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Tony Awards show not skimping on razzle-dazzle

The Associated Press, Sunday, June 10, 2012, 5:08am (PDT)

NEW YORK (AP) -- It's time for the Tony Awards, and this year the producers apparently don't want to let you breathe.

Sunday's three-hour telecast from the Beacon Theater will be packed with so many stars and performances — a record 16 numbers will feature moments from musicals, plays and revivals — that cynics might call it kitchen sink programming.

"Every year we've added more and more entertainment," said Charlotte St. Martin, the executive director of The Broadway League, which jointly presents the Tonys with the American Theatre Wing. "You can feel the energy in the room when they're rehearsing."

The explosion of performances is an attempt to showcase as much on Broadway as possible and also an implicit admission that there's no clear, dying-to-see-it front-runner like last year's juggernaut, "The Book of Mormon."

In fact, the producers have even invited the cast of "The Book of Mormon" to perform again this year. And, to top it all off, 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.

"It's got that energy of any production," said Heather A. Hitchens, the executive director of the American Theatre Wing. "The excitement and the anxiety hand in hand — that's what makes it work."

Last year's Tonys was seen by 6.9 million viewers, roughly the same number as the year before. But the program, hosted by Neil Patrick Harris, 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 and he'll be competing Sunday against the "Mad Men" season finale, but this time no NBA postseason games.

He'll also be 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."

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."

"With plays being such an important part of Broadway, we're excited that we're finding new ways to bring them to the world out there," said St. Martin. "The magic of a play is hard to show on a television screen. We're hoping this helps."

Not everyone can perform, although it may seem like it. One show not invited is "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," whose producers have tongue-in-cheek decided to hold a special matinee performance on Sunday and offer free tickets to anyone with the first name Tony, Anthony, Antoinette, Toni, Antonio or Antonia.

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?

"There's a horse race in virtually every category," said St. Martin. "I love that." Hitchens said such competitions show the diversity of Broadway's offerings: "All the plays and musicals are so different from each other and that's so wonderful to see."

Harris will have plenty of help on stage, from both veterans of Broadway and newcomers. The list of presenters includes Jessica Chastain, Nick Jonas, Amanda Seyfried, Jim Parsons, Paul Rudd, Ellen Barkin, Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters, Candice Bergen, Christopher Plummer, James Marsden, Mandy Patinkin and Sheryl Crow.

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. "`Godspell' has a heck of a lot riding on that Tony performance, as well as tourist traffic over the next couple of weeks," he wrote in a recent blog post. If Davenport doesn't see "a sizable uptick in sales," he says "Godspell" may close by the end of the month.

Overall, the health of Broadway is good, with shows yielded a new 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." So loaded with talent was this category that plays such as David Henry Hwang's "Chinglish," Katori Hall's "The Mountaintop," Nicky Silver's "The Lyons," David Auburn's "The Columnist" and Theresa Rebeck's "Seminar" didn't even get nominations.

"It's a much healthier season," said Plummer. "There are some very excellent revivals and one or two very good new plays. I'm encouraged this year by the success of the theater. For such a long time it was just hanging in there. Now it's coming back. It always will come back because it's lasted 2,500 years."

What happens on Broadway got a boost this season from NBC's nightly soap opera "Smash," which takes a behind-the-stage look at two rival actresses competing for the title role in a musical about Marilyn Monroe. Packed with more stage stars than "Glee," the show made being in the ensemble look cool and putting on a show even cooler. A second season is in the works.

But if you're looking for another, more immediate rivalry than the one over who plays Marilyn, look no further than Sunday's best revival award, in which the two top contenders are "Follies" and a reworked "Porgy and Bess."

That contest got some added spice before "Porgy" even made it to Broadway when word came that the four-hour opera was to be condensed and the characters deepened. Purists including Stephen Sondheim complained that a musical treasure was being corrupted. Sondheim, of course, wrote the songs for "Follies."

Someone should make sure one camp isn't seated next to the other.

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Online: http://www.TonyAwards.com

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Follow Mark Kennedy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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