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For Broadway Newcomers, First Time's The Charm

Tonight, Broadway hands out the Tony Awards to celebrate the season just ended. But for some of the nominees, their Broadway careers are just beginning.

One of them is 21-year-old Argentine actress Josefina Scaglione, who is making her Broadway debut as Maria, the Puerto Rican heroine in West Side Story. The new twist in this revival? Maria's classic song "I Feel Pretty" — and other parts of the show, too — are sung or spoken in Spanish.

There was plenty of speculation before the show's opening about how audiences would react, but Scaglione says she doesn't worry about it.

"People ask me, 'What if they don't understand what you're saying?' And I don't think it's necessary for them to understand each word I'm saying," Scaglione says.

"I think it's good enough for them to understand the whole meaning, you know — they don't need to understand each word just to realize that she feels pretty, she's in love, you know?"

Crossing The Pond

Scaglione is just one of a number of Broadway first-timers who've received Tony nominations. And not all of them are youngsters.

Amanda Root and Jessica Hynes are veterans of the stage, screen and television in England. They've come to New York for the Tony-nominated revival of Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests — a trilogy of comedies about three unhappy middle-aged couples in a country house on a weekend.

The twist on this one? All the plays overlap: One is set in the dining room, another in the living room and the third in the garden. And while audiences can see each play individually, all three are presented every Saturday in a daylong marathon, starting at 11:30 in the morning and ending at 10:30 at night. Hynes says those marathons are her favorite performances.

"You can kinda get lost in it, actually," Hynes says. "There's something overwhelming — you get completely submerged in the material, which is a lovely feeling. It's challenging, and just thrilling."

Audiences get a thrill, too, says Amanda Root.

"They've gone through that marathon with you and they've lived every moment with you — you know what I mean? They know every character, back to front."

Living Broadway History

Another play that explores characters back to front is Neil LaBute's Tony-nominated Reasons to Be Pretty. The playwright, also an indie filmmaker and author, is making his Broadway debut with this play, about four young people caught in dead-end jobs and dysfunctional relationships.

Marin Ireland plays Steph, who breaks up with her boyfriend after he describes her looks as "regular." She has performed in many new plays off-Broadway — and classic plays on the regional-theater scene — but she has noticed a difference this time on Broadway.

"There were so many more people involved, invested — not only financially, but psychologically and emotionally," Ireland says.

Plus, she says, there's the sense of history that comes with performing in one of those vintage Broadway houses.

"The first day felt like, 'Oh, my God,' " she laughs. "You kind of get those chills walking into the house — like 'Right, this house has been here since 1903.' "

A '60s Landmark That's More Than 'Hippie Vaudeville'

Director Diane Paulus is another person with multiple credits off-Broadway and in regional theaters; she's the artistic director of the highly respected American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.

Paulus is making her Broadway debut with the Tony-nominated revival of Hair, the celebrated '60s anti-war musical. She says she approached it with the kind of scrupulous attention to detail that she might apply to Shakespeare.

"It was so not about 'Isn't life fun, hippie vaudeville,'" Paulus says. "It was about ... the tenseness and the pressure of the situation. I really wanted to bring that alive for a modern audience, and do justice to what it meant to be alive in the '60s as a young person."

Paulus confesses that working on Broadway was always one of her goals.

"I've got to admit, I grew up in New York City, I went to Broadway as kid," she says. "It was always a dream, you know: Could I be, one day, part of this community?

"So, to be on Broadway — with Hair, of all pieces — is kind of a dream come true. And for the show to be acknowledged in this way, you know, with all these nominations we've gotten, is just an affirmation of life, I think; affirmation of, you know, the message of Hair. So, I couldn't be happier about that."

The 2009 Tony Awards will be broadcast on CBS on Sunday beginning at 8 p.m. ET. NPR's Monkey See pop-culture blog will be watching — and live-blogging.

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Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.