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Tony nominees polish acts before the curtain rises on awards show

NEW YORK -- In the vast, cool darkness of Radio City Music Hall, entertainment for the 2004 Tony Awards comes together in bits and pieces.

Dancers stretch and bend in the aisles. Onstage, Donna Murphy, a Tony nominee for "Wonderful Town," murmurs song lyrics, "Get hep, get hep," while the musical's director and choreographer, Kathleen Marshall, studies a television monitor located halfway into the nearly empty auditorium.

It's countdown time. Each nominated musical still running on Broadway has approximately two precious hours in the cavernous auditorium to rehearse the number it will perform during tomorrow night's telecast (at 8, on Channel 4).

"Avenue Q" arrived first Thursday morning, followed by "Assassins" and then, later in the day, by "Wicked" and "Wonderful Town." Tony Bennett took to the stage Thursday night to go over "The Lullaby of Broadway."

Yesterday saw rehearsals for "Caroline, or Change," "Fiddler on the Roof," the television show's elaborate opening number featuring host Hugh Jackman, then Jackman's own nominated musical, "The Boy From Oz," and finally hip-hop star Mary J. Blige's take on "What I Did For Love" from "A Chorus Line."

"Rehearsals really started this week because that's when we finally got the stage" at Radio City, Jackman said yesterday.

The actor has been working steadily over the last month or so, not only with the show's executive producers, Glenn Weiss and Ricky Kirshner, but with writer Bruce Vilanch and choreographer Jerry Mitchell.

"Bruce and I have been e-mailing and holding conference calls, and I have worked extensively with Jerry, who is trying to make me look good," Jackman said with a laugh.

It was Mitchell who devised the show's lavish opening number, which will feature Jackman; the Radio City Rockettes; the three girl groups on Broadway in "Caroline, or Change," "Little Shop of Horrors," and "Hairspray"; and cast members from all the shows. "Wonderful Town" chose to perform one of its big dance numbers, "Swing." It's a funny, jazzy riff on what it meant to be cool -- and square -- in 1930s New York. It features Murphy and the show's dance ensemble."This is a 5 1/2-minute number in `Wonderful Town,' " Marshall said. "And we have only 3 1/2-minutes at the Tonys. What we did, which actually makes it very hard for the cast, is instead of cutting out a huge chunk, we took a little bit from every section of the song." Tomorrow will be the killer day for Jackman and the casts of the nominated shows. There are no rehearsals today, when performers must do both a matinee and evening show on Broadway. But a full-dress rehearsal takes place tomorrow morning, before 9.

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