NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Tony Awards kicked off on Sunday with Broadway's biggest stars hitting the red carpet and humble Irish love story "Once" winning several early awards and leading the race for the best musicals and plays of the American stage.
Host Neil Patrick Harris performed a song-and-dance number at the start of the awards show, televised live from New York's Beacon Theatre, with nominees including Nina Arianda and Judith Light hitting the red carpet along with Hugh Jackman, who was to receive a special honorary Tony.
"Once," the intimate stage musical adapted from the 2006 independent film of the same name, won early awards for best book, orchestrations, sound design and best direction for John Tiffany in his first Tony victory.
"'Once' is a story about when people believe in each other, they can move on in life, and so many people have believed in this project," Tiffany said in accepting the award.
Esteemed film and stage director Mike Nichols was an early winner for his direction of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." Nichols has won six Tony Awards for best direction of a play, more than anyone else. He also has been honored twice as a producer.
"You see before you a happy man," Nichols, 80, said, thanking Miller's daughter Rebecca Miller for permission to stage the play. He also thanked Philip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield as "a cast straight from heaven" and said the play, which premiered in 1949, "gets truer as time goes by."
Judith Light of "Other Desert Cities" was an early winner for best actress in a featured role in a play.
"I feel like I am the luckiest girl in New York tonight," Light, who first found fame in 1980s TV sitcom "Who's The Boss," said in accepting the award.
Other early winners included Judy Kaye and Michael McGrath for their featured roles in the comedy musical "Nice Work If You Can Get It," and Christian Borle for his hilarious turn in the Peter Pan prequel, "Peter and the Starcatcher."
Before the show began, Arianda, Broadway's biggest new star and a nominee for best actress in a play for her sexy performance in "Venus in Fur," said on the red carpet she was feeling "excitement and nervousness" and was grateful she was "working, period. Having a job."
"Once,", which features the Oscar-winning song, "Falling Slowly," has a total of 11 nominations, including for its main stars, Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti.
It is followed closely by "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," a reinvention of the 1935 opera and comedy "Nice Work If You Can Get It," which stars Matthew Broderick as a wealthy playboy. Both shows, which feature music and songs from George and Ira Gershwin, have 10 nominations.
Besides "Once," and "Nice Work If You Can Get It," best musical nominations included the Disney production "Newsies," based on a 1899 New York newsboys strike, and "Leap of Faith," starring Raul Esparza about a con man posing as a man of faith.
SEYMOUR HOFFMAN FAVORITE
The best play category is also a tight contest between "Other Desert Cities," "Venus in Fur," "Clybourne Park" and "Peter and the Starcatcher."
Hoffman led a distinguished list for best actor in a play, for a revival of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." Other nominees include British comedian James Corden for "One Man, Two Guvnors," James Earl Jones for "The Best Man," Frank Langella for "Man and Boy" and John Lithgow for "The Columnist."
Best actress in a play also was a tight race between Arianda, Stockard Channing for "Other Desert Cities," Tracie Bennett for "End of the Rainbow," Linda Lavin for "The Lyons" and Cynthia Nixon for "Wit."
Best musical revival nominees included "Evita," "Follies," "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," which stars Audra McDonald, who was expected to get the nod for best actress in a musical and win her fifth Tony.
The awards show featured star-packed performances from this season's musicals, plays and revivals. Presenters included Paul Rudd and Angela Lansbury.
Besides the usual celebrity turns, this year's new Broadway shows focused less on extravagant staging and glitz and more on compelling stories, soaring music and witty tones evoked in shows such as "Once."
(Additional reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Bill Trott)