- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 3, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - When the Broadway season began last year, a big brash musical about Spider-Man was supposed to muscle its way to multiple Tony Award nominations. Instead, a pair of goofy Mormons may be the ones to beat.

“The Book of Mormon” has been a critical and box-office darling even without big-name stars and Tuesday’s Tony Award nominations could give it an extra boost: official endorsement from the theatrical community. Not bad for a show in which a man loudly complains about having maggots in his scrotum.

The musical, about two Mormon missionaries who find more than they bargained for in Africa, was written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of “South Park,” and Robert Lopez, co-creator of the Tony Award-winning musical “Avenue Q.” The trio teamed up with Casey Nicholaw, who co-directed with Parker and choreographed.

It has received 12 Drama Desk Award nominations, six Outer Critics Circle Award nominations and a Fred & Adele Astaire Award nomination, which recognizes excellence in dance. The musical is also grossing more than $1 million a week and is selling out _ the place “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” was supposed to be before its implosion.

On the play front, two front-runners for Tony nominations are the heartwarming human-puppet hybrid “War Horse” and David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People,” a darkly comical exploration of class differences in Boston. While “War Horse” is a visually stunning and gorgeously realized story about a boy and his horse during World War I, it is based on a children’s book; Lindsay-Abaire’s play, on the other hand, leaves all the fireworks in its smart, adult script.

“The Book of Mormon” and “War Horse” are just two bona fide hits in a complex season that has seen everything from a well-regarded revival of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” to a raw new play whose title _ “The Motherf–- With the Hat” _ made some squeamish. It’s also a season in which football fans came to see Vince Lombardi prowling a Broadway stage and cheered James Earl Jones behind the wheel in a revival of “Driving Miss Daisy.”

“There’s absolutely nothing cookie-cutter about this season,” said Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the Broadway League, which jointly produces the Tony awards with the American Theatre Wing. “The theme is that there is no theme.”

Of the 42 new productions this season, there were 14 musicals _ 12 new ones and two revivals _ and 25 plays, a whopping 16 of them brand new. The last time there were 16 new plays produced in a single season was 1986-87.

It is also shaping up to be a lucrative time for Broadway, with total box-office grosses already at more than $987,057,484, or 3.6 percent more than the same time last year. Attendance this season is at over 11.4 million, up 3 percent from this time last year.

The awards will be handed out June 12 at a new location: the Beacon Theatre on the Upper West Side of Manhattan after producers lost their long-term space at Radio City Music Hall. It will be broadcast live by CBS.

“The Book of Mormon” will likely have competition from a trio of musicals that have movies in their DNA _ “Catch Me If You Can,” “Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical” and “Sister Act.” Will there be spots for “Elf” or “The Scottsboro Boys” or “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”?

The best play category is a rich one. In addition to “War Horse” and “Good People,” other possible nominations may go to Rajiv Joseph’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” Jez Butterworth’s “Jerusalem” and Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “The Motherf–- With the Hat.” With the category limited to four plays, at least one playwright will be disappointed.

Some of the potential candidates for best actor nominations in a play include Mark Rylance and Mark Rylance. The English actor gave two stunning performances this season, including a 20-minute soliloquy in the short-lived “La Bete.” He then returned to Broadway and even more cheers for “Jerusalem.”

He will likely face competition for a Tony nomination from Al Pacino (“The Merchant of Venice”), Joe Mantello (“The Normal Heart”), Bobby Cannavale (“Motherf–-“) Jones (“Driving Miss Daisy”), Jim Belushi (“Born Yesterday”), Robin Williams (“Bengal Tiger”) and Brian Bedford (“The Importance of Being Earnest”). With only five spots, who will be left out?

The possible lead actress play nominations aren’t any easier, though Lily Rabe (“The Merchant of Venice”) and Frances McDormand (“Good People”) top most lists. Nina Arianda (“Born Yesterday”), Judith Light (“Lombardi”), Vanessa Redgrave (“Driving Miss Daisy”) and Elizabeth Rodriguez (“Motherf–-“) could each make a case.

Nominations for best actor in a musical may likely pit performers in the same show, such as Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells in “The Book of Mormon,” and Norbert Leo Butz and Aaron Tveit in “Catch Me If You Can.” Other possibilities include Daniel Radcliffe in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and Tony Sheldon for “Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical.”

The leading actress in a musical nominees are likely to include Patina Miller and Victoria Clark, both in “Sister Act,” as well as Sutton Foster for “Anything Goes,” Beth Leavel for “Baby It’s You!” and Donna Murphy for “The People in the Picture.”




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