Musicals pose Tony voting crunch

Tuners run gamut from frothy pop to edgy art

The 2007 Tony race is going to get ugly.

In one of the most competitive seasons in recent memory, the Broadway crop has yielded a front line of top contenders that’s unusually crowded with new plays and musicals. It also promises fierce smackdowns in the acting stakes, particularly among musical-theater divas and their male counterparts on the dramatic stage.

In years past, there was often a struggle in key categories to find enough worthy candidates to fill out the nomination ballot. Not so this year since nine new plays and 10 tuners are eligible. When noms are announced May 15 for the 61st annual Tony Awards, several contenders that might have been front-runners in less fruitful seasons will be out in the cold.

Duking it out for the four slots in the musical race — and adjacent categories of original score, book and direction of a tuner — are six shows that range across the spectrum from arty to edgy, from candy-colored pop exuberance to affectionate nostalgia.

The critics’ darling of the season among new musicals has been “Spring Awakening,” Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s audacious adaptation of the 1891 Frank Wedekind play about youth caught in the vortex of sexual discovery and impending adulthood.

Since transferring in December after its hit Off Broadway run at the Atlantic, Michael Mayer’s production has breathed new vitality into the Rialto, playing to well-populated houses even through the lean weeks of January and February.

Another Off Broadway transfer, “Grey Gardens,” originated at Playwrights Horizons, which has spawned its share of unconventional art musicals over the past quarter-century, starting with “Sunday in the Park With George.”

Continuing that tradition, the show traces the downfall of Kennedy clan fringe figures Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Little Edie from the pinnacle of 1940s East Hampton society to destitute squalor. Directed by Michael Greif and based on the Maysles brothers docu, the musical by Doug Wright, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie turns these outcasts into boldly original iconoclasts.

Competition could come from “LoveMusik,” opening May 3. Written by Alfred Uhry around the songs of Kurt Weill, this biotuner about the stormy 25-year marriage and creative collaboration of the German composer and actress Lotte Lenya signals the Broadway return of one-man Tony warehouse Harold Prince (he has 21 of them), staging his first new musical in almost a decade.

Tony voters in past seasons often have shown a split between honoring “serious” musicals with unconventional subject matter and lighter confections that take a more traditional route.

While “Spring Awakening,” “Grey Gardens” and “LoveMusik” fit the former bill, the 2006-07 field also has its share of upbeat commercial entries.

Since its well-received San Francisco tryout earlier this year, screen-to-stage adaptation “Legally Blonde” has been eyed as potentially the new “Hairspray.”

Opening April 29 in a production that marks the directing bow of choreographer Jerry Mitchell, the tale of sorority sister Elle Woods’ rise from Beverly Hills bimbodom to triumph at Harvard Law was penned by Heather Hach with music and lyrics by Neil Benjamin and Laurence O’Keefe.

Affection for legendary composing team John Kander and Fred Ebb is a reason not to count out “Curtains,” despite the lukewarm critical reception given the show in Scott Ellis’ production.

The comedy whodunit about a cheesy 1950s Wild West musical beleaguered by a string of murders was completed by Kander and Rupert Holmes following the death of Ebb and original book writer Peter Stone.

Also angling for a spot is Richard Eyre’s lavish production for Disney and Cameron Mackintosh of “Mary Poppins.”

The biggest Broadway spectacle in serious contention, the show was adapted by Julian Fellowes from the classic books and film about a magical English nanny, with new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe augmenting the Sherman brothers standards.

Scoring a place among the final four new plays this year will be an equally tough contest.

The titanic lead contender is Tom Stoppard’s sprawling trilogy about the 19th-century Russian intelligentsia, “The Coast of Utopia,” staged by Jack O’Brien with epic scope and cinematic sweep for Lincoln Center Theater. The Tony committee’s recent decision to allow the three plays to be considered as a single production makes this massive undertaking the one to beat.

Its competition might be another London import, Peter Morgan’s “Frost/Nixon,” which chronicles Brit TV mainstay David Frost’s landmark 1977 interviews with disgraced former U.S. president Richard Nixon.

Also from Britain, National Theater hit “Coram Boy” could sway votes just on the strength of its scale and ambition. Adapted by Helen Edmundson from Jamila Gavin’s young-adult novel and directed by newcomer Melly Still, the Dickensian 18th-century tale about the hardships of two orphaned boys from opposite classes has a cast of close to 50.

American plays face a struggle against the Brit bunch, but the late August Wilson’s “Radio Golf,” the concluding work in his 10-play cycle about the black experience in America, will likely receive some support.

Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Little Dog Laughed” was a commercial disappointment that closed early. But the shortage of viable comedies on Broadway may help the play (also staged by Ellis) nab a mention. And beloved stage vets Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes, starring as retired tennis pros in Terrence McNally’s “Deuce,” could draw attention to Michael Blakemore’s production.

While verdicts are mixed as to whether “The Year of Magical Thinking” is a play or an impeccably staged reading, Joan Didion’s adaptation of her searing memoir about the grieving process is the kind of class act that commands voter attention.

That production’s director, David Hare, is a longer shot to be in the running for his own undercooked new play about political and interpersonal conflict, “The Vertical Hour.”

Most heated thesp races

The male lead in Hare’s play, Bill Nighy, stands a stronger chance of obtaining recognition for the now-shuttered production on the strength of his eccentric turn as a prickly liberal. But he faces an extremely competitive field, with both Frank Langella as Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen as David Frost looking like formidable contenders in Morgan’s play.

Brian F. O’Byrne is the sole “Utopia” thesp positioned in the lead race for his soulful turn as exiled Socialist radical Alexander Herzen.

A Tony winner two seasons back for “Glengarry Glen Ross,” Liev Schreiber may score a nod for his bravura work as a latenight shock jock having an on-air meltdown in “Talk Radio.” Also sure to be high on voters’ radars are Christopher Plummer and, to a lesser extent, Brian Dennehy, as courtroom opponents in “Inherit the Wind.” And Kevin Spacey’s flamboyant turn as Eugene O’Neill’s doomed alcoholic Jim Tyrone in “A Moon for the Misbegotten” adds to the glut of contenders.

Scoring lead-actor recognition in an ensemble vehicle invariably is more of a challenge, but both Boyd Gaines and Hugh Dancy could see their chances boosted by the glowing reception given to David Grindley’s powerful revival of WWI trench drama “Journey’s End.”

Finally, Harry Lennix might wave the flag for “Radio Golf,” while voters could also remember Nathan Lane from earlier in the season as Simon Gray’s dyspeptic academic, “Butley.”

The other heated Tony contest this season is among the female musical stars.

A big favorite since before the show even reached Broadway has been Christine Ebersole for her virtuoso work in the dual role of spotlight-seeking Edith in the 1940s-set first act of “Grey Gardens” and her nutty daughter in the second, which fast-forwards to the 1970s. The performance had reviewers grasping for superlatives.

A dark horse riding up on Ebersole could be Donna Murphy, who segues from personal triumph in the dazzling Encores! staging of “Follies” earlier this year to what promises to be a powerhouse role as Leny
a in “LoveMusik.” Also not to be counted out is perennial Tony favorite Audra McDonald, back as a woman torn between two suitors in “110 in the Shade.”

Then there are Laura Bell Bundy, stepping into Reese Witherspoon’s Prada shoes in “Legally Blonde”; Lea Michelle as a doomed teenager in “Spring Awakening”; Debra Monk as a gutter-mouthed producer in “Curtains”; Ashley Brown as the airborne title character in “Mary Poppins”; and Kristin Chenoweth, whose musical comedy gifts got a triple showcase in “The Apple Tree.”

While Stephanie J. Block was the one person to emerge unscathed from the blistering reviews for “The Pirate Queen,” it remains to be seen if her turn as the 16th-century swashbuckler can overcome the show’s negative impact.