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JACKI LYDEN, Host:

Tonight, Broadway celebrates the end of the season with the 65th Annual Tony Awards, the Great White Way's version of the Oscars. It's been a banner year for Broadway, with over $1 billion in box office receipts and some sparking performances.

Reporter Jeff Lunden profiles two of this season's best acting nominees.

JEFF LUNDEN: There are three names above the marquee at the Cort Theatre, where a revival of Garson Kanin's 1946 comedy, "Born Yesterday," is playing. Two of them are familiar TV names - Jim Belushi, who plays a corrupt businessman, and Robert Sean Leonard, who plays a virtuous reporter.

But audiences might be forgiven if they've never heard of the third name - Nina Arianda, who plays the not-so-dumb blonde Billie Dawn - the pivotal role made famous on Broadway and in film by Judy Holliday. It was certainly a question Robert Sean Leonard had, when his agent called, offering him the part.

ROBERT SEAN LEONARD: I said to my agent, I love this play, I love this role, but I'm going to have to go on your word here. Is this the girl? Do they have the girl? And he said, This is her. This is who we've been waiting for.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SEAN LEONARD: And, boy, was he right.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "BORN YESTERDAY")

SEAN LEONARD: (as Paul Verrall) I don't suppose you got a chance to read my piece.

NINA ARIANDA: (as Billy Dawn) What are you talking? Of course, I did - twice.

SEAN LEONARD: (as Paul Verrall) What did you think?

ARIANDA: (as Billy Dawn) Well, I think it's the best thing I ever read.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ARIANDA: (as Billy Dawn) I didn't understand one word.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LUNDEN: Nina Arianda, at age 26, is making her Broadway debut in "Born Yesterday." She received rave reviews for her performance, but admits she was nervous taking on a role so identified with another actress.

ARIANDA: I thought, okay, why is it iconic? Is it because of Judy Holliday? I think it's become that, but I think it stems from the text. And the text is timeless and the text is fantastic, and it makes a performance iconic. So if I thought of it that way, it took a little pressure off myself and allowed me to kind of do exactly what I could do, which was just do it my way.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "BORN YESTERDAY")

ARIANDA: (as Billy Dawn) Let me ask you, are you one of these talkers or would you be interested in a little action?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SEAN LEONARD: (as Paul Verrall) Huh?

ARIANDA: (as Billy Dawn) I've got a yen for you right off.

SEAN LEONARD: (as Paul Verrall) Hmm. Do you get many?

ARIANDA: (as Billy Dawn) Now and then.

SEAN LEONARD: (as Paul Verrall) What do you do about them?

ARIANDA: (as Billy Dawn) Stick around, you'll find out.

LUNDEN: Arianda's career has been on a fast track, since she got her graduate degree from NYU just two years ago. Last season, she made a splash in an off- Broadway show, "Venus in Fur," and has since worked on several movies, including Woody Allen's latest, "Midnight in Paris."

Arianda got the stage bug as a child in Paterson, New Jersey. By the time she was 16, she was studying acting in a summer program at the Royal Academy in London. She well remembers going to the open-air Globe Theatre to see a production of Shakespeare's "Cymbeline," directed and starring Tony-nominated actor Mark Rylance. She stood in front of the stage and says, by the end of the play, she was sobbing.

ARIANDA: And then he blew me a kiss, offstage, and that was just - that even worsened my sobs. But that was one of those theater moments that kind of really makes you want it more. You know, when you see a performance like that, it makes you want it even more. It gets you hungrier, in a way.

LUNDEN: A couple of blocks away, at the Music Box Theatre, that same Mark Rylance is starring in the Tony-nominated British import, "Jerusalem." It's been quite a year for him. This fall, he appeared in a Broadway revival of "La Bete," where he played a vulgar 17th century performer named Valere, and did a 25 minute tour-de-force monologue, in rhyming couplets.

MARK RYLANCE: Valere was so innocent, so child-like, really. I mean a terrible, terrible character. You wouldn't want to spend much time with him at all. But to play him was very immediate and like being a kind of insect, really.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "LA BETE")

RYLANCE: (as Valere) What a foolish waste of time to come. Devotion comes to nothing if we come to summarize devotion in a sum.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RYLANCE: (as Valere) Just a tiny play on words.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LUNDEN: As splashy as that was, Rylance's Tony nomination is for his role in "Jerusalem," which has been described as a kind of state-of-the-British nation play. His character, Johnny Rooster Byron is a former daredevil who lives in the woods and deals drugs to teenagers. Rylance says Rooster cuts closer to the bone.

RYLANCE: Rooster is more to do with me being 51 and the end of my life approaching. You know, still some years off, but that whole thing of being around 50 and thinking, well, you're not getting younger and here's where we've been so far and where do we want to go? These kind of things. It throws me into much deeper waters, as I approach performances and leave performances.

LUNDEN: Byron tells tall-tales, mixing the mythic with the contemporary.

RYLANCE: (as Johnny Rooster Byron) All Byron boys are born with their own teeth. Thirty-two chompers, hair on their chest, no weeping, no wailing, porking(ph) straight off.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RYLANCE: (as Rooster) This one, me. He sits up, wipes the juice from his eyes and calls: Mother, what is this dark place. And she replied: 'Tis England, my boy. England.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LUNDEN: Playwright Jez Butterworth says he shaped the role of Rooster for Rylance, after meeting him several years ago and discussing a very early draft of the play.

JEZ BUTTERWORTH: It was one of those meetings that you came away from, when I first met him that you knew that this was going to be, you know, one of the important collaborations of your life. You just knew, straight away.

LUNDEN: And the result of that meeting - which has already won Rylance and Butterworth awards here and in England - could lead to a Tony Award for one or both of them tonight.

The Tony Awards will be broadcast live on CBS at 8 P.M.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

LYDEN: To see scenes featuring some of the nominees and to read Jeff Lunden's Tony predictions, go to NPR.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

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