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The 2014 Tony Awards could be a night of close calls

Jessie Mueller as Carole King (center) in "Beautiful: Carol King the Musical" in New York.

AP Photo/The O and M Company, Joan Marcus

Jessie Mueller as Carole King (center) in "Beautiful: Carole King the Musical" in New York.

From left: Jefferson Mays, Jennifer Smith, and Bryce Pinkham in a scene from "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder."

AP Photo/The O+M Co., Joan Marcus

From left: Jefferson Mays, Jennifer Smith, and Bryce Pinkham in a scene from "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder."

NEW YORK — The big story lines heading into the 68th annual Tony Awards Sunday night include the absence of a clear front-runner for best musical, fiercely contested races in both lead actress categories and for best play revival, and the snubs of more adventurous contenders like “If/Then” and “The Realistic Joneses.” Neil Patrick Harris will once again be front and center, although he’s not hosting the awards for the first time since 2010. Instead, he’s nominated for his show-stopping turn in the gender-bending rock musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” This time, the emceeing duties will fall — for the fourth time — to Hugh Jackman, another Hollywood star who’s a frequent Broadway denizen. Here’s a forecast of the major races:

BEST MUSICAL

Will Win: “Beautiful”

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Should Win: “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder”

Also nominated: “Aladdin,” “After Midnight”

This is the most wide-open contest for best musical in years. But it’s also one of the most disappointing, with the Tony nominators egregiously failing to select a fifth show. More inventive choices were shut out, including the ambitious, roads-not-taken musical “If/Then” and the sublime “Bridges of Madison County” (with its rapturous score by Jason Robert Brown). The jazzy Duke Ellington tribute “After Midnight” is a visceral thrill. But as a revue with no book, its ambitions aren’t as lofty as the others. The well-received “Aladdin” gives Disney its best shot at the top prize since “The Lion King” took home the gold 16 years ago. But this category should come down to a battle between the Carole King jukebox bio-musical “Beautiful” and the riotous British comedy “Gentleman’s Guide.” With touring prospects in mind, Tony voters may choose to reward the crowd-pleasing “Beautiful,” with its triumph-over-adversity story and familiar baby boomer tunes.

BEST PLAY

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Will/Should Win: “All the Way”

Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon B. Johnson during a performance of "All the Way."

AP Photo/Jeffrey Richards Associates, Evgenia Eliseeva

Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon B. Johnson during a performance of "All the Way."

Also nominated: “Casa Valentina,” “Act One,” “Mothers and Sons,” “Outside Mullingar”

The playwright Will Eno, who grew up in greater Boston, was given the cold shoulder for his idiosyncratic, surreal slice of suburbia, “The Realistic Joneses.” John Patrick Shanley (“Outside Mullingar”), Terrence McNally (“Mothers and Sons”), and James Lapine (“Act One”) are beloved Broadway veterans with Tonys already on their mantels. Harvey Fierstein’s straight-men-in-drag drama “Casa Valentina” could pull the upset. But with “Breaking Bad” Emmy winner Bryan Cranston delivering a searing, titanic turn as President Lyndon B. Johnson, the smart money is on Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Schenkkan’s historical drama going “All the Way,” thanks to a warmly received Broadway debut after its staging last fall at the American Repertory Theater.

BEST REVIVAL OF A MUSICAL

Will Win: “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”

Neil Patrick Harris in a scene from "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."

AP Photo/Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Joan Marcus

Neil Patrick Harris in a scene from "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."

Should Win: “Violet”

(Front, from left) Joshua Henry, Sutton Foster, and Colin Donnell in a scene from "Violet."

AP Photo/Roundabout Theatre Company, Joan Marcus

(Front, from left) Joshua Henry, Sutton Foster, and Colin Donnell in a scene from "Violet."

Also nominated: “Les Misérables”

Boosted by the success of the 2012 film, “Les Miz” returned to Broadway and again became one of its top-grossing shows. But this race comes down to a clash between two revered late-’90s cult musicals that never made it to Broadway the first time around: Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley’s moving “Violet” and John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s inspired “Hedwig.” The title characters in these two underdog shows are sharp-tongued outcasts — a disfigured young woman from a small mountain town (“Violet”) and an East German “slip of a girlyboy” who endures a botched sex-change operation (“Hedwig”) — brought to life by two actors at the top of their game. The electrifying “Hedwig” will likely triumph, but “Violet,” with Tesori’s, country-, gospel-, and blues-tinged score is more of a thrilling rediscovery for those who didn’t get to see it the first time around.

BEST REVIVAL OF A PLAY

Will Win: “Twelfth Night”

Mark Rylance as Olivia (right) and Stephen Fry as Malvolio during a performance of William Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night."

AP Photo/Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Geraint Lewis

Mark Rylance as Olivia (right) and Stephen Fry as Malvolio during a performance of William Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night."

Should Win: “The Glass Menagerie”

Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura and Brian J. Smith as Jim in a scene from “The Glass Menagerie.”

Michael J. Lutch

Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura and Brian J. Smith as Jim in a scene from “The Glass Menagerie.”

Also nominated: “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” “A Raisin in the Sun”

One of the Tonys’ most hotly contested races contains an embarrassment of riches. The lauded revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s “Raisin in the Sun” features a stellar cast, led by Denzel Washington. Daniel Rad-cliffe is working his magic on Broadway alongside another vivid ensemble in Martin McDonagh’s “Inishmaan.” But this race will come down to the radiant “Twelfth Night,” mounted by Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in an all-male production, and John Tiffany’s poetic and heartbreaking “Glass Menagerie,” first seen at the American Repertory Theater in 2013. “Menagerie,” which had never been nominated for a Tony in any of its previous productions before this year (it finally earned seven nominations), deserves the prize. But the Bard’s shadowy, cross-dressing comedy was so rapturously received, it’s hard to imagine the stars not shining down on this “Night.”

BEST LEAD ACTRESS
IN A MUSICAL

Will Win: Jessie Mueller, “Beautiful”

Jessie Mueller during the press preview of "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical" at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre in New York.

REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Jessie Mueller during the press preview of "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical" at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre in New York.

Should Win: Kelli O’Hara, “The Bridges of Madison County”

Kelli O'Hara of “The Bridges of Madison County” performs during “Stars In The Alley” at Shubert Alley in New York City.

Gary Gershoff/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

Kelli O'Hara of “The Bridges of Madison County” performs during “Stars In The Alley” at Shubert Alley in New York City.

Also nominated: Sutton Foster, “Violet”; Idina Menzel, “If/Then”; Mary Bridget Davies, “A Night With Janis Joplin”

This is arguably the most competitive category in this year’s Tony race, full of standout performances from some of Broadway’s best musical theater actresses. Two-time Tony winner Foster is adding astringency and prickly self-delusion to her usual wheelhouse of plucky charm in what’s been called a career-redefining role. “Wicked” Tony winner Menzel, whose brand name is at its peak thanks to the ubiquitous “Let It Go” anthem from “Frozen” (and John Travolta mangling her name at the Oscars), mixes neurotic, introspective vulnerability with powerhouse vocal gymnastics. Mueller’s the front-runner for her moving evocation (and spot-on impersonation) of singer-songwriter Carole King. But beloved industry favorite O’Hara, who’s earned five previous nominations, is long overdue to take home the gold. In “Bridges,” she delivers the goods again, bringing deep wells of yearning, regret, and an awakened sense of self as a married Iowa farm wife falling in love with a roving photographer — and rediscovering the passionate, free-spirited woman of her youth.

BEST LEAD ACTOR
IN A MUSICAL

Will Win: Neil Patrick Harris, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”

Neil Patrick Harris in a scene from "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."

AP Photo/Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Joan Marcus

Neil Patrick Harris in a scene from "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."

Should Win: Jefferson Mays, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder”

Jefferson Mays (center) during a performance of "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder."

AP Photo/The O+M Company, Joan Marcus

Jefferson Mays (center) during a performance of "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder."

Also nominated: Andy Karl, “Rocky”; Bryce Pinkham, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder”; Ramin Karimloo, “Les Misérables”

In most other years, Mays would have this award all sewn up for his chameleonic turn in eight head-spinning roles — from a priggish Earl to a toothy priest, all aristocratic heirs to a family fortune. Mays already has a Tony on his shelf for a similar feat of showmanship a decade ago, embodying a dizzying array of characters in “I Am My Own Wife.” But voters will likely choose screen star, standout awards show host, and Broadway veteran Harris for his fiercely exhilarating turn in “Hedwig.”

BEST LEAD ACTRESS IN A PLAY

Will Win: Audra McDonald, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill”

Audra McDonald performs as Billie Holiday in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill."

Andrew Kelly/REUTERS

Audra McDonald performs as Billie Holiday in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill."

Should Win: Cherry Jones, “The Glass Menagerie”

Cherry Jones in “The Glass Menagerie” at the American Repertory Theater.

Michael J. Lutch

Cherry Jones as Amanda in “The Glass Menagerie.”

Also nominated: LaTanya Richardson Jackson, “A Raisin in the Sun”; Tyne Daly, “Mothers and Sons”; Estelle Parsons, “The Velocity of Autumn”

The 86-year-old Parsons, who grew up in Marblehead, has never won a Tony in five tries over four decades, and Jackson is the only contender here who’s never been nominated, which may give each a leg up. Daly finds the bitterness and regret in a finely etched performance as a bereaved mother whose son has died from AIDS. But McDonald looks like the leading contender for her turn as Billie Holiday. The win would give the actress her sixth Tony and set a record for the most by any performer (besting legends Julie Harris and Angela Lansbury). It would also make her the first person to take home a statuette in four different acting categories. But Jones may pull the minor upset and win her third Tony for her spellbinding performance as self-deluding, faded Southern belle Amanda Wingfield.

BEST LEAD ACTOR IN A PLAY

Will/Should Win: Bryan Cranston, “All the Way”

Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon B. Johnson during a performance of "All the Way."

AP Photo/Jeffrey Richards Associates, Evgenia Eliseeva

Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon B. Johnson during a performance of "All the Way."

Also nominated: Tony Shalhoub, “Act One”; Mark Rylance, “Richard III”; Samuel Barnett “Twelfth Night”; Chris O’Dowd, “Of Mice and Men”

The brilliant Rylance, already a two-time Tony winner, will likely pocket a third this year — but in the category of Featured Actor in a Play, for his hilarious but heartbreaking performance as the Countess Olivia in “Twelfth Night.” In a season where Hollywood A-listers like Denzel Washington, Daniel Radcliffe, Zachary Quinto (“Menagerie”), and an underrated James Franco (“Of Mice and Men”) were all snubbed despite giving richly textured, heart-stirring performances, look for another screen star, Bryan Cranston, to add a Tony next to his trio of Emmys.

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@
gmail.com
.
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