NEW YORK (Reuters) - "Billy Elliot The Musical" is likely to dance away with a haul of Tony Awards, critics say, when the top U.S. theater honors are announced on Sunday for a Broadway season that defied recession with record sales.
In the running for 15 Tony Awards, "Billy Elliot" is based on Oscar-nominated director Stephen Daldry's 2000 film about a ballet dancing schoolboy in a mining town in northern England. The show has already won 10 Drama Desk Awards and seven Outer Critics Circle Awards.
Critics from the New York Times, New York Post and New York Daily News agree the production will win best new musical, Daldry will be named best director of a musical and the three teenage actors who share the role of "Billy Elliot" will together win for best lead actor in a musical.
"Billy Elliot is going to do quite well," New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel told Reuters. "It's a very emotionally moving and absorbing story, extremely well directed by Stephen Daldry."
The Los Angeles Times entertainment awards website, The Envelope, which has so far polled 10 critics for its Tony picks, predicts "Billy Elliot" will win at least 11, including best original score by Sir Elton John and Lee Hall, who also wrote the film and the musical production.
The show is competing against "Shrek the Musical," "Next to Normal" and "Rock of Ages" for best new musical. "Next to Normal" star Alice Ripley is tipped to win best lead actress in a musical for her role as a bipolar suburban housewife.
"God of Carnage" is the front-runner for best new play. Its all-star cast -- former "Sopranos" star James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis and Jeff Daniels -- have all been nominated in the best actor and actress in a play categories.
Harden is tipped to win best actress in a play, while best actor is widely expected to go to Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush, who had rave reviews for his Broadway debut in "Exit the King," which also starred Susan Sarandon.
"The Norman Conquests," a trilogy of comedies that came to Broadway from a sold-out run in London, is the favorite to win best revival of a play, while groundbreaking 1960s rock musical "Hair" appears the one to beat for best revival of a musical.
"It's nice to see Broadway is hospitable to serious dramas and well-made, intelligently written comedies," said Riedel. "The danger was that Broadway was going to be swamped by these god awful things like 'Shrek' and '9 to 5' and all this cheesy tourist crap, but the straight play has held its own."
The Broadway League says the 39 theaters in the famous district contribute $5.1 billion per year to the economy of New York, on top of ticket sales, and support 44,000 jobs.
During the 12-month Broadway season ending May 24, 43 shows opened -- the most in more than 25 years, said the Broadway League. There were 10 new musicals, eight new plays, four musical revivals, 16 play revivals and five special shows.
"We had so many great new shows that were so well reviewed that the competition was tough," said Broadway League Executive Director Charlotte St. Martin.
"There is definitely a growing trend toward having more limited runs and due to the writers strike last year we had a lot of big box office stars from both movies and television that had some time available."
Broadway's paid attendance was 12.15 million tickets, down from 12.27 million the previous season, but gross takings rose $6 million, or 0.6 percent, to $943.3 million, beating the previous record set in the 2006/07 season of $938.5 million.
Editing by Claudia Parsons and John O'Callaghan