Tony — Broadway’s most celebrated award — smiles down tonight on a commercial theater season that boosted itself with celebrities and busted all the records. The three-hour bash, televised from Radio City Music Hall, will feature a stream of wellknown presenters, enough that the 60th annual Tony Awards has no host.
As for the Broadway records: In the 12-month season that just ended, producers counted 12,003,148 paying ticketholders — the first time attendance has topped 12 million since the League of American Theatres and Producers began collecting data 50 years ago. Just over half the theater-goers came from outside New York City.
Another all-time high: Almost 82 percent of the seats in Broadway’s 39 theaters were filled. A third record: Grosses increased 12 percent, to $861.6 million.
No one asks anymore whether the theater — commercial theater, in this case — is really dead. This season’s 39 musicals and plays, both new and revived, went up on a Broadway clearly visible on America’s radar. But everyone knows that as an investment, commercial theater is always risky; sometimes, there’s no accounting for what will grab audiences and what won‘t.
Tonight, the issue will be what grabbed 754 people, the Tony voters, who are producers, theater professionals and critics. Envelopes will be opened on the show, airing on CBS at 7 p.m..
Among the presenters are Oprah Winfrey, a producer of the nominated musical “The Color Purple,” and movie queen Julia Roberts. Her performance in “Three Days of Rain” did not merit a nomination, but she’s come up from her dive into Broadway with her grace and smile intact, and with a reported $35,000 a week for her stage work.
Some other names joining them are Glenn Close, Bernadette Peters, Liev Schreiber, Martin Short, plus some actors also up for Tony Awards, including Cynthia Nixon, Ralph Fiennes and Mark Ruffalo.
As for this year’s awards, several of the major categories are highly competitive. Here’s a rundown of nominees to watch.
• Best play: “The History Boys,” Alan Bennett’s remarkable examination of the dynamics of education in a culture of casual sexual abuse, was virtually lifted from London and dropped onto Broadway, where the production landed beautifully. It’s salient, it’s funny, and you can look for it to beat some tough contenders, including “Rabbit Hole,” a searing portrait of a couple in mourning for their preschooler, and the darkly funny (and crimson bloody) Irish import about a splinter Irish Republican Army fighter, “The Lieutenant of Inishmore.”
• Best musical: With 13 nominations in different categories, “The Drowsy Chaperone” is the strongest contender. It’s a Canadian import, a joyous and goofy dissection of a fictitious ’20s musical that springs to life in a man’s living room. Its biggest rivals are “The Color Purple,” a fine version of Alice Walker’s novel, and “Jersey Boys,” the energetically performed story of early rocker Frankie Valli, which could draw many votes but will probably be a far second.
• Best play revival: Here’s an example of the play and the production being inextricable: “Faith Healer” appears a deadon favorite. It’s hard to tell whether this will be a winner because of Brian Friel’s play, four monologues about an itinerant Irish faith healer confounded by his erratic powers, or because of the riveting interpretation of the characters by veteran actors Ralph Fiennes, Ian McDiarmid and Cherry Jones.
• Best musical revival: Two musicals are the major contenders: the brilliant production of “The Pajama Game,” which appears to be the definitive version of that show, and “Sweeney Todd,” presented much as a concert performance, with each of its main players using at least one musical instrument in performance. Expect the PJs to come off with the award.
• Best actor in a play: Among the five contenders, it’s a three-way fight. David Wilmot, portraying the bizarre and savage rebel in “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” gets audiences wholly on his side. Ralph Fiennes, in the title role of “Faith Healer,” couldn’t be more on target. Richard Griffiths (my vote), the large, looming presence of a teacher in “The History Boys,” is flawless.
• Best actress in a play: “Rabbit Hole’s” Cynthia Nixon, widely known for her work in HBO’s “Sex and the City” foursome, gave a performance so nuanced as the mourning mother of a young child that it was a stage revelation. She’s a good bet, but she’s up against four forceful performers, including Lynn Redgrave, nominated for “The Constant Wife.”
• Best actor in a musical: The singer and pianist Harry Connick Jr., in his Broadway debut, gives “The Pajama Game” a leading man who defines charm, spells out macho and, with a curl of his eyebrows, embraces vulnerability. He’s hard to beat, though Michael Cerveris may convince the theater community with his terrifying Sweeney Todd, and Bob Martin, with his hilariously affected narration of “The Drowsy Chaperone.”
• Best actress in a musical: Singer/actress Patti LuPone makes a beguiling Mrs. Lovett to murderous barber Sweeney Todd, and her main contender is Kelli O’Hara (my vote), the union leader in “The Pajama Game.” Her onstage presence is the equivalent of high-class chocolate.
The Tony awards ceremony air 7 p.m. on CBS.