When the stardust settles at the Tonys tonight, the annual pageant of Broadway’s best may be renamed the Billys. We’ll be hearing that boy’s name a lot. The evening’s biggest award — Best Musical — will go to “Billy Elliot,” a blockbuster hit about a miner’s son who escapes a hard-luck life through ballet. More than just feel-good, it’s superbly realized and celebrates the fact that real talent shines even in the bleakest of surroundings. That’s pure Tony bait — and it deserves to win. “Billy” will also dance away with awards for direction (Stephen Daldry), book (Lee Hall) and choreography (Peter Darling) and collect precious metal for its set, lighting and sound design. One of the hard-to-call categories is Best Original Score. “Next to Normal,” a challenging musical about a family’s struggle with mental illness, will triumph. Elton John’s songs for “Billy Elliot” are good, and a few anthems even better than that. But Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s “Next to Normal” score is the best of the season, one that explores many emotions and expresses them beautifully through song. Voters will recognize that. David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik and Kiril Kulish, the teens who sing, dance and act their way through the role of Billy Elliot, are (toe)shoo-ins. Likewise, Alice Ripley, who gives a career-defining star turn as the troubled mom of “Next to Normal,” had better be polishing her acceptance speech for Best Leading Actress in a Musical. Some forecasters see Gregory Jbara, the hard-edged but devoted dad in “Billy Elliot,” winning for Featured Actor in a Musical. He’s terrific, but Christopher Sieber’s hilariously showy antics as the tiny tyrant in “Shrek the Musical” make a bigger impression. That will give Sieber, who performs the whole show on his knees, the leg up. “Shrek” will also chalk up a victory for its colorful, storybook-style costumes. Best Featured Actress in a Musical is a showdown between Karen Olivo in “West Side Story” and Haydn Gwynne in “Billy Elliot.” Olivo is a force to reckon with as Anita and leads a dizzying version of “America.” Gwynne captivates as Billy’s tough-but-tender teacher who is thrust into a drama that’s bigger than her own ambition. In the photo finish, it’ll be Gwynne. For the coveted Best Play prize, “God of Carnage” will feel the love from Tony voters. Yasmina Reza (who’s won before, for “Art”) has written a vinegary, very funny social satire that’s a bona-fide hit. All four “Carnage” leads — Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis, Jeff Daniels and James Gandolfini — are vying for Tonys. Oscar winner Harden will expand her trophy case for her finely calibrated, deliciously demonstrative take on a Brooklyn wife and mother whose nice veneer hides something far nastier. If “33 Variations” had been a better play, Jane Fonda, who played a dying music scholar, would be stiffer competition. Geoffrey Rush will leave Radio City Music Hall as Best Leading Actor in a Play for “Exit the King.” Going from clownish to poignant with nary a misstep, the “Shine” Academy Award winner breathed life beautifully into Ionesco’s dying monarch.
Angela Lansbury and Roger Robinson, nominated for Featured Actress and Actor in a Play, both play visionaries — quirky English psychic in “Blithe Spirit” for her; eccentric Pittsburgh mystic in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” for him. I see them both going home with Tonys. It’ll be his first and her fifth. Broadway revivals seek to make everything old new and exciting again. The hippie-happy “Hair” will be crowned Best Revival of a Musical. The comic trilogy “The Norman Conquests” will live up to its title and win for Best Revival of a Play. Matthew Warchus will go home with a Tony for his direction of “Norman.” “Liza’s at the Palace,” starring a Certain Legend with a Z, will win for Best Special Theatrical Event. It was fun having Will Ferrell on Broadway and I hope he comes back again with something fresher than a George Bush routine. But anyone who saw Liza Minnelli earn one standing ovation after another got a lesson on why it’s called a “special event.”