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'Jersey Boys' and 'The Drowsy Chaperone' in Tight Race at Tony Awards

"Jersey Boys," an exuberant autobiography of pop icons Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and "The Drowsy Chaperone," a fizzy, Canadian-born celebration of Broadway's musical past, squared off Sunday in the tightest race in years for the 2006 Tony Awards.

The two shows were the main contenders for the top musical prize, with "The History Boys," Alan Bennett's affectionate look at the pursuit of higher education, the heavy favorite to take the best-play award.

Among the actors up for Tonys this year at Radio City Music Hall were Harry Connick Jr., Ralph Fiennes, Patti LuPone, Cynthia Nixon, Oliver Platt, Tyne Daly, Lynn Redgrave and Chita Rivera.

No single host was to shepherd the presenters and winners through the three-hour CBS telecast (8 p.m. EDT), although a parade of stars, including Julia Roberts and Oprah Winfrey (a producer of the Tony-nominated "Color Purple"), were to be on hand to entice viewers.

"Jersey Boys," "The Drowsy Chaperone" and "The History Boys" are among the shows doing potent business at the box office, underscoring the fact that the 2005-2006 season has been a good year on Broadway.

For the first time, Broadway attendance topped the 12 million mark, jumping past the 11.9 million reached in the season before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Grosses have been robust, too, with the season total climbing to $861.6 million, a 12 percent hike from the $768.5 million of the year before.

Those money figures were helped by the appearance of big names on Broadway, most prominently Julia Roberts. The Hollywood star may not have won over the critics for her performance in Richard Greenberg's "Three Days of Rain," but her marquee value was undeniable, pretty much selling out the play's three-month run.

If Roberts was snubbed by the Tony nominating committee, so were other box-office champs such as Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick for their audience friendly revival of Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple." Both "Rain" and "The Odd Couple" benefited from the sale of expensive premium tickets, the deluxe price charged for a theater's best seats that can cost over $200 a seat.

Tony nominations were made by a committee of nearly two dozen theater professionals. Winners were chosen by 754 theater professionals including actors, producers, writers, stagehands and theater owners.

The Antoinette Perry — or Tony Awards — were founded in 1947 by the American Theatre Wing and are administered by the Wing and the League of American Theatres and Producers.