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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Broadway in its heyday was a place for Barrymores, the Lunts, and Kaufman & Hart. Now days, the stars of the Great White Way are an Australian matinee idol, a hip-hop impresario, and a bunch of foul-mouthed puppets. Welcome to commercial theater in the year 2004.

This year was not a banner year for Broadway as there were major disappointments and no new plays or musicals that look to be instant classics; but there are small signs that a few new shows are attracting the next generation of audiences.

The biggest question posed by this week-s announcement of the nominations for the 2004 Tony Awards is: Will voters acknowledge these works that are reaching out to new theatergoers?

Naturally, this year boasts a number of conventional new shows like Wicked and The Boy from Oz in the new musical category; and Anna In the Tropics and The Retreat from Moscow in the best new play category.

These traditional pieces are facing real competition though from newer, more experimental works like Doug Wright-s I Am My Own Wife-a one-man play that tells the story of a gender-bending, Nazi-era, antiques collector-and Avenue Q, a musical where many of the characters are Sesame Street-style puppets.

Both Avenue Q and I Am My Own Wife have been critical, as well as box-office successes (Wife in fact was recently awarded the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for drama); but there is a sense that despite this popularity, older, more conservative Tony voters will overlook these shows and favor works that fit more into the -Broadway as theme park for out-of-town tourists- marketing pattern.

Even though many still claim the the form is obsolete, the nominees for Best New Musical offers the best look at this struggle between tradition and the future.

On the merits, Avenue Q is the strongest candidate. It-s a crowd-pleaser in the best sense of the word, and most of all, the songs are actually worth listening to. The lyrics range from hilarious to poignant and the melodies are infectious...you can actually hear people singing the songs on the subway after performances. However, the show-s level of discourse is more South Park than South Pacific, and therefore not particularly family friendly. Because of this, Avenue Q could lose out to a show that doesn-t have songs entitled Everyone-s a Little Bit Racist and The Internet is for Porn.

Wicked and The Boy from Oz both represent the safe, audience-friendly musical and because of this, many feel that despite mixed reviews, one of these two shows will take home the Tony. Oz is about Peter Allen, the songwriter famous for being friends with Judy Garland. It really only has one thing going for it, and that-s its star, Hugh Jackman, who once again will be hosting the Tony awards ceremony this year.

Wicked also is about Oz as it-s sort of a riff on The Wizard of Oz tale. Its main selling point is Stephen Schwartz, the veteran composer of Godspell and Pippin. After earning the most nominations of any production this year, Wicked has to be the definite front-runner.

The long shot in the race is the fourth nominee, an ambitious work entitled Caroline, or Change. Caroline is an earnest piece about a young boy and his family-s black housekeeper, set against the backdrop of the 60-s and the civil rights movement.

Its claim to fame is that its libretto was written by Tony Kushner. This may earn it some votes, but Caroline, or Change is the type of work that usually earns respect rather than awards. It-s not an old-fashioned song and dance show, but more an intimate, character-based piece and more a chamber opera than conventional musical.

For folks in New York, which one of these four shows wins will make or break careers and perhaps determine the future of the art form; for us here in Los Angeles, it merely determines which show gets a touring production that will eventually make its way here.

The 58th Annual Tony Awards take place June 6 at Radio City Music Hall and will be televised by CBS.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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