The Tony Awards have tapped current nominee Sean Hayes to host the 64th edition of the annual theater kudos. By choosing this Broadway newcomer, the producers are sending a clear message of support for Hayes. The recently out actor found himself at the center of a controversy when Newsweek columnist Ramin Setoodeh slammed him for playing straight in the rialto revival of the 1968 tuner "Promises, Promises."
Hayes had impressed theater critics as the hapless Chuck Baxter, who longs for a co-worker -- the unlucky-in-love Fran Kubelik (Kristin Chenoweth). Although Setoodeh dismissed his efforts, the theater community rewarded him with a Tony nomination for lead actor in a musical. Hayes' costar --the Emmy-winning Chenoweth ("Pushing Daisies") -- leapt to his defense with an impassioned plea to Setoodeh for tolerance. Although this past Tony champ ("You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown") was snubbed by the nominating committee, expect Chenoweth to be in the audience at Radio City Music Hall on June 13 to cheer on Hayes.
Another Tony winner, Katie Finneran ("Noises Off") -- who stole that show from theatrical royalty Patti LuPone -- did the same in "Promises, Promises" as a barfly on the prowl who sets her sights on Chuck. Marian Mercer took home the featured actress award for creating this role, and Finneran could well do the same this year, thereby besting two Broadway veterans -- five-time champ Angela Lansbury, nominated for the revival of "A Little Night Music," and one-time winner Barbara Cook, up for the new revue "Sondheim on Sondheim."
"Promises, Promises" -- the musical version of 1960 best picture Oscar champ "The Apartment" -- has quite the pedigree. Neil Simon adapted the Oscar-winning screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, and Hal David and Burt Bacharach provided the words and music. For the original production, Jerry Orbach landed a lead actor Tony for bringing to the stage the part first played on film by Jack Lemmon and now reprised by Hayes.
Hayes is not the first Tony Awards host to have the added pressure of being a nominee. In 2004, Hugh Jackman won the same award Hayes is vying for -- lead actor in a musical -- for "The Boy From Oz" while emceeing his second Tony telecast. The following year, he won an Emmy Award in the now defunct individual performance in a variety special category for his work as Tonys host.
In 2001, nominees and costars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick emceed, with Lane winning his second Tony as part of the sweep for "The Producers," which took home a record 12 awards. Lane won his first Tony for "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" when he hosted the Tonys in 1996. The previous year, Lane applauded as his Tonys co-host Glenn Close won her third Tony for her performance in the tuner version of "Sunset Boulevard." In 1992, Close won her second Tony for the play "Death and the Maiden" while emceeing the awards solo.
Among the Tony co-hosts who have had to be gracious in defeat was Jane Alexander, who lost the lead actress in a play prize in 1979 for "First Monday in October" while co-hosting with costar Henry Fonda. And in 1976, George C. Scott -- who declined his best actor Oscar for "Patton" in 1970 -- co-hosted the kudos but lost the lead actor in a play race for a revival of "Death of a Salesman."
Hayes may well have to be satisfied with just his nomination as well. Douglas Hodge -- who won the Olivier for his role as the cross-dressing Albin in a revival of "La Cage aux Folles" -- is likely to win again on this side of the Atlantic. Hayes knows how to put on a happy face when going down to defeat. Though he won a supporting actor Emmy on his first try when he was nominated in 2000 for the second season of the groundbreaking laffer "Will & Grace," he then lost six consecutive bids over the rest of the run of the series, which signed off in 2006.
However, Hayes should be heartened by the success of last year's Tonys host Neil Patrick Harris. He earned such good reviews that he was chosen to emcee the Emmy Awards and opened this year's Oscars with a razzle-dazzle production number.
Photo: "Promises, Promises" Playbill cover. Credit: Broadway Theatre