot in the broadcast, generating exposure that frequently translates into a box office boost.

Headliners this year include nominee Idina Menzel performing a number from If/Then; Alan Cumming in his Tony-winning role as the Emcee in Cabaret; Jennifer Hudson previewing a number from the new musical Finding Neverland, which will play a limited engagement at American Repertory Theater in July (though Hudson is not involved in the production); and Sting performing a song from his musical, inspired by the 2013 concept album of the same name, The Last Ship, which starts tryout performances in Chicago on June 10 ahead of a Broadway debut in the fall.

Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight will also join Fantasia and the cast of After Midnight in a special number choreographed by Carlyle just for the broadcast. Both LaBelle and Knight will follow in Fantasia's footsteps, taking turns as special-guest vocalist this summer in the jazz revue, inspired by the music of Duke Ellington's reign at the legendary Cotton Club in Harlem. "I've tried to do something special with them," Carlyle explains. "The show has 27 individual pieces, and I didn't want to choose. There's a whole new surprise coming."

Neil Patrick Harris, a four-time Tony Awards host and a nominee this year for his performance in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, will perform a number on the show. But the real question on everyone's mind is will he perform with Jackman again? "I think we did that once," Kirshner says slyly of the dueling hosts medley the pair did together in 2011 when Harris emceed. "I'm sure they'll encounter somewhere, some point," Weiss hints.

Another element that might be different this year is the presentations. "I'm very excited about the way the awards are going to be presented," says Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the Broadway League. "It might be different than any other awards show you've seen."

Boldface names among the presenters include Tina Fey, whose movie Mean Girls is in development as a musical; Bradley Cooper, returning to Broadway in The Elephant Man this fall; and stars who appeared on stage this season like Zachary Quinto, Zachary Levi, Ethan Hawke, Leighton Meester and Zach Braff. Carole King will be introducing her bio-musical Beautiful and is expected to join the cast in a performance.

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However, another reason to watch this Sunday is the suspenseful races themselves, most of which are far more difficult to predict than in recent seasons. Will A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder take the top prize over Beautiful? Does Jessie Mueller have the leading actress in a musical trophy in the bag, or will five-time nominee Kelli O'Hara pull an upset? Is this Audra McDonald's year to make history by taking home a sixth award, putting her over Angela Lansbury and Julie Harris for the most acting Tony wins and giving her an award in all four acting categories?

"It's anybody's ball game," Weiss says. "These are live theater performers, and I find the acceptance speeches so much more compelling. That's a segment of the show that we have very little control of. The speeches are the most compelling of any of the awards shows that I've seen -- not just because we happen to be doing them -- but there's a stronger sense of community here. They're respectful of their fellow nominees so they don't necessarily run away with it either. There are some really terrific television moments."

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