- Associated Press - Sunday, June 12, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - Ellen Barkin won the first acting Tony Award on a night that promised to be a big one for the profane musical “The Book of Mormon.”

Barkin, who won the award for best actress in a featured role in a play for her performance in Larry Kramer’s AIDS drama “The Normal Heart,” said the performance was the proudest of her career and called the play a “Molotov cocktail.” The play marks her Broadway debut.

Host Neil Patrick Harris began the Beacon Theatre show Sunday night with an exuberant, tongue-in-cheek song about how Broadway isn’t just for gay people any more. The number featured a bevy of dancing nuns, sailors, flight attendants and Mormons. “Attention every breeder, you’re invited to the theater!”

Barkin’s award kicked off a performance of the song “Brotherhood of Man” from the musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” featuring Daniel Radcliffe and John Laroquette.

“The Book of Mormon” won two awards before the telecast even began _ best orchestration and best original score. Kathleen Marshall won for best choreography for “Anything Goes.”

“The Book of Mormon” goes into the Tonys with 14 nominations, one shy of the record held by “The Producers,” and is heavily favored to win at the very least the best musical crown.

The show, by the creators of “South Park” and “Avenue Q,” has already been declared the season’s best musical by the Outer Critics Circle, the Drama League and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle. It has also produced the fastest selling digital release of a cast recording in history.

The musical was the biggest new hit from a Broadway season that saw 42 shows open _ 14 musicals, 25 plays and three specials. Box-office grosses soared to $1.08 billion while attendance reached 12.5 million, both up from last season.

“The Book of Mormon,” by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone, follows the travails of two Mormon missionaries sent to Uganda to try to convert locals. If it wins, it would be a considerable achievement for first-time Broadway playwrights Parker and Stone, who created the Emmy Award-winning “South Park” and feature-length films such as “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” and “Team America: World Police.”

A mix of high art and low, the Mormon musical pays homage to such stalwarts as “The King and I” and “The Lion King,” and references diarrhea and sex with babies. A Mormon sacred book finds its way into a leading character’s rectum.

The musical faces the stiffest competition from “The Scottsboro Boys,” which received 12 Tony nominations. The now-closed musical frames the 1930s-era story of nine black teenagers wrongfully put on death row as an inverted minstrel show.

This year’s Tonys are on Manhattan’s Upper West Side after the ceremony was forced to leave its longtime home at Radio City Music Hall because Cirque du Soleil moved in. Tony producers picked the 3,000-seat Beacon Theatre, which has only about half as many seats as Radio City. CBS will be televising the event beginning at 8 p.m. EDT.

If CBS censors will be on high alert thanks to the often foul lyrics of “The Book of Mormon,” they’ll be happy about one decision. Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play “The Motherf–- With the Hat” will be referred to simply as “The Mother With the Hat.”

Other musicals with large nominations include the revival of “Anything Goes” with Sutton Foster, “Sister Act” with newcomer Patina Miller and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

The evening will feature appearances from Christie Brinkley, Matthew Broderick, Harry Connick Jr., Viola Davis, Whoopi Goldberg, Kelsey Grammer, Joel Grey, Marg Helgenberger, Samuel L. Jackson, James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, Jim Parsons, David Hyde Pierce, Daniel Radcliffe, Vanessa Redgrave, Chris Rock, Brooke Shields, Robin Williams, Patrick Wilson and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

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