Tonys 2012: Ten Good Reasons to Watch the Awards

Once broadway - H 2012
Joan Marcus

Once broadway - H 2012

The absence of clear front-runners in many of the major Tony races will make this year's annual Broadway honors an uncommonly suspenseful night.

NEW YORK – The 66th annual Tony Awards honoring the best of the 2011-12 Broadway season will be presented Sunday at New York’s Beacon Theatre, with Neil Patrick Harris returning to host the ceremony after two much-applauded appearances in the emcee role.

Scheduled presenters and guests include Ellen Barkin, Candice Bergen, Matthew Broderick, Tyne Daly, Nick Jonas, Angela Lansbury, James Marsden, Ricky Martin, Matthew Morrison, Jim Parsons, Tyler Perry, Bernadette Peters, Christopher Plummer and Amanda Seyfried.

Among those making pit stops as a prelude to Broadway appearances this season are Jessica Chastain, starring in a fall revival of The Heiress; Sheryl Crow, currently fine-tuning her score for the musical version of Diner; and Paul Rudd, who will open in October opposite Michael Shannon and Ed Asner in Craig Wright’s play, Grace.

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Returning to the scene of their 2011 triumph with The Book of Mormon, Trey Parker and Matt Stone will be on hand as presenters. But unlike last year, when that runaway hit musical and the play War Horse were virtually preordained as winners, several key categories in the current race remain wide open, with no clear front-runner.

That provides the uncommon prospect of an awards show with some actual suspense. Here are The Hollywood Reporter’s top ten reasons to watch the 2012 Tonys, which air live on CBS at 8 p.m. E.T.

David vs. Goliath – Ever since scrappy upstart Avenue Q snatched the best musical award from the behemoth Wicked in 2004, that all-important contest – the one prize believed to have significant impact at the box office – has often boiled down to a faceoff between a small-scale, idiosyncratic underdog and a big-budget spectacle. This year’s primary clash is between Once, the lovingly crafted stage version of Fox Searchlight’s 2007 microbudget Irish indie, and Newsies, Disney’s exuberant revamp of its 1992 big-screen flop about the 1899 New York City newsboys strike. Once leads the field with 11 nominations and has pretty much swept all the second-tier theater-season awards. But the Disney show is perceived as having more robust touring potential, which often plays a part in voters’ thinking. Will it be an intimate story of unrequited love or plucky urchins doing aerial splits and backflips in the face of corporate greed?

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One for the home team – British plays or London import productions have won best play honors five out of six times since 2006. This year the heavyweight contenders are both breakthrough American works, Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, about political and personal divisions within a California family; and Bruce NorrisClybourne Park, which riffs on a situation from A Raisin in the Sun to ponder questions of race and real estate over a half-century’s distance. Both plays were critical darlings and have been neck and neck in Tony prognostications. But being the more recent opener and having already secured the imprimatur of a Pulitzer Prize, Clybourne perhaps has the edge.

Big haul for Salesman? – While there’s support for Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, one of the safest bets this year is the play revival Tony for Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. The production recently closed its hit limited engagement by breaking the house record at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre for the eighth time. The question is how many trophies will it take? It’s hard to imagine Mike Nichols not walking away with directing honors, which would be his eighth win. And while he has strong competition from the inspired clowning of James Corden in One Man, Two Guvnors, Philip Seymour Hoffman is out in front for lead actor. With other possible wins among the show’s seven nominations, this could be another major night for producer Scott Rudin, who cleaned up last year with The Book of Mormon.

Sondheim or Gershwin? – When it was first announced that director Diane Paulus and adapter Susan-Lori Parks were planning a major overhaul of the original libretto to Porgy and Bess, Stephen Sondheim’s indignant protest shone an unflattering spotlight that tarnished the production before anyone had seen it. Now with a mighty ten nominations in its corner, the Gershwin classic is up against Sondheim and James Goldman’s 1971 Follies for musical revival. But the divisive impact of some of Paulus and Co.’s modifications to the score stacks the odds against a win. And a victory for Follies would help soothe musical pundits’ lingering sense of injustice over its failure to nab the top prize 40 years ago.

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Audra takes the lead – One of Broadway’s most beloved performers, Audra McDonald returned this season from a few years’ absence while filming ABC’s Private Practice. She is pretty much a sure thing for lead actress in a musical for her superbly sung and acted turn as the coke-addled floozy trying to clean up her life with an honest man in Porgy and Bess. McDonald already has four Tonys on her shelf, winning twice for featured actress in a play for Master Class and A Raisin in the Sun, and twice for the same category in a musical, for Carousel and Ragtime. This would be her first win in a leading role. If there’s a possible dark horse who might swipe it from her, it’s Jan Maxwell for her acerbic neglected wife in Follies. Maxwell is another cherished industry trooper and one long overdue for major acknowledgment.

Diva smackdown – All bets are off in many of the acting races, but lead actress in a play is arguably the most competitive. Nina Arianda in Venus in Fur, Stockard Channing in Other Desert Cities, Linda Lavin in The Lyons and Cynthia Nixon in Wit all give the kind of fiercely committed, intelligent performances that would be awards magnets in any season, while the stamina alone of Tracie Bennett’s ferocious, take-no-prisoners resuscitation of Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow is enough to make her a serious contender. This one is anyone’s guess, though most insiders favor newcomer Arianda.

New faces or veterans?Jeremy Jordan became Broadway’s instant It Boy this season by jumping from the quick flop of Bonnie & Clyde with his reputation undamaged into the breeches and jaunty flat cap of youthful rabblerouser Jack Kelly in Newsies. He faces stiff competition from another fresh face in Steve Kazee of Once, while respected vets Norm Lewis in Porgy and Bess and Danny Burstein in Follies each have strong support. Like lead actress in a play, this one could go in almost any direction.

Featured actor clash – Much like the lead actor showdown between Hoffman and Corden, it’s all but impossible to measure the bruisingly internalized work of Andrew Garfield in Death of a Salesman against the larkish cavorting and unapologetic scenery-chewing of Christian Borle in Peter and the Starcatcher. Borle is a seasoned New York theater actor who saw wider exposure this year thanks to a starring role on NBC’s Smash. Garfield chose to spend his downtime before the international publicity juggernaut of The Amazing Spider-Man making his Broadway debut in one of the most demanding plays in the American canon. When Scarlett Johansson won featured actress in 2010 for A View From the Bridge, some industry cynics dubbed it the “Welcome to Broadway” award for a movie star. But Johansson deserved it, just as Garfield does this year.

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A Tony to go with his Oscars – Given that only material originally written for the stage is eligible, Once is out of the running for best score, but since composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman wrote several new numbers to supplement holdover tunes from the movie, Newsies qualifies. Reflecting a season decidedly low on laudable new scores, that leaves Menken virtually unchallenged to finally take home a Tony to place alongside his eight Oscars. While the composer was nominated in the past for his work on Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and Sister Act, he has yet to secure a win. With his only competition coming from the little-loved Bonnie & Clyde and from songs for non-musicals One Man, Two Guvnors and Peter and the Starcatcher, Menken should be polishing his acceptance speech.

Respect for Spidey?– Despite its turbulent gestation through a repeatedly extended preview period punctuated by accidents and injuries – not least of them the wounded pride of deposed director-creator Julie TaymorSpider-Man Turn Off the Dark has shrugged off its critical trouncing to become a surprise success. While still far from recoupment, the superhero spectacle has posted consistently high grosses since opening last June and shows no sign of slowing down. Shut out of the top categories, its hopes of Tony recognition rest with just two nominations: George Tsypin’s scenic design and the late Eiko Ishioka’s costumes. Even a single win would allow producers to slap “Tony Winner” across their marquee, perhaps providing the ultimate vindication for a show initially regarded as an industry joke.