All bets are off for Sunday's 66th Annual Tony Awards. That's not literally true, of course. Theatergoers and artists and contest junkies have been rooting for their favorites and planning their pizza parties ever since the nominations for the 2011-2012 season came out May 1.
But I can't recall a time when Tony outcomes have been as far up for grabs as they are right now. Despite a crazy-busy year with many -- if not exactly countless -- admirable moments, the season has not crystallized into obvious favorites or even relative sure things.
The closest we come to a possible sweep is Mike Nichols' wrenching revival of Arthur Miller's masterwork, "Death of a Salesman," including Philip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield cast against historic type as Willy Loman and his son, Biff.
But there is a groundswell of love for the old-fashioned, yet timely, revival of "Gore Vidal's The Best Man" and for the watch-my-dust performance by consummate showman James Earl Jones. (The actor categories, both lead and featured, are especially tough.)
Then there is the "Once" versus "Newsies" conundrum. I'm voting for almost everything connected to "Once," the enchanting but small folk-pop, Irish-Middle-European chamber music romance. But it's not much of a stretch to imagine big Tonys going to "Newsies," the lively, old-fashioned, by-the-numbers Disney crowd-pleaser, which just may appeal more to the chunk of voters who produce shows for the road.
Then, too, excitement over coliseum-size star-baiting was dampened considerably, when the nominating committee chose not to nominate most of the season's biggest stars. There is lots and lots of competing talent. But the camera will not offer sweating close-ups of most of the season's famous -- including Ricky Martin, Angela Bassett, Angela Lansbury, Samuel L. Jackson, Matthew Broderick, Rachel Griffiths, Alan Rickman, Hugh Dancy, Blair Underwood, Stacy Keach, Tyne Daly, John Larroquette, Kim Cattrall and Rosemary Harris.
But other facts are indisputable. For the first time I can remember, the season had more new plays (14) than revivals of old ones (nine). That's wonderful. And, though most new musicals have been pathetic tracing-paper ripoffs of movies, we had more of them (eight) than musical revivals (six). That's, well, interesting.
We've had two early musicals by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice -- "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Evita" -- which I still think were better than anything each has done since their split. And for reasons I can't begin to guess, dead-serious Christianity and low-comedy farce have been big trends.
Here are other thoughts on the season:
IT'S THE GROSSES, STUPID, NOT THE BODIES
Expect a lot of boasting about Broadway's record-breaking grosses -- almost $1.14 billion, compared to last year's $1.08 billion, an increase of 5.4 percent. Of course, don't expect anyone to add that total attendance is down from last year -- 12.3 million compared to 12.53 million last year and flat compared with the previous year. The difference is in the astronomical prices for premium tickets, regularly around $475 for "The Book of Mormon" and $499 for the final week of "Death of a Salesman." (If Miller, the Depression-era baby, weren't already gone, this would do him in.)
MAYBE TIMING REALLY IS EVERYTHING
We laugh at producers who think they will do better at awards time if they open at the end of the season instead of in the fall. I hate to admit this, but, in one crucial and heartbreaking instance, they may be right. I'm betting that if "Other Desert Cities," Jon Robin Baitz's gripping and smart serious comedy, had not opened last fall, Bruce Norris' deftly wrought "Clybourne Park" would have much more competition for best play, director and actors.
UH, WHERE ARE THE GIRLS?
Both of the season's Disney musicals -- "Newsies" and "Peter and the Starcatcher" -- are all about the boys. Each has a plucky heroine, but the target market is clearly tween boys and the girls who love them.
MY TECHNOLOGY'S BIGGER THAN YOUR TECHNOLOGY
"Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark" got shut out of all nominations except sets and costumes -- Tonys I happen to think the mediocre show actually deserves. But even here, Spidey is getting last-minute competition from "Ghost: The Musical," which brags about the number of its fiber-optic doodads -- gosh, look, he walked through the wall -- in a Broadway version of a music video at the IMAX.
FINALLY, WHAT SINGS AND DANCES BUT DOESN'T WANT TO BE CALLED A MUSICAL?
This was the year when lines between plays and musicals seemed less like boundary-pushing invention and more like category manipulation. "Peter and the Starcatcher" and "End of the Rainbow," the Judy Garland psychodrama, are loaded with music but are considered plays with music.
I don't enjoy thinking about the dramatic actors, directors and designers whose slots have been filled by people who should be competing in musical categories with their own kind.
I know awards compare unlike qualities and are never fair to everyone. But confusing plays with musicals seems just wrong.
Critic Linda Winer's Tony picks
SHOULD WIN "Other Desert Cities"
WILL WIN "Clybourne Park"
SHOULD WIN "Once"
WILL WIN "Once"
SHOULD WIN "Death of a Salesman"
WILL WIN "Death of a Salesman"
SHOULD WIN "Follies"
WILL WIN "Follies"
SHOULD WIN Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Death of a Salesman"
WILL WIN James Corden, "One Man, Two Guvnors"
SHOULD WIN Nina Arianda, "Venus in Fur"
WILL WIN Arianda
SHOULD WIN Steve Kazee, "Once"
WILL WIN Jeremy Jordan, "Newsies"
SHOULD WIN Audra McDonald, "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess"
WILL WIN McDonald
FEATURED ACTOR, PLAY
SHOULD WIN Christian Borle, "Peter and the Starcatcher"
WILL WIN Andrew Garfield, "Death of a Salesman"
FEATURED ACTRESS, PLAY
SHOULD WIN Judith Light, "Other Desert Cities"
WILL WIN Linda Emond, "Death of a Salesman"
FEATURED ACTOR, MUSICAL
SHOULD WIN Michael Cerveris, "Evita"
WILL WIN Phillip Boykin, "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess"
FEATURED ACTRESS, MUSICAL
SHOULD WIN Judy Kaye, "Nice Work If You Can Get It"
WILL WIN Kaye
SHOULD WIN Mike Nichols, "Death of a Salesman"
WILL WIN Nichols
SHOULD WIN John Tiffany, "Once"
WILL WIN Tiffany
SHOULD WIN Rob Ashford, "Evita"
WILL WIN Christopher Gattelli, "Newsies"
SHOULD WIN "Bonnie & Clyde"
WILL WIN "Newsies"
SHOULD WIN "Once"
WILL WIN "Once"
WHAT The 66th Annual Tony Awards
WHEN | WHERE Sunday at 8 p.m. on CBS, also simulcast on the screen at Times Square Plaza, 42nd to 47th streets, beginning with red-carpet frolics at 6 p.m.
INFO Neil Patrick Harris hosts at the Beacon Theatre. The show includes bits of Tony-nominated musicals, plays and revivals. Presenters include Ellen Barkin, Sheryl Crow, Bernadette Peters, Nick Jonas, Angela Lansbury, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Mandy Patinkin, Jim Parsons, Candice Bergen, Christopher Plummer, Jessica Chastain, Paul Rudd, James Marsden and Amanda Seyfried.