Tony Awards sing the praises of ‘Billy’

Musical nabs 15 nominations

See the full list of nominees

How’s this for stiff competition? Elton John vs. Dolly Parton; Liza Minnelli going mano a mano with Will Ferrell; peacenik hippies facing off with warring gang members; and a preteen ballet dancer in the ring with a bipolar mom off her meds.

Those are some of the contenders in this year’s Tony Awards derby, which kicked off Tuesday morning with the unveiling of the 2009 nominations.

The top musical prize traditionally attracts the most heat, and with 15 noms for imported juggernaut “Billy Elliot” and 11 for its ambitious, small-scale competish “Next to Normal,” that race this year will be a tense one.

The tally for “Billy” puts the tuner in a tie with 2001 smash “The Producers,” which also scored 15 noms and went on to sweep the awards. It puts a few more Hollywood players — Working Title’s Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Jon Finn — in the running for legit kudos, along with “Billy” co-producers Universal Pictures and the Weinstein Co.

After 2008, when all the leading musical contenders were relatively small-scale, indie-style efforts, this year marks a return to the David vs. Goliath model, exemplified in the 2004 smackdown between “Wicked” and “Avenue Q.”

Producer David Stone’s heavyweight “Wicked” lost the top trophy that year to underdog “Avenue Q.” This year, he’s in the upstart spot against “Billy Elliot” with “Normal,” a serious-minded tuner about a manic-depressive housewife and her family that was substantially reworked since its 2008 Off Broadway run, greatly solidifying its support within the Gotham critical community.

The eight bids for “Shrek the Musical,” the first stage venture from DreamWorks Animation, rep a muscular showing for the ogre odyssey, which bowed in New York to mixed reviews and fluctuating box office. And the five noms for “Rock of Ages,” including new musical, make that hair-metal jukebox tuner the dark horse of the race.

While “Billy,” “Normal” and, to a lesser extent, “Shrek” were considered shoo-ins for noms, the fourth slot for new musical — the one category pundits agree translates into B.O. bounty — had been the subject of intense speculation among legiters, with an array of potential candidates including “9 to 5” and “[title of show].”

In addition to new musical, this year’s races for musical and play revivals are especially competitive, with two of the season’s strongest sellers, “West Side Story” and “Hair,” dominating that tuner faceoff.

The nominated score for “9 to 5” puts two major music stars, Parton and John, in the same category. Parton gets the nod for her first stage outing, while John has been a regular presence on Broadway with productions including “The Lion King” and “Aida.”

Following a fall season of recession-fueled worries about the fiscal health of Broadway, the spring slate snowballed into a packed lineup, particularly for straight play offerings — which makes those nontuner categories tough to call this year.

Horton Foote’s “Dividing the Estate” will exert a strong sentimental pull with voters since the show reps what is likely the last chance to give the venerable scribe — who died March 4 — a Tony, one of the few major awards he never won while he was alive. Meanwhile, box office champ “God of Carnage,” by French playwright Yasmina Reza, gets a boost from sheer popularity while “Reasons to Be Pretty” appeals as a homegrown new play from seasoned American writer Neil LaBute, making his Broadway debut.

Latter play, about a painful relationship meltdown, has posted meager grosses despite a string of rave reviews and stands to make significant gains from Tony attention. Fellow play nominee “33 Variations,” Moises Kaufman’s drama starring Jane Fonda as a Beethoven-obsessed musicologist, also could score a boost in final-week sales before ending its limited run later this month.

The Tonys traditionally favor productions still playing over those that have closed. That bias is especially prevalent this year, with shuttered shows (“Dividing the Estate” and “Pal Joey”) accounting for only two of the 16 nominees for lead production categories.

With so many thesps in nonmusicals to choose, the nominators focused on spreading the love among the ensembles of admired productions such as “Carnage,” “The Norman Conquests” and “Mary Stuart.” Other shows that yielded multiple acting noms include “Billy Elliot,” whose three alternating leads, David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik and Kiril Kulish, share a bid for their work in the title role, and “Next to Normal.”Among play helmers, Matthew Warchus competes with himself for “God of Carnage” and “The Norman Conquests.” With his directing mention for “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” Bartlett Sher earns his fourth consecutive nomination for a Lincoln Center Theater production, along with set designer and frequent collaborator Michael Yeargan. (Sher won last year for “South Pacific,” while Yeargan picked up trophies for “South Pacific,” “Awake and Sing!” and “The Light in the Piazza.”)

The special theatrical event race puts Minnelli head to head with Ferrell for “Liza’s at the Palace” and “You’re Welcome America: A Final Night With George W Bush,” respectively. Ferrell’s show was one of the season’s unequivocal smashes, breaking house records at the Cort Theater week after week.

The 63rd annual Tony Awards will be presented June 7 at Radio City Music Hall. As previously reported, special achievement kudos in noncompetitive categories will go to composer Jerry Herman, actress and activist Phyllis Newman, press agent Shirley Herz and the Signature Theater in Arlington, Va.

Full list of nominees