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IT'S A HORSE RACE FOR TONY'S BEST MUSICAL, BEST PLAY

Could "Miss Saigon" NOT win the best musical prize at the 1991 Tony Awards?

There is real competition between the highly publicized English musical and the American-made "The Will Rogers Follies." And it's a horse race for best play, too, a battle between Neil Simon's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lost in Yonkers" and "Six Degrees of Separation" by John Guare.The results will be televised tonight on CBS (8 p.m. MST on KSL-TV, Ch. 5) during a two-hour special from the Minskoff Theater. Julie Andrews and Jeremy Irons will serve as co-hosts.

Traditionally, the odds favor "Miss Saigon," a lavish retelling of Puccini's opera "Madama Butterfly," updated to the Vietnam War. Those big musical bundles from Britain have never lost the best musical award.

This year, it could be different. Despite some favorable reviews, including the all-important New York Times, and a $35 million advance sale, "Miss Saigon" has its vociferous opponents. "The Will Rogers Follies," a Ziegfeldlike extravaganza directed by Tommy Tune, didn't get all raves from the critics either. But the show, which has a score by Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, took best musical honors from the New York Drama Critics' Circle and the Drama Desk.

"Once on This Island," a Caribbean fairy tale, and "The Secret Garden," an adaptation of the children's classic, are long shots.

The Actors' Equity battle over British actor Jonathan Pryce and whether he should have been allowed to re-create his role of the Eurasian pimp on Broadway also could hurt "Miss Saigon." Pryce might be edged out by Keith Carradine who plays the famed Oklahoma humorist and lariat-twirler in "The Will Rogers Follies."

A close contest also looms between "Six Degrees of Separation," which opened last June in the small Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, and Simon's "Lost in Yonkers."

The Guare play about a con man who dupes several wealthy New Yorkers received the best reviews of any new production last season. It transferred in November to the Broadway-size larger Vivian Beaumont Theater in the Lincoln Center, a move which also made it eligible for Tony consideration.

"Lost in Yonkers" was a surprise winner this year of the Pulitzer Prize, Simon's first, and also captured the Drama Desk nod for best play. The New York Drama Critics' Circle gave their best play prize to "Six Degrees."

The other category with spirited competition is best actress, with Mercedes Ruehl of "Lost in Yonkers" going against Stockard Channing of "Six Degrees of Separation." Ruehl, who won raves for her portrayal of an endearing, simple-minded aunt in the Simon play, might just edge out Channing, who plays a gullible east-side matron in "Six Degrees."

None of the nominees for best actor in a play - Peter Frechette, Nigel Hawthorne, Tom McGowan and Courtney B. Vance - is a household name, particularly beyond Shubert Alley. It boils down to a battle between Hawthorne, who played C.S. Lewis in "Shadowlands," and Vance, the con artist of "Six Degrees of Separation."

There's no contest for the best actress in a musical. Lea Salonga will triumph for her performance as Kim in "Miss Saigon."