Tony noms lookahead - Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington is starring in "A Raisin In The Sun" on Broadway. (Robin Marchant / Getty Images)

NEW YORK — Recent Broadway seasons have yielded musical juggernauts: "The Book of Mormon," "The Producers" and "Spring Awakening," for example, each scooped up fistfuls of Tony nominations before going on to win best musical.

But as voters have contemplated this year's choices ahead of the nomination announcement Tuesday, a different vibe has emerged in which there is nothing close to a powerhouse. Instead, the year offers a litany of flawed contenders — and a number of variables that makes this one of the most unpredictable seasons in recent memory.

"There's an argument to be made for almost any musical," said Ken Davenport, the producer of contender "The Bridges of Madison County." "It's good for the diversity of theater," he added. "But it makes predicting the race really tricky."

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At least eight shows are in the thick of a race for a possible four spots, including a death-happy comedy ("A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder"), several movie adaptations ("Rocky," "Aladdin"), a slice-of-life dramedy ("If/Then"), an artist biography (the Carole King tale "Beautiful"), a romantic tear-jerker ("The Bridges of Madison County," of course also a film), a period revue ("After Midnight") and shows that fall into several categories ("Bullets Over Broadway"). But none has built a consensus, and many have more detractors than supporters.

The category poses one of several intriguing questions ahead of nominations, which the actors Lucy Liu and Jonathan Groff will announce on "CBS This Morning." Those questions also include a wide-open best play race, a crowded lead actor in a play category and Hollywood contenders whose chances are all over the map — from favorites (Denzel Washington and Bryan Cranston) to long shots (James Franco and Michelle Williams) to toss-ups (Chris O'Dowd and Zach Braff).

Adding to the uncertainty: A new rule this year allows for a fifth nominee in the four major production categories if — deep breath — at least nine shows are eligible and the fifth-highest vote-getter finishes close enough to the fourth. With 12 new musicals, the rule could apply.

Tony nominations are decided by about 40 creative theater-world figures before the full body of roughly 870 voters chooses the eventual winners. Tony recognition can spell not only prestige but box office. This year's ceremony, hosted by Hugh Jackman, will be held on June 8 at Radio City Music Hall and broadcast on CBS.

On the musical side, Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak's "Gentleman's Guide" is seen as a front-runner — of sorts. The show — at the Walter Kerr by way of San Diego's Old Globe — tells of murder and machinations among the royal D'Ysquith family and features Jefferson Mays playing eight parts.

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Though nabbing a field-leading 12 Drama Desk nominations last week, "Gentleman's" could face challenges given that it's one of the few contenders to have opened in the fall, which could put it out of some voters' minds. (The last best musical winner that opened in the fall was "Memphis" in 2010.)

Other shows come with their own question marks.

"Rocky," "If/Then" and "Bullets" all rode into the season high on pundits' lists but have dropped in the wake of mixed reviews. "Aladdin" has built a decent consensus, but some wonder if voters will get behind another Disney extravaganza. "After Midnight," a Cotton Club-era revue, could be hurt by the perception that revues shouldn't be rewarded as much as other musicals. "It's a case where literally almost anything can happen on Tuesday," said Variety theater reporter Gordon Cox.

The announcement could have implications for ticket sales. Estelle Parsons' black comedy "The Velocity of Autumn" has been faltering at the box office and is perceived as needing Tonys attention to survive. Both "Rocky" and "Gentleman's" are doing the kind of business that could also use a Tonys bump. In fact, outside of "Aladdin" and "If/Then," no new musical is generating much more than mediocre sales.

In a season rife with Hollywood actors, screen stars are also expected to have a mixed nominations day.

Washington has a good shot at leading actor in a play for his turn in Lorraine Hansberry's classic "A Raisin in the Sun," while Cranston is a near-certainty for his role as President Lyndon Johnson in "All The Way." And Neil Patrick Harris should nab a spot for lead actor in a musical for his cross-dressing comedic turn in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."

But Braff may not make the cut as lead actor in a musical for his turn as a tortured playwright in "Bullets," while Williams, up for lead actress in a musical, has polarized critics with her take on the Sally Bowles character in "Cabaret." (The Tony administration committee voted to keep "Cabaret" eligible as a "new revival" even though the production is nearly identical to the 1998 Broadway staging.)

Hollywooders could have the best shot in lead actress in the play category, which could bring nominations for Tyne Daly in Terrence McNally's "Mothers and Sons," Debra Messing in John Patrick Shanley's romance "Outside Mullingar" and Rebecca Hall in technology-skeptical melodrama "Machinal."

They would be in the company of an emerging titan. Perhaps the biggest ruling the administration committee made last week was that the Billie Holiday tale "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill," starring Audra McDonald, is a play, even though it contains about a dozen songs. That instantly made lead actress in a play more competitive, with McDonald a near-lock for a nomination. The shortlisting would give the Fresno-raised actress a chance, at just 43, to win a record sixth Tony, and the rare opportunity for her to have won a Tony in all four major acting categories.

Another Tony favorite expected to garner love is Mark Rylance, who could land both a lead spot ("Richard III") and a featured one ("Twelfth Night"). The lead actor in a play field is especially deep, with Cranston, Rylance, Tony Shalhoub in the Moss Hart biography "Act One," Washington in "Raisin," Chris O'Dowd in "Of Mice and Men" and two icons, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, in "Waiting for Godot," making for a potential odd-man-out situation.

On revival-crazed Broadway, it is a weak year for new plays, boosting the odds for a dark horse. That means downtown darling Will Eno's Broadway debut, "The Realistic Joneses," James Lapine's "Act One" and McNally's "Mothers and Sons" — all with mixed reviews — could end up with spots alongside more probable contenders Robert Schenkkan's "All the Way" and the Harvey Fierstein-penned Catskills cross-dresser "Casa Valentina."

Play revivals seems like a more predictable category, with "The Glass Menagerie," "A Raisin in the Sun," "Twelfth Night" and Martin McDonagh's "The Cripple of Inishmaan" the likeliest nominees. One X-factor on the revival side remains Anna D. Shapiro's staging of "Mice," which has divided critics largely because of James Franco, who plays George in the John Steinbeck adaptation.

Best musical revival will likely garner nominations for "Les Misérables" — Laurence Connor and James Powell's staging of the show that never seems to go away — "Hedwig," the Sutton Foster-starring "Violet" and "Cabaret," setting up an intriguing race led by "Hedwig" when the big day rolls around.

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com