'Spamalot' and Sondheim nominated for Oliviers

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One is a big-budget musical celebrating a cult comedy while another began life as an obscure production at a little-known theatre which did not expect to reach the West End.

But both musicals - Spamalot, based on Monty Python material, and Sunday in the Park with George, the relatively obscure Stephen Sondheim production - are celebrating today after receiving multiple nominations for the Laurence Olivier Awards, which recognise excellence on the London stage.

Spamalot, which came to the West End after a successful run on Broadway, took seven nominations including Tim Curry for best actor and Hannah Waddingham for best actress, as well as a nomination for best new musical.

The Sondheim show, which opened at a 160-seat theatre, took six nominations in some of the more prestigious categories, including Jenna Russell for best actress in a musical, Daniel Evans for best actor in a musical, and Sam Buntrock for best director.

David Babani, producer of Sunday in the Park with George, is the artistic director of the Menier Chocolate Factory, an intimate three-year-old theatre in Southwark where the play opened in December 2005. He said he could never have expected such success for a musical that was "stigmatised for its horrible inaccessibility". It transferred to the West End in May last year. "It's always the ones you least expect. When we were doing it, we realised it was a relatively unloved, relatively obscure, complicated and utterly uncommercial musical. We never thought it would have a life beyond the Chocolate Factory. It's very heart-warming that the judging panel and the public recognise quality when they see it."

The central figure of the musical is the 19th century pointillist painter Georges Seurat. He is shown depicting his lover, Dot, as well as constructing his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Le Grande Jatte, while characters from the painting roam intermittently across stage.

Daniel Evans, who was nominated for his portrayal of Seurat, said the idea for the production was sparked when he and Babani came across the Seurat painting while on a trip to Chicago a couple of years ago.

"We had a conversation about the musical but I never imaged that, nine months later, I'd be in it. It's technically one of the hardest shows to do. It has a large cast and digital technology and during rehearsal I thought, because of its famous difficulty, I'd never learn it," he said. The musical, which has already won the 2006 Critics Circle Drama Award and the Time Out Live Award, among others, is expected to open on Broadway by the end of the year.

Hannah Waddington, who plays the Lady of the Lake in Spamalot, said: "It's one of the most exhausting parts I have ever played. I have to go across three and a half octaves every night. I have to go from doing very dramatic opera to jazz to rock. At the same time, I have never seen such a response from an audience. We have them eating from the palm of our hands. People love Monty Python, and good old-fashioned humour. And the cast are bang-on," she said.

The musical, written by Eric Idle, incorporates some songs from the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, to tell the tale of King Arthur's quest.

In a year when new and revival musicals dominated the West End, Wicked, Cabaret, Evita and Porgy and Bess notched up at least three nominations each, while Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll received four nominations. Stoppard commended Ian Dickinson, the sound engineer at the Royal Court, after the play was nominated for best sound- design. He said: "In Rock 'n' Roll the inter-scenes are part of the play. Ian is largely responsible for them and for the graphics which go with the music."

The awards ceremony will take place on 18 February.

The nominations

Best Actress

Eve Best; A Moon for the Misbegotten

Sinead Cusack; Rock 'n' Roll

Tamsin Greig; Much Ado About Nothing

Kathleen Turner; Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Best Actor

Iain Glen; The Crucible

David Haig; Donkey's Years

Frank Langella; Frost/Nixon

Rufus Sewell; Rock 'n' Roll

Michael Sheen; Frost/Nixon

Best New Play

Blackbird; by David Harrower

Frost/Nixon; by Peter Morgan

Rock 'n' Roll; by Tom Stoppard

The Seafarer; by Conor McPherson

Best New Comedy

The 39 Steps; adapted by Patrick

Barlow; from an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon

Don Juan in Soho; by Patrick Marber

Love Song; by John Kolvenbach

Best Revival

The Crucible; by Arthur Miller

Donkey's Years; by Michael Frayn

A Moon for the Misbegotten; by Eugene O'Neill

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; by Edward Albee

Best New Musical

Avenue Q

Caroline, Or Change

Monty Python's Spamalot

The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess

Best Actress in a Musical

Nicola Hughes; The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess

Tonya Pinkins; Caroline, Or Change

Elena Roger; Evita

Jenna Russell; Sunday in the Park with George

Hannah; Waddingham Monty Python's Spamalot

Best Actor in a Musical

Tim Curry; Monty Python's Spamalot

Daniel Evans; Sunday in the Park with George

Clarke Peters; The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess

Philip Quast; Evita

Best Director

Sam Buntrock; Sunday in the Park with George

Dominic Cooke; The Crucible

Joe Mantello; Wicked