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Monday, June 5, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Sunset Boulevard' Tops Tony Awards

Gamely trying to paint a happy face on a year of record high box-office profits ($406 million) but record low number of new shows (28), the American Theatre Wing last night announced its 1995 Tony Awards for Broadway theatrical excellence.

There were few surprises in the lackluster televised Tony Awards ceremony, hosted by veteran Broadway performers Glenn Close, Nathan Lane and Gregory Hines, and beamed in from the stage of the Minskoff Theatre where the hit musical, "Sunset Boulevard" is quartered.

Probably the most predictable event, in an evening rife with foregone conclusions, was the presentation of seven Tony medallions to that very same "Sunset Boulevard" - including one for best new musical. (The only other nominee for that prize: the oldies rock revue, "Smokey Joe's Cafe.")

No one even bothered to produce an envelope before announcing that Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's swoony music for "Sunset Boulevard," and the text and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, had won Tonys. Since "Sunset Boulevard" was the only original "book" musical to reach Broadway this season, it ran unchallenged in those categories. (To throw an even soggier blanket on the whole business, Lloyd Webber, Black and Hampton got their Tonys before the telecast, not during it.)

As predicted, Glenn Close's powerhouse work as barracuda movie has-been Norma Desmond, and George Hearn's perfect Erich von Stroheim imitation in the featured role of Norma's butler, also won shoo-in honors for "Sunset Boulevard." Andrew Bridge's lighting design and John Napier's gloriously gaudy scenery landed Tonys as well.

The musical revival division boasted a mere two nominees: the frisky resuscitation of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," and a loving restoration of the Kern-Hammerstein classic, "Show Boat."

No suspense there. "Show Boat" took the lion's share of awards, as expected, nabbing best musical revival, direction of a musical (by Harold Prince), choreography (the outstanding Susan Stroman), costumes (Florence Klotz), and featured actress (Gretha Boston).

"How to Succeed' earned a single Tony, but a popular, probably lucrative one: for Matthew Broderick's lead performance. Broderick's gracious acceptance speech, and his pixie romp through the "Brotherhood of Man" number, were two of the ceremony's rare pepper-uppers.

As anticipated (but with less certainty), movie comer Ralph Fiennes got the Tony nod for his electric portrayal of "Hamlet." And Cherry Jones beat out the more famous Mary Alice, Eileen Atkins and Helen Mirren to win for her luminous lead turn in "The Heiress."

"The Heiress" also collected Tonys as best play revival, for best featured actress (Frances Sternhagen), and for Gerald Gutierrez's incisive direction. Gutierrez, by the way, was the only nominee who brought his pet pooch to the ceremony.

Top contenders for best new play Tony were Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" and Terrence McNally's "Love, Valor, Compassion!" The Stoppard is to my mind the more stimulating, imaginative script. But it was McNally's seriocomic look at a close circle of gay men that won. It also brought John Glover a deserved Tony in the "featured" double role of high-contrast twins.

McNally's prize may be a new-play boon, since it represents the first major success for the Broadway Alliance. That cooperative plan reduces expenses and ticket prices for shows moving from nonprofit theaters to Broadway venues, and Broadway needs as much nonprofit infusion as possible. (The majority of nominated shows this year originated at non-commercial theaters in the U.S. or England.)

Awards aside, this year's Tony telecast began with a bang, as a crew of snazzy fellas from "Smokey Joe's Cafe" boogied down a Big Apple street and into the Minskoff, to the tune of Leiber and Stoller's "On Broadway."

After that happy number ended, however, the oxygen began seeping out of the show - like a balloon with a slow leak. With numbers from just three other nominated musicalsfeatured, we also got frustratingly brief snatches of productions playing in cities outside New York: Terrence McNally's new "Master Class," a tour of "Grease" and a Broadway-bound Tommy Tune musical, "Buskers."

Otherwise matters moved limply and the commercial breaks seemed endless. (CBS didn't help by repeatedly running a promo for some other award bash, that began with the assertion, "Most award shows are boring!")

A whiff of sour grapes emanated from some Tony presenters. Co-host Lane, Elaine Stritch and Gloria Foster all alluded to not having been nominated this year - which they should have been, but you had to know that to get the joke.

National Endowment for the Arts director Jane Alexander was allotted a three-sentence speech after accepting a special Tony honoring the beleaguered NEA. But Carol Channing, still youthful and bizarre as ever in her 70s, got to ramble on when receiving her lifetime achievement award.

Co-host Close delivered one of her big "Sunset Boulevard" solos, while Hines and Lane tried for some comic relief. One of their stranger efforts was a medley of show tunes usually performed by women. Hines flitting around warbling "I Feel Pretty" and Lane bumping and grinding to "Hey Big Spender" was an exercise in low camp so corny and ludicrous you had to snort.

But it might indicate a way out of the Tony Award's current torpor. One solution: start handing out awards to Off Broadway productions too. Another: bring back burlesque.

Here are the Tony winners:

Play: "Love! Valour! Compassion!"

Musical: "Sunset Boulevard."

Revival of a play: "The Heiress."

Revival of a musical: "Show Boat."

Direction of a play: Gerald Gutierrez, "The Heiress."

Direction of a musical: Harold Prince, "Show Boat."

Book of a musical: Don Black and Christopher Hampton, "Sunset Boulevard."

Original score written for the theater: Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, "Sunset Boulevard."

Leading actor in a play: Ralph Fiennes, "Hamlet."

Leading actress in a play: Cherry Jones, "The Heiress."

Leading actor in a musical: Matthew Broderick, "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."

Leading actress in a musical: Glenn Close, "Sunset Boulevard."

Featured actor in a play: John Glover, "Love! Valour! Compassion!"

Featured actress in a play: Frances Sternhagen, "The Heiress."

Featured actor in a musical: George Hearn, "Sunset Boulevard."

Featured actress in a musical: Gretha Boston, "Show Boat."

Scenic design: John Napier, "Sunset Boulevard."

Costume design: Florence Klotz, "Show Boat."

Lighting design: Andrew Bridge, "Sunset Boulevard."

Choreography: Susan Stroman, "Show Boat."

Special Tonys: Carol Channing, actress, and Harvey Sabinson, retiring executive director of the League of American Theatres and Producers, both for lifetime achievement; National Endowment for the Arts, for outstanding contribution to the theater, and Goodspeed Opera House, of East Haddam, Conn., for artistic achievement by a regional theater.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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