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Tony Awards go a bit Hollywood

As red carpet rolls out, we predict the winners
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Will it be 'Monty Python's Spamalot" or 'Dirty Rotten Scoundrels"?  Cherry Jones or Kathleen Turner?  Hank Azaria or Norbert Leo Butz?

Norbert who?  Remember that name. 

The 2005 Tony Awards will be handed out Sunday in a live broadcast (CBS, 8 p.m. ET) from Radio City Music Hall.

Is anything different this year?  Plenty.  For starters, the Tonys seem to be going a bit Hollywood.  For the first time, there will be live, pre-show television coverage of red-carpet arrivals where fans can check out who’s wearing what.  Expect to see Denzel Washington, Hugh Jackman,  Christina Applegate, Angela Bassett, Marcia Cross and Kathleen Turner, among many others.

Just as the film industry has the Golden Globes, SAG Awards, and DGA awards leading up to the Oscars , the theater community has their own similar crystal balls.

Norbert Leo Butz poses for photographers during the 2005 Tony Awards meet the nominees press reception, Wednesday, May 11, 2005 in New York. Butz was nominated Tuesday for a best actor in a musical Tony Award nomination for his work in \"Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.\" (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)Mary Altaffer / AP

The Drama Desk, Drama League and the Outer Critics Circle all give out their awards in May. Tony voters keep a close eye on them all.  Just like the Oscars, the final voting weeks are a flurry of activity.  There are luncheons, photo ops, press receptions, and chances to see the shows again and again. And let’s not forget the freebies handed out by the producers as they woo every last voter. 

But May is over and the roughly 750 voters – board directors from all the theatrical unions and other industry pros -- turned in their ballots.   The only question remains now is who will win.

Unlike previous years, there are really no clear favorites in most of the 22 competitive categories, which should make Sunday evening pretty exciting even for non-theatre junkies.

In making my predictions, I spoke to a number of Tony voters who agreed tell me off-the-record who they voted for in certain categories.

Based on their responses, here are the likely winners:

Best play
Nominees: “Democracy,” “Doubt,” “Gem of the Ocean,” “The Pillowman”

Inside track: “Doubt,” without a doubt.  The Pulitzer-Prize winning drama about pedophila in the Catholic Church has taken home every major award, and deservedly so. 

Best musical
Nominees: “Monty Python's Spamalot,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” “The Light in the Piazza,” “Spamalot”

Inside track: Any of the four nominated musicals could easily go home with the Tony, but voters say “Monty Python's Spamalot,” along with its Hollywood heavyweight director Mike Nichols, will win not only because it’s one of those blockbuster musicals but also because a  number of out-of-town voters are producers with 'touring' on their minds and “Spamalot” is a megahit. 

However, these same voters say don’t underestimate “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which could be this year's “Avenue Q” and upset the apple cart.

Best actress in a play
Nominees: Cherry Jones, “Doubt”; Laura Linney, “Sight Unseen”; Mary-Louise Parker, “Reckless”; Phylicia Rashad, “Gem of the Ocean”; Kathleen Turner, “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf”

Inside track: Even though Jones seems to be the favorite and grabbed every imaginable pre-Tony award, the voters I spoke to were mesmerized and moved by Turner's turn as Martha.  Turner just might eke out a win over the popular Jones.

Best actor in a play
Nominees: Philip Bosco, “Twelve Angry Men”; Billy Crudup, “The Pillowman”; Bill Irwin, “Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf”; James Earl Jones, “On Golden Pond”; Brian F. O'Byrne, “Doubt”

Inside track: Every voter I spoke to said they would not be surprised if Crudup, Irwin or Jones took home the best actor Tony (Bosco was more of an ensemble player). But in the end, each one of them voted for O'Byrne for his role as the well-liked but possibly abusive priest in “Doubt.”

Best actress in a musical
Nominees: Christina Applegate, “Sweet Charity”; Victoria Clark, “The Light in the Piazza”; Erin Dilly, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”; Sutton Foster, “Little Women”; Sherie Rene Scott, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”

Inside track: Voters say Clark's only competition here is Christina Applegate, who got tons of good press for saving “Sweet Charity” after the producers pulled the plug on the troubled musical.  But a singer-dancer she isn't and Clark should walk off with the prize.

Best actor in a musical
Nominees: Hank Azaria, “Monty Python's Spamalot”; Gary Beach, “La Cage aux Folles”; Norbert Leo Butz, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”; Tim Curry, “Monty Python's Spamalot”; John Lithgow, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”

Inside track: Remember what I said at the beginning? Remember Norbert Lee Butz. Tony voters are raving about the hugely talented Butz, saying that the actor, who plays a charming con man and small-time crook with irresistible flair, is giving one of those once-in-a-lifetime performances that people will be talking about for years to come.

Lee Abrahamian, an executive producer for MSNBC TV and a former Tony voter, has covered New York theater extensively.