Biz abuzz at Tony tallies

'Wicked' tops list; 'Ave Q,' 'Caroline' close behind

The short sprint between the Tony nominations and the ceremony itself is under way. And unlike last year, when “Hairspray” ambled easily to the top prize, this year there’s likely to be a bit more jockeying for position.

“I think we’ve got a horse race this year,” says Robyn Goodman, who has one of the leading horses. The producer’s “Avenue Q” got six noms, including one for the coveted top-tuner trophy.

“Because of the way the nominations went, it could be a nail-biter. No one will take the night,” she expects.

But “Wicked” won the early race: The musical about Oz’s witches topped the nominations list, with 10 citations, including nods for musical, book, score and both its leading actresses, Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel.

The show is doing almost SRO business these days and doesn’t necessarily need a big Tony boost to remain aloft.

But producer David Stone is already looking down the road a year — to the road — and says a best musical win would be most valuable in paving the show’s way on the yellow brick of a national tour.

“It would be great to win the best musical Tony to use as a marketing tool going into each city,” he says. “It would help us sell more tickets before we get there.”

What’s this? The Tony Award — a marketing tool? Gasp!

The New York Times certainly thinks they are.

This year’s Tony nominations were preceded by a much-discussed broadside in the pages of the New York Times.

The paper’s new “public editor,” Daniel Okrent, penned a screed that appeared in the Sunday Week in Review section, the day before the nominations came out, describing the Tonys as “artistically meaningless, blatantly commercial, shamefully exclusionary and culturally corrosive award competition.”

He went on to call them “a real estate promotion, restricted as they are to shows put on in the 31 houses owned or controlled by the Shuberts, the Nederlanders and Jujamcyn, plus another nine thrown in by accident of geography or affinity to the idea of the Big Musical.”

The industry responded with a collective shrug.

“The Okrent piece was naive,” says one player. “Every award ceremony has its constituency. The Tonys never said it was to honor American theater. It is to honor Broadway. Period.”

And, while he seemed to suggest the Tonys were controlled by theater owners, Okrent failed to note other orgs — namely the Broadway unions — have an equal interest in maintaining the exclusivity of the Broadway brand.

If the Tonys were opened up to Off Broadway shows, the financial benefits that accrue to Tony winners and nominees would no longer exclusively benefit the unionized Broadway theaters.

Nor do Off Broadway players necessarily want to be invited to the party, for corollary reasons: As a member of the League of Off Broadway Theaters & Producers says, “Off Broadway wants nothing to do with the Tonys. It would invite the unions.”

Other financial burdens that would come with inclusion in the Tony race were cited: “Small theaters can’t afford having hundreds of Tony voters seeing their shows for free,” says one observer. “It is ridiculous.”

Jed Bernstein, chairman of the League of American Theaters & Producers, which produces the Tonys jointly with the American Theater Wing, says: “I think the suggestion that the Tonys have to apologize for the fact that they only cover Broadway is ill-considered. The Tonys have never pretended to be anything other than a Broadway award. This doesn’t suggest that only good work is being done on Broadway.”

The only real effect the editorial appeared to have was in the pages of the paper itself. This year, the Times’ coverage of the Tony noms came with a dutiful sidebar explaining to its readers just what the Tonys do and do not cover.

Things got stranger still two days later, when it was announced that Steven Erlanger, the paper’s cultural chief, who had been quoted in the Okrent piece defending the paper’s attention to the awards, was ankling to become Jerusalem bureau chief. Coincidence?

Taking stock

But the continuing convolutions of the cultural department at the Times, which recently lost Adam Moss to New York magazine, couldn’t distract the industry for long from the usual games of vote-counting, back-patting and wound-licking.

Among shows taking pride in their tally were “Assassins,” the acclaimed Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman revival, which came in second in the noms list with seven citations (making a total of 17 under the direction of Joe Mantello, who helmed both “Assassins” and “Wicked,” and was nominated for the former); “Caroline, or Change,” which got a best musical nod among its six nominations; and “The Boy From Oz,” which took the last slot in the musical category plus four other noms.

“Oz” star Hugh Jackman hosts the Tonys for the second time this year. That may or may not have helped the musical’s chances; the nominators reportedly returned to the show in the spring and liked what they saw, with the perspective of a full season behind them.

Shut out of the top musical category were Rosie O’Donnell’s “Taboo,” which did garner a strong four noms in key categories, including one for Boy George’s score; and “Bombay Dreams,” the London import that was widely seen to be the biggest loser of the nominations list. The show has a pricetag as big as that of “Wicked” ($14 million) and it came away with a measly three noms in technical categories.

Producer Elizabeth Williams waxes philosophical. “We are disappointed that we didn’t get the nominations we hoped for. It’s nice to be recognized by the industry, and we weren’t. But the audience is there, and it’s getting stronger,” she says. The show’s advance, including groups, is $5 million.

Williams, who has produced several Tony winners, knows exposure on the telecast is important (and “Bombay Dreams,” denied a best-musical nomination, won’t get it), but reminds that the only award that really has significant impact at the box office is the musical award.

“And we had no hope of winning that,” she concedes.

Among other shows that failed to make a strong showing in the nominations, the most significant probably was “Little Shop of Horrors,” which has been losing B.O. steam and will not get to strut its stuff on the Tony telecast, as the nominees for musical-revival will. It came away with just a single nom, for lead actor Hunter Foster.

Conversely, the revival of “Wonderful Town” fared surprisingly well, earning noms for its director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall. “Fiddler on the Roof,” which took six nominations, did not get one for its director, David Leveaux — perhaps because nominators knew they could include him in the play-directing list, as they did, for “Jumpers.”

The fourth musical-revival nominee was “Big River,” a long-shuttered show that was one of several to fare well in the listings. (It won a second nom for featured actor Michael McElroy.)

In fact, in a year in which new plays mostly fizzled, it was a shuttered revival that scored the most noms among straight plays: Lincoln Center Theater’s production of “Henry IV,” directed by Jack O’Brien, which took home six.

Doug Wright’s “I Am My Own Wife” is considered to be the clear front runner for the best play award. It also garnered noms for star Jefferson Mays (in the leading-actor category, arguably the tightest of any race) and director Moises Kaufman.

The new-play category is most notable this year for including two Pulitzer Prize winners, Wright’s play (which won the 2004 award) and Nilo Cruz’s “Anna in the Tropics,” which took the Pulitzer last year (and later flopped on Broadway). The other nominees for play are Bryony Lavery’s “Frozen” and William Nicholson’s “The Retreat From Moscow.”

But it’s the race for best musical that is likely to capture most of the attention in the coming weeks. “Avenue Q,” generally considered to be the underdog, is coming out swinging, albeit with felt tongue in cheek. The producers adorned the theater’s marquee in patriotic bunting and posters. Swinging from the side is placard announcing, “Paid for by the friends of Avenue Q committee to win the 2004 Tony award for best musical.”

The Tonys, “blatantly commercial”? Poppycock!