When the Tony Awards presentation gets underway Sunday night from Radio City Music Hall, it’ll feature a bevy of stars with deep ties to the theater (Bernadette Peters, Sutton Foster, Judith Light) and some with more tenuous connections (Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer Nettles). All will take the stage as presenters or performers as Broadway looks to appeal to, and capitalize on, its widest audience of the year.
Perhaps most emblematic of those efforts is an appearance by Vanessa Hudgens, performing a number from her “Gigi” revival, “The Night They Invented Champagne" -- and it well might make people glad they did. The Tonys will also bring some bona fide Broadway stars to the emcee platform when Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming -- the rare theater creatures with crossover potential -- take on hosting duties. It will deviate from recent Tonys patterns, which have seen Hugh Jackman or Neil Patrick Harris preside over eight of the last 10 ceremonies that featured hosts.
FULL COVERAGE Tony Awards 2015
How Chenoweth and Cumming will fare is one question awaiting viewers. There are plenty of others when the telecast gets underway Sunday at 8 p.m. EDT/PDT on CBS. Here are six to watch:
‘Home’ or ‘Paris’: Best musical is seen as Broadway's top prize, conferring honors and ticket sales to shows that would have struggled without it. "A Gentlemen's Guide to Love & Murder" and "Once" would have been minor productions the last few years until Tonys momentum turned them into major hits. This year, the best-musical race looks to come down to two shows, and rather different ones at that: "Fun Home," Jeanine Tesori's and Lisa Kron's adaptation of graphic novelist Alison Bechdel's memoir about her closeted gay father, and "An American in Paris," Christopher Wheeldon's ballet-centric production adapted from a 1951 Gene Kelly movie.
The two shows shared the honor of most overall noms, and one will almost certainly win best musical. There’s a good chance it will be “Home.” With its accessible music and dramatic story, it offers something for all constituencies. But two-horse races can be unpredictable when they’re not at Belmont. “Something Rotten!” the meta-musical about 16th-century theater producers who need to devise a tuner to rival Shakespeare, evokes comparisons to “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” which won best musical a decade ago.
Feature presentations: If the Tonys are full of surprises elsewhere, they’re really chockablock with upset candidates in the featured actor category. To wit: The six nominees for featured actor in a play this year -- Richard McCabe (“The Audience”), Alessandro Nivola (“The Elephant Man”), Matthew Beard (“Skylight”), K. Todd Freeman (“Airline Highway”), Micah Stock (“It's Only a Play”) and Nathaniel Parker (“Wolf Hall: Parts One & Two”) -- all have a reasonable shot to win. None of the six would be a surprise.
Kelli's time? It’s hard enough to take on a national sweetheart who also happens to be hosting the show. It’s even harder if you’re trying to break your own five-time losing streak. That’s what musical mainstay Kelli O’Hara will seek to do when she tries to win an elusive Tony on her sixth try, for her performance as Anna in the revival of “The King & I,” a show almost certain to win best revival of a musical.
O’Hara often seems to have the lead position only to be one-upped: See under 2008, when she took on a legendary show in “South Pacific” and was bested by Patti Lupone in the “Gypsy” revival. In her path this year is an equally formidable bunch. They include Chenoweth, nominated for her turn in the critically admired “On the Twentieth Century,” and Chita Rivera, who with “The Visit” is nominated for a 10th time and is seeking her first win in 22 years.
Helen and Patty: OK, so it's not a surprise. But in a time when there’s much just frustration about roles for older women in Hollywood, the Tonys provide a refreshing antidote. Exhibits A and B: Helen Mirren and Patricia Clarkson, two women who almost surely win Tonys this year, Mirren for another go-round as a queen in “The Audience” and Clarkson for her turn as Joseph Merrick's actress pal in “The Elephant Man.” It would be the first Tony for each.
Play acting: At the Oscars this year, best actor was an unusually deep field, and it seems to be carrying over to the Tonys, whose lead-actor-in-a-play race is one of the most diverse. That’s not the only thing the two fields have in common: Bradley Cooper is another. The “American Sniper” actor is not only nominated but has a good shot to win for his portrayal of Merrick in “The Elephant Man.”
But for all his supporters, Cooper is hardly a lock. You could make a case for Ben Miles in “Wolf Hall” (doing nearly six hours of work daily, some days, in the Tudor epic), Bill Nighy tackling a role he’s tackled before in the revival of “Skylight,” and Steven Boyer, in “Hand to God,” playing a man at war with a puppet and himself.
The actor most likely to win, though, is Alex Sharp. If his performance as a sweet but tortured young man in British import “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” (a near-certainty to win best play) isn’t remarkable enough, his back story is: This is Sharp’s first professional job.
NPH: So about that Harris appearance. This will be the first time since 2010 he won’t be a Tonys nominee or host. (Last year, he didn’t host but won actor in a musical for “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and also had performed a raucous number from that show.) It will also be his first major award-show appearance since his rather ignoble Oscar performance in February. How much will he acknowledge his sputter of an evening? Harris isn’t above laughing at himself. Then again, he also might want to put it as far in the rear-view mirror as possible. The best medicine for a bad memory is forgetting, or a spirited musical number.