By MARK KENNEDY
NEW YORK - Courtney B. Vance has won the first Tony Award of the night, taking the trophy for best featured actor in a play after host Neil Patrick Harris opened the show with a high-octane song boasting this night would be bigger than ever.
Vance, who was previously nominated for Tonys for "Fences" and "Six Degrees of Separation," won for playing a newspaper editor opposite Tom Hanks in "Lucky Guy." He dedicated his award to his mother.
The Tonys are being broadcast live by CBS from Radio City Music Hall. Harris is back for his fourth turn as emcee and leads a show featuring talented children and pulse-pounding musical numbers.
"Kinky Boots" and "Matilda the Musical" are the front-runners for top musical, while those for best play are "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" and "The Assembled Parties."
The big, opening number started with Harris simply holding a guitar in a pub like "Once" but quickly morphed into a flashy razzle-dazzle number that showcased performers from almost a dozen musicals - and even ex-boxer Mike Tyson dancing. Harris sang "It's bigger! Tonight it's bigger," jumped through a hoop, vanished from a box and promised a "truly legendary show" before glitter guns went off.
"Kinky Boots" and "Matilda the Musical" are the front-runners for the most coveted award - top musical. Both are inspired by British works and both have actors speaking in English actors, but one's DNA is clearly American.
Pop singer-songwriter Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein have given "Kinky Boots" - originally a 2005 film about a failing shoe factory that turns to making drag queen boots - a fun score and a touching book that celebrates diversity. It has generated two leading man nods in Billy Porter and Stark Sands.
The import "Matilda the Musical" is a witty, dark musical adaptation of the novel by Roald Dahl that is still running in London. Its leading woman is actually a man - Bertie Carver, who plays the evil headmistress Miss Trunchbull.
Others musicals hoping for awards include the acrobatic "Bring It On: The Musical," the hit-heavy "Motown the Musical" and "A Christmas Story, the Musical," adapted from the beloved holiday movie. Top musical revivals include an updated "Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella" and a cracking revival of "Pippin" with a circus feel.
All the above shows will get lucrative screen time with a performance during the telecast, including "Annie" with "Glee" star Jane Lynch, last year's winner "Once," and a song from "The Phantom of the Opera," which is celebrating its 25th anniversary on Broadway this year.
Lauper will perform her song "True Colors" during the segment when dead members of the theater community are honored. Also, the original members of the `60s band The Rascals will play "Good Lovin,'" which they did this season on Broadway.
The best play award is largely a two-way race between Christopher Durang's comical "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" and Richard Greenberg's moving "The Assembled Parties." On the telecast, filmed dramatic moments from the top play nominees will to shown to offer viewers a look at the shows.
The biggest star with a nomination is Broadway newcomer Tom Hanks, who could snap up a Tony for "Lucky Guy," Nora Ephron's last work and a best play finalist. He faces tough competition from Nathan Lane, who plays a closeted gay burlesque performer in "The Nance."
The nominators ignored some big-name talent who graced Broadway stages this season, including Bette Midler, Jessica Chastain, Al Pacino, Katie Holmes, Paul Rudd, Alec Baldwin, Alicia Silverstone, Sigourney Weaver, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Scarlett Johansson.
Presenters include some of the A-listers overlooked for nominations as well as Jesse Eisenberg, Jon Cryer, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anna Kendrick, Zachary Quinto, Sally Field, Audra McDonald, Alan Cumming and Jesse Tyler Ferguson.
The Tony winners were picked by 868 Tony voters, including members of The Broadway League, American Theatre Wing, Actors' Equity, the Dramatists Guild, Stage Directors and Choreographers Society as well as critics from the New York Drama Critics Circle.
The awards telecast faces competition for attention on Sunday night from an episode of "Mad Men" on AMC and Game 2 of the NBA finals between San Antonio and Miami on ABC. Last year's telecast was seen by 6 million viewers, down significantly from 2011's 6.9 million.
The awards cap a somewhat grim financial season on Broadway in which the total box office take was flat and the number of ticket buyers slipped 6 percent. Both numbers were blamed in part on Superstorm Sandy, but high ticket prices and the lack of long term audience growth has many worried.
A total of 46 new shows opened during the season, which began last May and ended May 26: 15 musicals, 26 plays and five special events or concerts.
AP Entertainment Writer Frazier Moore and AP National Writer Jocelyn Noveck contributed to this report.
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