‘Boys’ tries to fend off ‘Chaperone’

Buzz surrounds showstoppers as tuners break from B'way trends

NEW YORK — While there are 24 competitive categories to be decided when the 2006 Tony awards are announced June 11 and a number of them are wide open, the race that has legit insiders buzzing is the unpredictable duel between “The Drowsy Chaperone” and “Jersey Boys” for best musical.

That face-off in many ways encapsulates the co-existence of traditional and new-model tuners in the Broadway landscape. What makes the two competing shows work so well is their combination of elements from both ends of the spectrum.

Musical theater purists love to protest about the proliferation of jukebox shows assembled out of the back catalogs of popular music artists, or the growing number of screen-to-stage adaptations, reconfiguring material conceived for another medium.

Leading the Tony field with a whopping 13 noms, “Drowsy” clearly won points for being one of the few entirely original musicals of the season.

Hatched in Toronto out of a sketch designed as a wedding gift for co-creator and star Bob Martin, the show is a bubbly homage to the frivolous musicals of the 1920s. It combines nostalgia for a bygone era of frothy confections with a post-modern, meta-theatrical edge — Martin’s character, identified only as Man in Chair, is a sad-sack musical theater geek who puts an old cast recording on his turntable and watches as the forgotten tuner comes to life in his shabby apartment.

Martin’s nomination reps one of the few cases of a lead acting nominee in a musical who doesn’t actually sing — a bar or two of the finale notwithstanding. Recent precedents were in dance shows like “Movin’ Out” (both John Selya and Elizabeth Parkinson scored noms).

The win for best musical of another recent dance show, “Contact,” underlines that an original score is not a prerequisite for the top Tony. While it cobbles together the vintage hits of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, “Jersey Boys,” which scored eight Tony noms, is anything but an underdog.

Songbook shows have taken a beating in the past two seasons, as flops like “Good Vibrations,” “Lennon,” “All Shook Up” and “Ring of Fire” stacked up.

But “Jersey Boys” has proved a resounding hit with both critics and auds, with robust prospects both for a long New York run and as a touring vehicle. Spinning the true tale of blue-collar suburban boys on the bumpy road to fame, the show’s book by vet screenwriter Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice brings a gritty cinematic feel to the material that distinguishes it from standard Broadway fare.

With noms in 11 categories, “The Color Purple” is by no means out of the running. The adaptation of Alice Walker’s saga of African-American women oppressed and ultimately empowered brought a formidable new producing entity to Broadway in Oprah Winfrey.

But while Winfrey’s marketing muscle certainly kickstarted the show and helped it overcome mixed reviews, it’s the strong word of mouth generated by the emotional musical that has sustained it. And like the “Raisin in the Sun” revival two seasons back, the hit show is attracting the elusive black audience to Broadway in almost unprecedented numbers.

The fourth slot in the musical category went to “The Wedding Singer,” with five noms. New Line’s attempt to replicate its “Hairspray” success with this ’80s-retro comedy — adapted from the Adam Sandler-Drew Barrymore movie — has performed below expectations since opening April 27.

But the Tony noms and the chance to showcase a high-energy musical number on the awards telecast stand to boost its flagging box office.

“These shows are so profoundly different, they really do come from different ends of the musical solar system,” says “Jersey Boys” helmer Des McAnuff, who launched the tuner at the La Jolla Playhouse, where he is artistic director. “It’s good for everybody to have such different musicals working on Broadway. Successful shows feed off each other.”

Unlike earlier years, when monster hits like “The Producers” and “Hairspray” dominated the Tony race, this year’s awards spread the wealth across a handful of sturdy tuner contenders.

“We saw the beginning of that trend last year,” notes Jed Bernstein, prexy of the League of American Theaters and Producers.

Last June, “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “The Light in the Piazza” all took home trophies. So while one or two of the best musical nominees have usually closed soon after — sometimes even before — the Tonys in past years, the 2005 crop not only played through the summer but continues to pull steady numbers a year later.

That commercial boost looks to be mirrored this season.

“The nominations are going to matter to us a lot,” says Michael Lynne, co-chair and CEO of New Line. “And the Tony broadcast will help create a national audience.”

While the negative reviews and the near shutout from the Tony noms of “Tarzan” rep a slap in the face to Disney Theatricals for its first new show on Broadway in six years, the apeman tuner’s potent advance (reportedly $20 million) is further evidence of a healthy commercial climate.

Competition in the musical revival category between John Doyle’s pared down, Brechtian reimagining of “Sweeney Todd” and Kathleen Marshall’s candy-colored, crowd-pleasing “The Pajama Game,” with six and nine nominations respectively, again highlights two radically different tuner models that have connected with Broadway auds.

“Sweeney” has been uncommonly successful for a Sondheim revival, and Tony attention should help extend its life further. “Pajama Game” has sold out its limited run through June 17, but producers have announced the show will return after a summer hiatus with a new cast.

Beyond the musical panorama, the Tony race also stands to bolster biz for straight plays.

In the new play stakes, the critical hosannahs that greeted the Broadway transfer of Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys” have translated to strong box office. With seven noms, the Nicholas Hytner production from London’s National Theater is the clear frontrunner for best play honors, while Richard Griffiths leads the field for actor in a play with his towering turn as an English teacher given to unconventional methods.

Producers will be hoping the five noms for Martin McDonagh’s carnage-strewn satire of the futile cycle of violence, “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” might help the struggling Off Broadway transfer find its footing with auds. Fellow Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s “Shining City” scored a relatively modest two noms — for play and lead actor Oliver Platt — but earned some of the most glowing reviews of the season, opening May 9 to promising business.

The play revival race also will provide a slapdown between Lincoln Center Theater’s staging of Clifford Odets’ Depression-era family saga, “Awake and Sing!,” whose eight nods make it the season’s most nominated play; and the Gate Theater, Dublin, import of Brian Friel’s “Faith Healer.” That soulful rumination on the artist and his unreliable talent earned four noms, including one for lead Ralph Fiennes.

The Tony awards will be presented June 11 at Radio City.

(Gordon Cox in New York contributed to this report.)

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