NEW YORK (AP) — Judith Light, who plays an acerbic alcoholic in "Other Desert Cities," won won the first acting Tony Award of 2012 on a night that promises to be a nail-biter in many categories and a feast for the eyes and ears with a record 16 musical numbers.
The former "Who's the Boss?" and "Ugly Betty" star wins for for best featured actress in a play. She was also nominated last year for her performance as Vince Lombardi long-suffering wife in "Lombardi."
With no clear, dying-to-see-it front-running musical like last year's juggernaut, "The Book of Mormon," the show Sunday at the Beacon Theatre actually began with a nod to the past, with host Neil Patrick Harris joining with the cast of "Mormon" for their opening number of "Hello!" from the 2011 musical winner.
He then was surrounded by dancers in tuxes and shimmering dresses for a rousing original number in which he wished that real life was more like theater, complete with backup dancers, rhymes and quick costume changes. He had cameo help from Patti LuPone, the little red-headed orphan from "Annie" and a flying Mary Poppins.
"Once" won two awards before the show began, with Martin Lowe taking the honor for orchestration, and Enda Walsh taking home the award for best book of a musical.
Christopher Gattelli, who thrillingly combined ballet with bold athletic moves in "Newsies, won the best choreography Tony. His work included a sequence of synchronized dancing on real newspapers and carving out of a few moments for each young dancer to spotlight their talents. It is his first award; he previously was nominated for "South Pacific" in 2008.
The three-hour telecast is packed with stars and performances from musicals, plays and revivals. The explosion of performances is an attempt to showcase as much on Broadway as possible. One performance won't even be nearby — the song from "Hairspray" will be performed from a cruise ship in the Caribbean Sea.
It promises to be a hectic night. During a rehearsal, winners were warned that they only had 90 seconds from the time their name was called to get on stage and give their speech before loud music will drown them out.
Last year's Tonys was seen by 6.9 million viewers, roughly the same number as the year before. But the program posted a 9 percent year-to-year gain in the ratings for the 18-to-49 demographic.
The popular Harris is back again this year with several songs and skits. He'll be competing Sunday against the "Mad Men" season finale, but this time no NBA postseason games.
He'll also been tasked with trying to MC between performances from the four best musical nominees — "Leap of Faith," ''Newsies," ''Nice Work If You Can Get It" and "Once." To make time, most technical awards will be handed out during the commercial breaks.
The four musical revival nominees also get a turn on stage, with performances from "Evita," ''Follies," ''The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" and "Jesus Christ Superstar." There will even be time carved out for the cast of "Godspell" and "Ghost: The Musical" — two shows not up for best musical Tony.
As if that wasn't enough, look out for performances from the Tony-nominated plays "End of the Rainbow," ''One Man, Two Guvnors" and "Peter and the Starcatcher." There also are video snippets from other plays.
Producers of the telecast are counting on some intriguing matchups to keep interest high: Which play will win from a very strong category? Will James Corden from "One Man, Two Guvnors" take the best drama leading man award from the favorite, Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Death of a Salesman"? Who will emerge with the award in the best actress in a drama race — Nina Arianda, Tracie Bennett, Stockard Channing, Linda Lavin or Cynthia Nixon?
Harris will have plenty of help on stage, from both veterans of Broadway and newcomers. The list of presenters includes Jessica Chastain, Nick Jonas, Tyler Perry, Amanda Seyfried, Jim Parsons, Paul Rudd, Ellen Barkin, Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters, Candice Bergen, Christopher Plummer, James Marsden, Mandy Patinkin and Sheryl Crow. Hugh Jackman will get a few moments to talk after being presented with a special Tony.
The Tony Awards show is serious business and the exposure in front of millions is priceless. Many shows that are suffering pre-summer slumps are counting on a bump from the telecast. "Godspell" producer Ken Davenport was warned that his production's future may hinge on making a splash at the ceremony.
Overall, the health of Broadway is good, with shows yielding a record $1.14 billion in grosses this season, and total attendance reaching 12.3 million. The only concern is that audience numbers were flat, meaning higher ticket prices are pushing the overall box office take.
This season, 40 new shows opened — 14 new musicals, 23 new plays and three specials. Many of the musicals once again relied on Hollywood, with "Once," ''Ghost The Musical," ''On a Clear Day You Can See Forever," ''Newsies" and "Leap of Faith" all originating on celluloid.
Some older works — "Follies" and "Death of a Salesman" — reminded a new audience why they are classics. And George and Ira Gershwin — or at least their estates — are clear winners, with the revival of "Porgy and Bess" and the musical "Nice Work If You Can Get It" proving Gershwin songs still soar.
But, if anything, this was the season of brilliant original plays: "Clybourne Park" by Bruce Norris, "Other Desert Cities" by Jon Robin Baitz, "Peter and the Starcatcher" by Rick Elice and David Ives' "Venus in Fur."
So loaded with talent was this category that plays such as David Henry Hwang's "Chinglish," Katori Hall's "The Mountaintop," Nicky Silver's "The Lyons," David Auburn's "The Columnist" and Theresa Rebeck's "Seminar" didn't even get nominations.
AP Entertainment Writer Jake Coyle and AP National Writer Jocelyn Noveck contributed to this report.