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Don't awards bring out the best in people?

Not since Nicol Williamson used Evan Handler as an onstage pincushion in "I Hate Hamlet" has Broadway had such a juicy morsel to chew on.Where does it go from here?

Will "Victor/Victoria"-philes stage a Justice for Julie rally in Shubert Alley? Will Isabelle Stevenson, the beleaguered doyenne of the Tonys, collapse in tears during the welcoming segment she tapes for the awards show this year? Will other Broadway producers, jealous of the media spotlight focused on Julie Andrews and her musical, now demand that the Tony nominators snub their shows too?

Let's face it: The only thing better than getting a Tony nomination is not getting one. How often are these words, uttered on Wednesday at the back of the Marquis Theater by Hugh Hayes, a publicity agent for "Victor/Victoria," heard in the theater anymore? "OK, CNBC, CNN and Fox, line up over here!"

The consensus is that Andrews, who angrily withdrew from Tony consideration after the nominators ignored everything about "Victor/ Victoria" but her, has given the Tony Awards more of a publicity boost than her mere appearance on the celebrity-studded show ever could.

No matter her motives, she has not done that badly by her own show either. "Victor/Victoria" is a hugely costly musical, Andrews is the engine that drives ticket sales, and the frenzy surrounding her withdrawal satisfies that old public relations saying: Attention must be gained.

"The more noise, the better," said one Broadway publicity agent not connected with the show. "It's not a hard one to figure out. It's win-win. If I were them, I'd be playing it both ways. I would have told Julie to follow her conscience and withdraw - and then be begging the Tonys not to accept it."

"Victor/Victoria," in fact, was not the only show making noise; it's just that the volume is so loud no one else can be heard. The people at "State Fair," for instance, were enraged that it was not nominated for best musical either, and even angrier at a nomination it did get, for best original score. The hitch: Only four Rodgers and Hammerstein songs that had not been used in a show before were deemed eligible.

In retaliation, the producers of the show were issuing "Tony Award selective hearing devices," cotton balls to be stuffed into ears during the unnominated numbers.

The grousing and jostling has been nonstop. Just before the Tony voting on Sunday, Tony officials say, there had been some intense, last-minute lobbying by officials of Lincoln Center Theater, who desperately wanted to switch Elaine Stritch, of "A Delicate Balance," into the featured actress rather than lead category, where she would compete with Zoe Caldwell of "Master Class" and Rosemary Harris, her co-star. Tony officials turned them down.

The Tony administrators could not have lassoed more coverage for the 50th annual nominations if they had planned it. And of course, they hadn't. The confrontation with Andrews had its roots in the 6 1/2-hour meeting last Sunday of the 14 Tony nominators.

With the Playbills of every eligible show from the season spread before them, the nominators went to work. Under the Tony rules, they were allowed, like a jury, to air their opinions, but only one ballot could be recorded for their four picks in each of the 20 categories. Actually, there were only 19 categories to be decided.

The nominators had asked, according to several people involved in the process, if they could nominate just three shows in the musical-revival category, since there were only four musical revivals on Broadway this season. The Tony administration committee, fearing the nominators wanted to stiff "Hello, Dolly!," refused, a Tony official said.

But the main event was best original musical, a category in which, judging from the reactions of some of the nominators, "Victor/Victoria" never stood a chance. One member of the committee, who refused to be identified, said it was simply considered an inferior piece of work by most of the people in the room. And the contributions of several cast and creative-team members whom Andrews singled out in her curtain speech on Wednesday were also judged Tony-unworthy.

When the decision in the best-musical category was delivered to waiting officials of the American Theater Wing and the League of American Theaters and Producers, the co-organizers of the Tonys, some of the Tony officials looked at one another as if they were suddenly trapped in "Jurassic Park" with the Tyrannosaurus rex loose. Not only had "Victor/Victoria" not been nominated, but "Big" was omitted, too. The panel chose "Rent," "Bring In da Noise, Bring In da Funk" and two short-lived shows, "Chronicle of a Death Foretold" and "Swinging on a Star."

"Obviously, the Tony nominators hated those two shows," Rocco Landesman, the president of Jujamcyn Theaters, said of "Victor/Victoria" and "Big." "They were going to nominate anything but those two shows.

"But look," he added, "there are always going to be perceived injustices. I wasn't happy that Rob Marshall didn't get nominated for choreography while the choreography for `Rent' did. But hey, that's baseball. Everybody should grow up." Marshall choreographed "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," "Company" and "Victor/Victoria" this season.

Was he including in his admonition that fabled trouper Andrews, who said she was withdrawing in solidarity with her cast? "I think all of these temper tantrums are ultimately self-defeating," Landesman said. "They just call attention to the fact that you lost."

Tony Adams, a producer of "Victor/Victoria," responded, "I don't think someone who spends a couple of days agonizing over a decision is throwing a temper tantrum, and I don't believe a Broadway legend like Andrews needs to `grow up."'

Still, in an odd way, the contretemps with Andrews was reassuring to Broadway. Just as it was comforting to see "Rent" on the cover of Newsweek this week, the first time a Broadway show has earned that distinction since at least the dawn of civilization, many on Broadway were happy to see that a theatrical ruckus could still bring out the cameras from CNBC, CNN and Fox.

- OTHER NEWS - It has all ended rather sadly for "Inherit the Wind." The play, the most successful that Tony Randall's National Actors Theater has ever presented, was supposed to run through June 2. But now, because George C. Scott is ill, it will close on Sunday, after 75 performances.

Down the block, there is a move afoot to move the Encores production of "Chicago" to Broadway. Rocco Landesman said that he and Fran and Barry Weissler wanted to bring the production to the Martin Beck Theater this summer.