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" heading into the night leading a close race for Broadway's best musicals and plays.
There was no dominant frontrunner going in to the three-hour awards show televised live from New York's Beacon Theatre.
Host Neil Patrick Harris performed a song-and-dance number at the start of the show, with nominees including Nina Arianda, Steve Kazee and Judith Light hitting the red carpet along with Hugh Jackman, who will receive a special honorary Tony for his contributions to Broadway.
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," she said in accepting the award.
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."
Other big names nominated for awards included Philip Seymour Hoffman, Stockard Channing, British comedian James Corden and Andrew Garfield.
Garfield told Reuters in an interview on Saturday for his new "Spider-Man" movie that awards shows made him uncomfortable but the character of Biff Loman he is nominated for in a revival of "Death of a Salesman," opposite Seymour Hoffman, was "a beautiful journey to go on."
"Once," the intimate stage musical adapted from the 2006 indie film and featuring the Oscar-winning song, "Falling Slowly," has 11 nominations, including nods 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," starring 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.
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." Other nominees include 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 is 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 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 and win her fifth Tony.
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."
The show was to feature more than a dozen star-packed performances from musicals, plays and revivals. Presenters include Christopher Plummer, Nick Jonas, Paul Rudd and Angela Lansbury.
Notably absent from the awards was 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.
(Additional reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, John McCrank and Chris Michaud; Editing by Bill Trott)