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'Once' and 'Starcatcher' take Tony Awards lead

The Associated Press, Sunday, June 10, 2012, 5:41pm (PDT)

NEW YORK (AP) -- The bittersweet musical "Once" and the inventive play "Peter and the Starcatcher" are going head-to-head for the most Tony Awards. Both had four as the night hit its halfway point.

John Tiffany, the British director of "Once," won Sunday, making his Broadway debut. The musical also won best orchestration, best sound design, and Enda Walsh took home the award for best book of a musical.

"Peter and the Starcatcher" won for best costume design, best scenic design and best sound design for a play. Christian Borle, who plays the clumsy, overheated pirate who will be Captain Hook in the Peter Pan prequel, was named best featured actor in a play.

"Thank you for making this so much fun," said Borle, who also stars in the NBC series "Smash." He said he was even more pleased that his mother was in the crowd.

Mike Nichols, one of those rare people who have won a Tony, Grammy, Oscar and Emmy, won his ninth Tony for directing "Death of a Salesman." He had won six times previously, directing such shows as "Barefoot in the Park," "The Odd Couple" and "Spamalot."

On winning, Nichols said Arthur Miller's 63-year-old play gets truer as time goes by and has a special meaning for actors. "There's not a person in this theater that doesn't know what it is to be a salesman — to be out there in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine," he said. "As we know, a salesman has got to dream. It goes with the territory."

Judy Kaye won for best actress in a featured role in a musical in "Nice Work If You Can Get It," playing a temperance worker who turns out likes to drink and hangs from a chandelier at one point. It's Kaye's second Tony — she also won for "The Phantom of the Opera."

"I guess chandeliers have been very, very good to me," she said to a burst of laughter. She dedicated the award to her father, who died last week.

Judith Light, who plays an acerbic alcoholic in "Other Desert Cities," won for for best featured actress in a play. Michael McGrath won for best actor in a featured musical role from "Nice Work If You Can Get It."

With no clear, dying-to-see-it front-running musical like last year's juggernaut, "The Book of Mormon," the show Sunday at the Beacon Theatre actually began with a nod to the past, with host Neil Patrick Harris joining with the cast of "Mormon" for their opening number of "Hello!" from the 2011 musical winner.

He then was surrounded by dancers in tuxes and shimmering dresses for a rousing original number in which he wished that real life was more like theater, complete with backup dancers, rhymes and quick costume changes. He had cameo help from Patti LuPone, the little red-headed orphan from "Annie" and a flying Mary Poppins.

Christopher Gattelli, who thrillingly combined ballet with bold athletic moves in "Newsies, won the best choreography Tony. It is his first award; he previously was nominated for "South Pacific" in 2008.

The three-hour telecast was packed with stars and performances from musicals, plays and revivals. The explosion of performances is an attempt to showcase as much on Broadway as possible. One performance won't even be nearby — the song from "Hairspray" will be performed from a cruise ship in the Caribbean Sea.

It promises to be a hectic night. Winners were warned that they only had 90 seconds from the time their name was called to get on stage and give their speech before loud music will drown them out.

Last year's Tonys was seen by 6.9 million viewers, roughly the same number as the year before. But the program posted a 9 percent year-to-year gain in the ratings for the 18-to-49 demographic.

The popular Harris is back again this year with several songs and skits. He'll be competing Sunday against the "Mad Men" season finale, but this time no NBA postseason games.

He'll also been tasked with trying to MC between performances from the four best musical nominees — "Leap of Faith," "Newsies," "Nice Work If You Can Get It" and "Once." To make time, most technical awards will be handed out during the commercial breaks.

The four musical revival nominees also get a turn on stage, with performances from "Evita," "Follies," "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" and "Jesus Christ Superstar." There will even be time carved out for the cast of "Godspell" and "Ghost: The Musical" — two shows not up for best musical Tony.

As if that wasn't enough, look out for performances from the Tony-nominated plays "End of the Rainbow," "One Man, Two Guvnors" and "Peter and the Starcatcher." There also are video snippets from other plays.

Producers of the telecast are counting on some intriguing matchups to keep interest high: Which play will win from a very strong category? Will James Corden from "One Man, Two Guvnors" take the best drama leading man award from the favorite, Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Death of a Salesman"? Who will emerge with the award in the best actress in a drama race — Nina Arianda, Tracie Bennett, Stockard Channing, Linda Lavin or Cynthia Nixon?

Harris is getting plenty of help on stage, from both veterans of Broadway and newcomers. The list of presenters includes Jessica Chastain, Nick Jonas, Tyler Perry, Amanda Seyfried, Jim Parsons, Paul Rudd, Ellen Barkin, Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters, Candice Bergen, Christopher Plummer, James Marsden, Mandy Patinkin and Sheryl Crow. Hugh Jackman will get a few moments to talk after being presented with a special Tony.

The Tony Awards show is serious business and the exposure in front of millions is priceless. Many shows that are suffering pre-summer slumps are counting on a bump from the telecast. "Godspell" producer Ken Davenport was warned that his production's future may hinge on making a splash at the ceremony.

Overall, the health of Broadway is good, with shows yielding a record $1.14 billion in grosses this season, and total attendance reaching 12.3 million. The only concern is that audience numbers were flat, meaning higher ticket prices are pushing the overall box office take.

This season, 40 new shows opened — 14 new musicals, 23 new plays and three specials. Many of the musicals once again relied on Hollywood, with "Once," "Ghost The Musical," "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever," "Newsies" and "Leap of Faith" all originating on celluloid.

Some older works — "Follies" and "Death of a Salesman" — reminded a new audience why they are classics. And George and Ira Gershwin — or at least their estates — are clear winners, with the revival of "Porgy and Bess" and the musical "Nice Work If You Can Get It" proving Gershwin songs still soar.

But, if anything, this was the season of brilliant original plays: "Clybourne Park" by Bruce Norris, "Other Desert Cities" by Jon Robin Baitz, "Peter and the Starcatcher" by Rick Elice and David Ives' "Venus in Fur."

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Online: http://www.TonyAwards.com

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AP Entertainment Writer Jake Coyle and AP National Writer Jocelyn Noveck contributed to this report.

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