Reviewing the major categories

A big musical about a bad musical, “The Producers,” has captured the hearts (and wallets) of New Yorkers this season, and it captivated the Tony nominating committee, too.

With a record-setting 15 nominations in 12 categories, the Mel Brooks musical, which recently ousted “Disney’s The Lion King” from its perch atop the weekly B.O. grosses chart, is the surest bet Broadway has seen in many years for a landslide of prizes.

But like any other award show, the Tonys can surprise. And then there’s the non-singing half of the award roster, where competition pits a venerable British name, Tom Stoppard, against a Pulitzer-prized newcomer, David Auburn.

Herewith, a rundown of the top categories and the artists contending for the prizes.

MUSICAL

Just like Hollywood, Broadway loves a big, fat hit — and it has rather fewer than its West Coast counterpart. For this and other reasons (universal critical acclaim, for instance), “Producers” is the surest Tony shoo-in for the top nod in many seasons. (Even “Lion King,” the biz’s last megahit, faced significant competition from “Ragtime,” which took the book and score nods but lost the big one to the Mouse House beast.)

Competing for the big prize is another show that originated as a movie, “The Full Monty,” as well as two shows desperately needing Tony attention: “A Class Act,” the bio tuner about “A Chorus Line” lyricist Edward Kleban, and “Jane Eyre,” the long-gestating musical adaptation of the Charlotte Bronte novel. Both have struggled at the B.O. Even if they don’t come home with major Tony laurels, their noms as best musical assure them a segment on the awards show to strut their stuff.

PLAY

This category wouldn’t be the same without a British contender: For the past six years, there’s been at least one U.K. playwright nominated for the award. This year it’s Tony regular Tom Stoppard, for “The Invention of Love.”

A three-time Tony winner in the category (for “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” “Travesties” and “The Real Thing”), Stoppard is competing against two American newcomers and an American institution.

Newcomer No. 1 is David Auburn’s “Proof,” both a certified hit and the winner of the year’s Pulitzer — a heady combination that is likely to impress voters, as will the scribe’s nationality (the prize went to the U.K.-originating “Copenhagen” last year).

Newcomer No. 2 would be the darkest horse in the race: Charles Busch’s comedy “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.”

And the institution is August Wilson, whose “King Hedley II” becomes the seventh play in Wilson’s ongoing cycle to rack up a best play nomination. (The only one to win the prize, however, was “Fences.”)

ACTOR IN A MUSICAL

Two veteran stage stars appearing in the same production are vying with a trio of relative newcomers in this category.

“Producers” twosome Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick have won this award previously, for tuners with considerably longer titles: Lane for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” Broderick for “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

Their competition: Kevin Chamberlin, who took home the only nomination for “Seussical” (and was a featured actor nominee last year for “Dirty Blonde”), and two thesps racking up their first Tony notices: Tom Hewitt, who plays the sweet transvestite in “The Rocky Horror Show,” and Patrick Wilson, star of “The Full Monty.”

ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL

The women competing this year aren’t exactly beginning from a level playing field.

The category includes two actress essaying what are clearly the starring roles in their shows: Faith Prince in the revival of “Bells Are Ringing” (Judy Holliday won in the category for the original production) and Marla Schaffel in “Jane Eyre.”

But rounding out the category are three performances of smaller relative scope: Blythe Danner, one of four principal characters in “Follies”; Christine Ebersole in “42nd Street,” a show with a focus on large ensemble work; and Randy Graff, likewise one of an almost equal ensemble cast in “A Class Act.”

Danner, a Tony winner for featured performance in a play for “Butterflies Are Free,” has been twice nominated as a leading actress in a play, but this is her first nomination for a musical — indeed, her first Broadway musical. Prince won the featured nod for her memorable Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls” and was nominated for “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.”

Graff took home a featured nod for “City of Angels,” while Ebersole and Schaffel are newcomers to the nominees circle.

ACTOR IN A PLAY

This category contains an interesting mix of thesps, both seasoned and brand-new, including one who might be both.

Richard Easton, who stars as the elder A.E. Housman in “The Invention of Love,” is an actor with several significant Broadway productions to his name as well as a major history in regional theater, but this marks his first trip to the Tony Awards. It’s an appealing combination that may well give him an edge in the category.

The entire cast of “Stones in His Pockets” — namely the quick-change artists Sean Campion (who took home London’s Olivier award for his role) and Conleth Hill — are first-time noms and Broadway debutantes.

Brian Stokes Mitchell won a Tony last year for “Kiss Me, Kate,” but his nomination for “King Hedley II” marks his first in a straight play.

Finally, there’s Gary Sinise, who’s been nominated in three other categories (featured perf in “The Grapes of Wrath” and as a producer and director of “Buried Child”), but is making his first appearance in this category for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Will his Hollywood pedigree act in his favor?

ACTRESS IN A PLAY

Tony voters have generally showed a marked aversion to honoring productions that have closed, so in this category Broadway debutante Juliette Binoche (“Betrayal”) and Jean Smart, a surprise nominee for “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” are long shots.

Leslie Uggams, a prior nominee in 1968 in the musical category for “Hallelujah, Baby!,” would also be a surprising choice, since “King Hedley II,” like most of Wilson’s plays, is an ensemble work with only one truly central character, the title one.

That leaves Linda Lavin, playing the captivating title character in “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” and Mary-Louise Parker, as the troubled daughter of a mathematician in “Proof.”

Lavin is a prior winner for “Broadway Bound” and has been twice nominated in the featured actress category, so the edge goes to Parker, previously nominated in the category for “Prelude to a Kiss.” Parker is also starring in a drama, and like the Oscars, the Tonys single out dramatic performances far more often than comic ones.

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