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Tony ponies jockey for position

'Millie,' 'Urinetown' lead nom tallies in tight race

With no sure bets in the top two races — best musical and best play — the Tony competition is, in contrast to last year, a real horse race.

The stakes are high, too: Virtually all of the competitors in both categories — with the exception of “Mamma Mia!” — could really use the B.O. boost that only a win can provide.

In the musical competition, a tap-happy flapper faces off against a dark spoof of agitprop theater, as “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” which led the balloting with 11 nominations, and “Urinetown,” just behind with 10, do battle with “Mamma Mia!” and “Sweet Smell of Success,” which stands as good a chance of taking home the trophy as J.J. Hunsecker does of getting through the pearly gates.

“Millie” producer Hal Luftig says the show is courting Tony voters with a CD and a souvenir booklet, and acknowledges that a win would be nice ammunition to counter the show’s pan in the Times. But he insists it isn’t essential for the show’s success on Broadway.

“We wrapped $190,000 the day of the nominations,” he says, “but to be honest I think a lot of that is simply word of mouth. We’re seeing a groundswell effect. Our B.O. has been steadily growing day by day.”

For that reason, Luftig suggests, the national exposure the Tony telecast brings may ultimately be more important than a win in the top category, particularly since “Millie” already has tour plans firmly cemented. Of course, the backing of road voters in Tony balloting won’t hurt, either.

“Urinetown” is widely regarded as “Millie’s” chief competition for the top honor, pitting a show with old-fashioned razzle-dazzle against a show that more or less makes fun of same. Will “Urinetown’s” mocking tone hurt its chances with Tony voters, who are considered a conservative lot?

” ‘Titanic’ was a pretty funny title too, back then,” says “Urinetown” producer Michael David. “I’m really proud of how the community has found room for this show.”

And David maintains that the show’s future on Broadway doesn’t hinge on its Tony chances. “We’ve made money every week,” he says. “This is a unique show in a unique house with a unique set of economics.”

“Urinetown,” too, will woo voters with a souvenir booklet and CD, and it, too, has a tour booked, a yearlong trip beginning in San Francisco in August.

The winners aren’t the only thing up in the air right now. At press time, less than a month before the June 2 ceremony, the telecast still had no confirmed host. Names ranging from Nathan Lane to Angela Lansbury to Whoopi Goldberg (a “Millie” producer) to Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker had been discussed, but most had declined.

“It’s difficult,” says Tony telecast producer Liz McCann. “We always try to find someone with some kind of theater background, but our choices need to be approved by CBS.”

The network, of course, is looking for the kind of celebrity who can boost the show’s notoriously sluggish ratings. Last year, it was expected that the hoopla surrounding “The Producers” and its relatively high-profile stars, who hosted, would give the show a big boost. But while it did get a small rise — in contrast to the year’s other awards shows, McCann points out — it wasn’t the kind of ratings reward the industry was hoping for.

This year, McCann points to the Abba tuner as a potential draw for TV viewers. ” ‘Mamma Mia’ has toured already and middle America has heard about it, and ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’ has some name recognition too,” she says.

Until the inevitable thinning out that follows the awards, the Broadway landscape looks to remain steady, with a full crop of shows fighting for generally weak box office. Only one show — the Simon Callow solo vehicle “The Mystery of Charles Dickens” — announced its closing in the wake of the nominations. In recent seasons three has been the norm.

Aside from some unusually notable snubs — Bill Pullman of “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” left out of the competitive actor-in-a-play category, “Topdog/Underdog” director George C. Wolfe passed over in that crowded field — the nominations held few surprises.

The revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods” nabbed a healthy 10 nominations, with other top tallies going to revivals of “Morning’s at Seven” (nine), “Private Lives” and “The Crucible” (six each).

In the play category, Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize winner “Topdog/Underdog” competes with Edward Albee’s “The Goat,” Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses” and “Fortune’s Fool” by Ivan Turgenev, an author who died well before the Tonys were a twinkle in anyone’s eye. (Indeed, in the official nominations list Turgenev’s name was strangely absent, with only adapter Mike Poulton credited.) Tony precedent indicates that any play not previously produced on Broadway can be eligible in the new-play category, regardless of its age.

The season’s small crop of musical revivals resulted in just two shows competing in the often highly competitive category, “Into the Woods” and Trevor Nunn’s “Oklahoma!” The play revival crop, by contrast, was unusually healthy this season, with some 11 entries vying for four slots. The shows selected were “Morning’s at Seven,” “The Crucible,” “Private Lives” and “Noises Off,” all but the latter spring arrivals.

Fall openers “Hedda Gabler” and “Dance of Death,” as well as “The Elephant Man” and the Roundabout Theater Co.’s “The Man Who Had All the Luck,” were among the notable revivals overlooked.

The Roundabout, often a major presence in the nominations, received only a single nod for its productions this year (Sam Robards as featured actor for “Man Who Had All the Luck”). Its stagings of “Major Barbara,” “The Women” and “An Almost Holy Picture” were overlooked entirely.

The Roundabout’s chief not-for-profit Broadway competitor, Lincoln Center Theater, had a stronger Tony showing thanks to the nine nominations for “Morning’s at Seven” (five of those in the featured actor and actress fields), two nods for its ill-received fall tuner “Thou Shalt Not” and a nom in the relatively new “special theatrical event” category, for Barbara Cook’s concert “Mostly Sondheim.”

That show will compete with solo shows by Bea Arthur, John Leguizamo and Elaine Stritch, with Stritch easily the surest bet in the entire Tony field this season.

The most high-profile show to get blanked at the nominations was London import “The Graduate,” a critically lambasted show that is nevertheless the highest-grossing straight play on Broadway.

Other notable shows that came away empty-handed include the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Alan Ayckbourn musical “By Jeeves,” Neil Simon’s “45 Seconds From Broadway” and “One Mo’ Time,” a musical revival that did a fast fade at the Longacre. That show’s producer, the Williamstown Theater Festival, can take solace in winning the Tonys’ regional theater award this year.

There were some interesting historical footnotes, also not unusual. Laura Linney made the cut for leading actress in a play for her perf in “The Crucible,” while Beatrice Straight, who created the role in 1953, won for featured actress.

This season’s production of “Morning’s at Seven” fared considerably better than the seminal 1980 revival, which received just four noms; however, that production took home three Tonys, for play revival, director Vivian Matalon and featured actor David Rounds.

Kate Burton was nominated in two categories, as leading actress in “Hedda Gabler” and featured actress in “The Elephant Man.” The only other performers to win two nominations in a single season are Dana Ivey and Amanda Plummer. (In the original 1979 Broadway production of “Elephant Man,” Carole Shelley won the leading actress trophy for the same role.)

Also winning two nominations this season: choreographer John Carrafa, for “Urinetown” and “Into the Woods.”

Lapine’s nomination was something of a surprise. He helmed “Into the Woods’ ” original 1987 Broadway production, and thesps and creatives generally are considered ineligible when they repeat stints in shows they preemed with on Broadway.

Special Tonys for lifeti
me achievement this year go to Julie Harris, who has won five Tonys, more than any other performer, and producer Robert Whitehead, a four-time Tony winner.