"The Coast of Utopia," Tom Stoppard's heady, three-part epic drama about 19th century Russian revolutionaries, led the play nominees with 10 nods.
The best new musical category now shapes up as a showdown between the experimentalists who led the nominations and two traditional shows: "Curtains," a backstage whodunit that premiered last year at Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre had eight nominations, and Disney's "Mary Poppins" had seven. Winners will be announced in a CBS telecast June 10.
"Theater is this incredible medium that was not getting its message out to the widest possible audience," said Duncan Sheik, who composed the music for "Spring Awakening" after first establishing himself as a touring rock singer-songwriter, known especially for the hit "Barely Breathing."
"I started thinking, 'What if you put music to it that a twentysomething might be listening to on their iPod?' "
"The Coast of Utopia" will fight it out with another British play, " Frost/Nixon," about the 1977 television interview between the British TV personality and the disgraced U.S. president, and an American drama freighted with a sentimental tug: August Wilson was dying of cancer in 2005 as he finished "Radio Golf," the last drama in his 10-play cycle about African American life in the 20th century. Also in the running is "The Little Dog Laughed," Douglas Carter Beane's satire about a budding film star who is a closted gay, which closed in February.
Wilson, who was making changes and leaving additional instructions while "Radio Golf" ended its run at L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum shortly before his death, won two Pulitzer Prizes and a Tony for his earthy portrayals of everyday people in Pittsburgh. In Stoppard, he faces one of the stage's leading depictors of soaring intellectuals.
"We all feel we're carrying the flag for this man who did so much," said Jack Viertel, one of the producers of "Radio Golf."
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Also contending posthumously are two members of the "Curtains" team: lyricist Fred Ebb and book writer Peter Stone. They had teamed with composer John Kander, who turned to Rupert Holmes to complete the show.
Sheik has a chance to become the only rock musician besides Elton John ("Aida") to claim Broadway success with songs written expressly for the stage.
"Spring Awakening" follows the plot and period setting of Frank Wedekind's 1892 German tragedy. "Grey Gardens" sports a book that Tony- and Pulitzer-winning playwright Doug Wright ("I Am My Own Wife") based on a 1975 documentary by David and Albert Maysles.
Emphatically shut out in the musical nominations was "The Pirate Queen," a lavish new show from the creators of " Les Misérables" that reportedly cost $16 million to mount.
Jonathan Groff of "Spring Awakening" will vie for best actor in a musical with Michael Cerveris, who portrays composer Kurt Weill in "LoveMusik"; David Hyde Pierce as the stage-struck detective in "Curtains"; Raúl Esparza as the lonely bachelor, Bobby, in the revival of the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth show "Company"; and Gavin Lee from "Mary Poppins." Failing to make the cut was comic actor Martin Short ("Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me").
A quartet of veterans will compete for best actress in a musical: Donna Murphy, playing Weill's wife and muse Lotte Lenya in "LoveMusik"; Audra McDonald, a four-time Tony winner as best featured actress, as the spinster in "110 in the Shade"; Debra Monk from "Curtains"; and Christine Ebersole of "Grey Gardens." Also in the running is newcomer Laura Bell Bundy, who plays Elle, the out-of-place Harvard law student, in "Legally Blonde: The Musical."
Best actor in a play was an especially tough category: Of the 15 eligible performers, nine were past Tony winners. The nods went to five men with one to three Tonys already on their shelves: Liev Schreiber as the wild radio host in a revival of Eric Bogosian's "Talk Radio"; Brían F. O'Byrne as Alexander Herzen, one of the revolutionaries in "The Coast of Utopia"; Christopher Plummer, the Clarence Darrow avatar, Henry Drummond, in the revival of "Inherit the Wind"; Frank Langella as Richard Nixon in "Frost/Nixon"; and Boyd Gaines as an English officer in "Journey's End," a revival of a play about soldiers fighting in World War I.
Some household names were left out: Brian Dennehy, playing the William Jennings Bryan figure in "Inherit the Wind"; Kevin Spacey, as drunkard James Tyrone Jr. in "A Moon for the Misbegotten"; and Nathan Lane, as the emotionally disintegrating professor in "Butley." Also failing to get nominations were highly praised performances by film notables Bill Nighy ("Pirates of the Caribbean") in David Hare's "The Vertical Hour" and Michael Sheen ("The Queen") as David Frost opposite Langella's Nixon.
Vanessa Redgrave, who won the best actress Tony in 2003 for her turn as Mary Tyrone in "Long Day's Journey Into Night," will try to repeat with her solo performance as grieving author Joan Didion in the autobiographical "The Year of Magical Thinking." Her competition includes Angela Lansbury, playing a retired tennis star in "Deuce" and shooting for a straight-play Tony after four awards for best actress in a musical; two-time winner Swoosie Kurtz, Hesione Hushabye in a revival of Shaw's "Heartbreak House"; British stage star Eve Best, playing farmer's daughter Josie Hogan in "A Moon for the Misbegotten"; and Julie White, acclaimed for her satiric turn as a Hollywood agent in "The Little Dog Laughed." Julianne Moore didn't make the cut with her Broadway debut in "The Vertical Hour."
Jack O'Brien, artistic director of San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, vies for his third Tony Award with a nomination for best director of a play, for "The Coast of Utopia." He's a lone American up against English directors Michael Grandage ("Frost/Nixon"), Melly Still ("Coram Boy") and David Grindley ("Journey's End"). Harold Prince, the biggest name among this season's musical directors, didn't get a nomination for "LoveMusik," leaving the field to Michael Greif ("Grey Gardens"), Scott Ellis ("Curtains"), Michael Mayer ("Spring Awakening") and John Doyle ("Company").
Two off-Broadway successes that transferred to Broadway won Tonys for special theatrical event: "Kiki & Herb Alive on Broadway" and "Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!" The Alliance Theatre of Atlanta was awarded the annual Tony for regional theater excellence.