NEW YORK (Reuters) - Humble Irish love story "Once" about a Dublin street performer and a Czech piano player who share a passion for music and an impossible attraction for each other leads a close race of nominated Broadway shows heading into the Tony Awards on Sunday.
There was no dominant frontrunner before the three-hour awards show to be held at New York's Beacon Theatre, which honors Broadway's best musicals and plays. But "Once" has the highest number of Tony nominations as well as recent wins for best musical at the Drama Desk and Drama Critics Circle awards.
The intimate stage musical, adapted from the 2006 indie film and featuring the Oscar-winning song, "Falling Slowly," gained 11 nominations, including nods for its main stars, Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti.
It was followed closely by "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess", a reinvention of the 1935 opera and comedy "Nice Work If You Can Get It," starring Matthew Broderick as a wealthy playboy. Both of those shows, which feature music and songs from George and Ira Gershwin, have ten 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.
The best play category is also a tight contest between "Other Desert Cities," "Venus in Fur," "Clybourne Park," and the innovative "Peter and the Starcatcher," a prequel to the Peter Pan story which has a total of nine nominations.
Philip Seymour Hoffman leads a distinguished list for best actor in a play, for a revival of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." Hoffman is slightly ahead of British comedian and actor James Corden for "One Man, Two Guvnors," followed by James Earl Jones for "The Best Man," Frank Langella for "Man and Boy," and John Lithgow for "The Columnist."
Best actress in a play is also a tight race between newcomer Nina Arianda for "Venus in Fur," 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 include "Evita," "Follies," "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," which stars Audra McDonald who is expected to get the nod for best actress in a musical.
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."
It features several new songs by the film's original songwriters Marketa Irglova and Glen Hansard, and the show's creators said they aimed to keep the film's unpretentious, infectious spirit.
The Tony Awards, to be hosted by Neil Patrick Harris, will feature more than a dozen star-packed performances from musicals, plays and revivals. Presenters include Christopher Plummer, Nick Jonas, Paul Rudd and Angela Lansbury.
Hugh Jackman, who recently returned to Broadway with the smash hit, "Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway," will receive a special honorary Tony for his contributions to Broadway.
With ticket prices for premium seats at some shows selling for more than $450, Broadway theaters logged a record $1.14 billion in ticket sales this season, even though attendance was steady.
Notably absent from the awards will be rock group U2's $65 million musical, "Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark," which was panned by critics before opening a year ago. This year was the first time it was eligible for a Tony, but it was not invited to showcase a musical number.
(Editing by Christopher Wilson)