NEW YORK — Talented children and high-energy musical performances will be on tap Sunday night as the Tony Awards kick off, capping a season that hasn’t produced a runaway favorite show and only one starry celebrity nomination in Tom Hanks.
The Tonys will be broadcast live Sunday by CBS from the cavernous Radio City Music Hall, a homecoming of sorts after two years in a much smaller theater on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Neil Patrick Harris is back for his fourth turn as host and the formula seems locked in: A big, splashy opening number followed by performances by the musical nominees and a crush of big awards at the end. Likely targets for humor this year will be Mike Tyson, the ex-boxer who showed up with a one-man show this season, and Shia LaBeouf, who left a revival of “Orphans” before the show opened and then tweeted about it.
“Kinky Boots” and “Matilda the Musical” are the front-runners for the most coveted award — top musical. Both are inspired by British works and both have actors speaking in English actors, but one’s DNA is clearly American.
Pop singer-songwriter Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein have given “Kinky Boots” — originally a 2005 film about a failing shoe factory that turns to making drag queen boots — a fun score and a touching book that celebrates diversity. It has generated two leading man nods in Billy Porter and Stark Sands.
“Matilda the Musical” is all British, a witty, dark musical adaptation of the novel by Roald Dahl that is still running in London. Its leading woman is actually a man — Bertie Carver, who plays the evil headmistress Miss Trunchbull.
Others musicals hoping for awards include the acrobatic “Bring It On: The Musical” and “A Christmas Story, the Musical,” adapted from the beloved holiday movie. Top musical revivals include an updated “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella” and a cracking revival of “Pippin” with a circus feel.
All the above shows will get lucrative screen time with a performance during the telecast, including “Annie” with “Glee” star Jane Lynch, last year’s winner “Once,” and a song from “The Phantom of the Opera,” which is celebrating its 25th anniversary on Broadway this year. Lauper will perform her song “True Colors” during the segment when dead members of the theater community are honored.
The best play award is largely a two-way race between Christopher Durang’s comical “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” and Richard Greenberg’s moving “The Assembled Parties.” On the telecast, filmed dramatic moments from the top play nominees will to shown to offer viewers a look at the shows.
The biggest star with a nomination is Broadway newcomer Hanks, who could snap up a Tony for “Lucky Guy,” Nora Ephron’s last work and a best play finalist. He faces tough competition from Nathan Lane, who plays a closeted gay burlesque performer in “The Nance.”
“I think artistically it was a good season. I really liked ‘Kinky Boots.’ I really liked ‘Matilda.’ I really liked the plays that are nominated for best play,” said Todd Haimes, the artistic director of the nonprofit Roundabout Theatre Company, which produced the revivals of “The Big Knife” and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” both which have Tony nominations. “I thought some of the performances were some of the most extraordinary I’ve seen in a long time.”
The nominators ignored some big-name talent who graced Broadway stages this season, including Bette Midler, Jessica Chastain, Al Pacino, Katie Holmes, Paul Rudd, Alec Baldwin, Alicia Silverstone, Sigourney Weaver, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Scarlett Johansson.
Presenters will include some of the A-listers overlooked for nominations as well as Jesse Eisenberg, Jon Cryer, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anna Kendrick, Zachary Quinto, Sally Field, Audra McDonald, Alan Cumming and Jesse Tyler Ferguson.
Some of the telecast highlights include the stunning kids in “Annie,” “A Christmas Story, the Musical” — especially watch for a young tap dancer wizard Luke Spring — and the four young women in “Matilda.” Harris will snuggle with the dog playing Sandy in “Annie” and join with “Smash” star Megan Hilty, “Go On” star Laura Benanti and former “The Book of Mormon” star Andrew Rannells to skewer theater stars who seek fame on TV.
The Tony winners were picked by 868 Tony voters, including members of The Broadway League, American Theatre Wing, Actors’ Equity, the Dramatists Guild, Stage Directors and Choreographers Society as well as critics from the New York Drama Critics Circle.
The awards telecast faces competition for attention on Sunday night from an episode of “Mad Men” on AMC and Game 2 of the NBA finals between San Antonio and Miami on ABC. Last year’s telecast was seen by 6 million viewers, down significantly from 2011’s 6.9 million.
The awards cap a somewhat grim financial season on Broadway in which the total box office take was flat and the number of ticket buyers slipped 6 percent. Both numbers were blamed in part on Superstorm Sandy, but high ticket prices and the lack of long term audience growth has many worried.
“We can’t see to increase the size of the pie,” said Haimes. “It’s counterintuitive to me because tourism is up and all other indicators that you would think would be positive for theater like hotel occupancy and restaurant occupancy are up, and yet we can’t see to increase the Broadway audience.”
Among the theater professionals honored Sunday, playwright and activist Larry Kramer will get a special Tony for his work battling AIDS and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg will be recognized with a Tony for Excellence in the Theater, a nod to his embrace of tourism and the Broadway community.
A total of 46 new shows opened during the season, which began last May and ended May 26: 15 musicals, 26 plays and five special events or concerts.
Shows that came and went this season quickly include “Orphans,” ‘’The Testament of Mary,” ‘’Hands on a Hardbody,” ‘’The Anarchist,” ‘’Scandalous,” ‘’Jekyll & Hyde” and “The Performers.”
The season may have been rocky but newcomers “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” ‘’Kinky Boots,” ‘’Lucky Guy,” ‘’Matilda the Musical” and “Motown: The Musical” have been big hits, regularly topping $1 million at the box office each week.
AP Entertainment Writer Frazier Moore and AP National Writer Jocelyn Noveck contributed to this report.