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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Shows about teen suicide, Middle East peace negotiations, labor strife and the Sept. 11 attacks will square off on Sunday at the annual Tony Awards honoring the best of Broadway theater.
But with no pop cultural juggernauts like rap history musical "Hamilton" this year, the awards show, which caps a record-breaking season, is also looking to a musicals and top celebrities to stoke interest.
"There's never been so much diversity of product on Broadway in subject matter, in (production) size, in casting," said Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League, which organizes the Tonys along with the American Theatre Wing.
"The stories of our lives, of what's going on in the streets of our country are coming to our stages, and people are flocking to see them," she said, noting Broadway's record year with $1.45 billion in box office receipts.
While a hit revival of "Hello, Dolly!" starring Bette Midler, and shows boasting Kevin Kline and Glenn Close have helped drive business, teen-angst driven "Dear Evan Hansen," a musical with no stars which is set in motion by a suicide, is the favorite for the top prize at Sunday's awards show.
Dark horse musical "Come from Away," set in tiny Gander, Newfoundland where dozens of jets were forced to land after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington D.C., stranding thousands who were taken in by the locals, has been packing houses and gaining momentum in the Tonys race.
Among plays, four American playwrights making their Broadway debuts are vying for best play. "Oslo," J.T. Rogers' behind-the-scenes look at the 1993 Middle East peace accords, and Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winner "Sweat," about factory life, racial tension and down-sizing, are seen as the top contenders.
Citing "the times we're living in," American Theatre Wing president Heather Hitchens reflected that "people are finding ways to respond to that and grapple with that. It's a rich time for people to be creating."
But traditional shows with spectacular sets and costumes and big stars will also be front and center on Sunday.
Midler, 71, is all-but-assured of winning her first competitive Tony for her star turn in "Hello Dolly," which scored 10 nominations.
Musical "Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812" leads the Tonys contenders with 12 nods. But the lavish, unconventional spectacle based on a snippet of "War and Peace" which stars Josh Groban may see its best shot at a major prize for directing, awards watchers say.
Kevin Kline is considered a shoo-in for his turn as the egocentric actor in Noel Cowards' "Present Laughter," while Laurie Metcalf is heavily favored as best actress for "A Doll's Life, Part 2," a sequel to the Ibsen classic.
The Tonys, hosted for the first time by Kevin Spacey, will be televised live by CBS on Sunday from New York's Radio City Music Hall.
Editing by Jill Serjeant and Mary Milliken