Races to watch at the Tonys tonight

Presenting: What to watch for when the 68th annual Tony Awards ceremony is telecast live at 8 tonight on CBS. A 90-minute preshow, including red-carpet arrivals, will be streamed live by NY1.com.

Race to the finish: Cherry Jones vs. Audra McDonald is the championship bout of these Tonys. Ms. Jones, a Carnegie Mellon alum, seemed like a cinch in the months leading up to the awards show, with her glowing turn as Amanda Wingfield in the revival of “The Glass Menagerie.” Then along came Tony darling McDonald in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” with a spot-on Billie Holiday.

A win for the play would make the Divine Ms. McDonald the lone owner of an acting sweep. She already has best actress in a musical (“The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess”); best featured actress in a musical (“Ragtime”; “Carousel”); and best featured actress in a play (“A Raisin in the Sun”). Ms. Jones has two Tonys of her own, as the star of “Doubt” (2005) and “The Heiress” (1995).

Love for “Gentleman”: “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” leads the pack in nominations with 10, including one for best musical in the oddly short category of just four. Here’s the rule that KO’d “Rocky” and “Bullets Over Broadway“:

"Where there are nine or more eligible shows in a Best Show category ... the Tony Nominating Committee will be instructed to cast one vote each for four eligible shows as nominees on his/her secret ballot. Such ballot shall be collected and tabulated by a representative of the Accounting Firm. The four eligible shows with the highest number of votes will automatically be the nominees in such category. The Accounting Firm will determine if a fifth nominee shall be added to the category in the event that the difference in votes between the fourth highest ranked show and the fifth highest ranked show is three votes or less."

Opening number: It will be hard to top last year, when host Neil Patrick Harris literally jumped through a hoop to lead a team of dozens through a song-and-dance extravaganza. Tonight he is a nominee for “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” while Hugh Jackman returns for his fourth stint as emcee. The two have performed a Tonys number together before, and here’s hoping for a Harris-Jackman encore.

Local connections I: Last year’s Carnegie Mellon showing — eight winners, including Billy Porter and Patina Miller — isn’t in the cards, but alum Sutton Foster is a nominee for “Violet” this year, Leigh Silverman is up for her direction of “Violet,” and producers Paula Wagner (“Mothers & Sons”) and Jamie DeRoy (“Gentleman’s Guide”) have shows in the race. Also this year, CMU and the Tonys have inaugurated an exclusive partnership to recognize K-12 theater educators.

Local connections II: Don’t be surprised if you recognize hometown actors during cast performances, as Broadway’s musical ensembles are packed with Pittsburghers and grads of local colleges.

If you can’t make it there, you can see it here: The show will feature live performances by the cast of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” Ms. Foster with the cast of “Violet,” Alan Cumming (“Cabaret”) and Idina Menzel (“If/Then”).” Other musicals will be “Aladdin,” “Les Miserables,” “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” “Bullets Over Broadway” and “Rocky.”

A tribute to “Wicked’s” 10th anniversary also is on the program, along with Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight and Fantasia with the cast of best musical nominee “After Midnight.” And clear the way for yet another rock legend tackling Broadway: Sting will perform a song from his upcoming musical “The Last Ship.”

Tony newbie: Woody Allen, who has spurned the Oscars for years, attended the Tony nominees luncheon in April. He is up for his first Tony, for best book of the musical "Bullets Over Broadway." The writer-actor-director has had four plays produced on Broadway and one previous musical, the revue “From A to Z” that ran for 21 performances in 1960.

What did he say?: The brilliant interpreter of Shakespeare Mark Rylance has two Tonys for leading actor in a play ("Boeing Boeing" and "Jerusalem") and this night has two chances at giving his third acceptance speech, with nods as the lead in "Richard III" and featured actor in "Twelfth Night.” Past speeches have included head-scratching observations such as these opening lines when he won in for "Jerusalem”: "Unlike flying or astral projection, walking through walls is a totally earth-related craft, but a lot more interesting than pot-making or driftwood lamps."

Can this be right?: Musical theater leading lady Kelli O'Hara has no Tony Award to go with her five nominations, including leading actress in a musical for "The Bridges of Madison County.” Previous nods were for "The Light in the Piazza" (2005), "The Pajama Game" (‘06), "South Pacific" (‘08) and "Nice Work If You Can Get It" (‘12).

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960. Twitter: SEberson_pg.

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