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The Tony Awards go down to the wire

Would Audra McDonald’s trophy shelf collapse under the weight of a sixth Tony? Will the statuette for best new musical go to a show whose songs were actually composed in this century? Will host Hugh Jackman clue in a national TV audience to the back story of the “inch” in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”?

These and other showbiz cliffhangers are sure to be resolved on Sunday night, as the theater world gathers at Radio City Music Hall for the three-hour infomercial/awards ceremony recognizing theater’s best — or, rather, the best of any of the 40-odd shows that happened to have opened since last June in one of the 40 industry-designated Broadway theaters.

The distinction is important, because the Tony Awards — being bestowed for the 68th year — are first and foremost a sales tool for Broadway, a collection of playhouses bounded by Times Square on the south and Lincoln Center to the north. Only if a producer of a musical or play, new or in revival, rents space in one of these houses of 499 seats or more (or the show is mounted by one of the few large nonprofit companies that operates several of these spaces) can an actor or playwright or director take home a Tony. Off-Broadway and beyond, where most work of quality originates, are ineligible.

Which is why the Tonys rarely can lay claim to being truly the most outstanding of anything in a given year. The shows that qualify are essentially the ones on which producers have made the bet — with their often-inexact crystal balls — that they will have the best chance of making money in a big house. And so, though they’re voted on by 868 producers, touring-house presenters, press agents, playwrights and directors, from New York and around the country, the Tonys are in a sense culled by a larger group of non-voters: the audience. As a major producer with a show in the mix Sunday night reminded me recently, Tony voters prefer to go with a hit. An artistically ambitious hit, ideally, but in any event a proven commodity.

This helps explain the conundrum this year: races in the most prestigious categories — best new musical and play — that are head-scratching tossups. The 2013-14 Broadway season has not produced the kind of consensus critical and commercial successes that make predictions easy — or in a season of more vitality, exciting contests.

The “new” musicals include “Beautiful,” a jukebox show of old Carole King hits; “After Midnight,” a revue based on songs by Duke Ellington and others; “Aladdin,” a stage version of the 1992 Disney movie tuner and “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” a spoofy tour-de-force for actor Jefferson Mays — and the only one of the four with a score composed after the birth of Justin Bieber.

In the loopy logic of the Tonys, the best score this season to be heard for the first time on Broadway — Stephen Trask’s, for “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” — is not eligible, because “Hedwig” was ruled to be a revival, having played off-Broadway in the ’90s. By the way, look to “Hedwig” to coast to a win Sunday as best revival of a musical, and its beloved star, frequent Tony emcee Neil Patrick Harris, to glide to the stage as best actor in a musical. (One hopes someone remembers to thank Trask and John Cameron Mitchell, the book writer and original — and best ever — Hedwig.)

The money for outstanding new musical rides at the moment on “A Gentleman’s Guide” — nominated in 10 categories, the most of any show — or on “Beautiful.” Because “Beautiful” is perceived within the industry as having wider appeal as a touring vehicle (indeed, “A Gentleman’s Guide,” despite mostly good reviews, has limped along at the box office for months), it might be the one to beat. Best musical is the category that presenters on the road care about most, and the conventional wisdom has it that many of them will vote their interests. “Tony-winning” is one of those phrases everyone seeks to use in their commercials.

Outstanding new play is a contest among five works that have divided audiences and critics alike: James Lapine’s “Act One,” Harvey Fierstein’s “Casa Valentina,” John Patrick Shanley’s “Outside Mullingar,” Terrence McNally’s “Mothers and Sons” and Robert Schenkkan’s “All the Way.” Parsing this one is no fun, but a greater justice would be served if Bryan Cranston, the star of “All the Way,” wins for his terrific portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson in Schenkkan’s biographical drama.

Cranston’s win is one of only three I’m truly rooting for in this rather weak-tea season. It would be terrific to see Cherry Jones accept the Tony for best actress in a play, for her work in “The Glass Menagerie.” That’s the category in which McDonald is vying for what would be a historic sixth Tony, for her role as Billie Holiday in “Lady Day in Emerson’s Bar and Grill.”

My other sentimental favorite is in the best play revival category: the amazing all-male “Twelfth Night” that featured Samuel Barnett as Viola and Mark Rylance as Olivia. In a season with the consensus deeming new wasn’t all that great, the oldest play in the entire field might have been the greatest.

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