June 3, 2017

Tony Talk Episode 10: The Broadcast

The Tony Awards ceremony, which will air on CBS next Sunday, June 11, is more than just a celebration of the best of the theater season. It's the way that many people, especially those outside the New York area, get their first chance to see what a real Broadway show looks like. It's also how shows market themselves to new audiences. And, for the past 50 years (39 of them on CBS) it's been a network television show that's as eager to get good rating as any other.

The result of all these competing demands has created a show that gives more air time to big splashy numbers from musicals than to quieter fragments from plays. In the past, only nominated musicals got time on the show but over the years, it has made room for even a few road companies to strut their stuff on the telecast. In 2014, Jennifer Hudson got to perform a number from Finding Neverland, even though the show hadn't yet opened and Hudson wouldn't even be in it.

To make room for the extra song and dance numbers, the awards for orchestration, sets, costume and lighting design are now usually given out before the cameras turn on. Meanwhile, the show's producers dragoon as many famous faces as they can get to present the awards, hoping that star power will draw non-theater fans who get a kick out of looking at celebrities.

Most of these recruits have some relationship with the theater, even if it's just a couple of small parts they did at the beginning of their careers. But that's not always the case. It's been announced that the producers for this year's show have signed up Taraji P. Henson, the actress best known for starring in the Fox TV series "Empire" and in the movie "Hidden Figures" but who has yet to make her New York stage debut.

The most famous face this year probably belongs to Bette Midler, who in addition to being, well, Bette Midler, is also starring in the much acclaimed revival of Hello, Dolly!  The show is virtually sold out so the only way many people will be able to see Midler in one of the show's iconic numbers like "Hello, Dolly" or "Before the Parade Passes By" would be on the Tonys.

However, Dolly's producer Scott Rudin is feuding with the broadcast producers over how any Dolly excerpt should be presented. Rudin wants to do it from the show's home at the Schubert Theatre because he says it will be too difficult to faithfully replicate a number from his show on the mammoth stage at Radio City Music Hall, where the ceremony will be held.

But the producers are insisting that all of the musical numbers, including any from Dolly, must be done at Radio City. So as of this writing, the compromise is that Midler's co-star David Hyde Pierce will do his solo number "Penny in My Pocket" there.

It's also been hard for the producers to find a host for the show. Hugh Jackman, who's done it four times, reportedly turned them down. As did James Corden, who did it last year, and Tina Fey, who plans to bring a musical version of her movie "Mean Girls" to Broadway next year. Kevin Spacey, himself a Tony winner, finally came to the rescue and has earned a lot of goodwill for joking about being the 14th choice for the job.

He'll probably be great. And the show will probably pick up an Emmy, as it so often does. But none of this is likely to have much effect on the ratings, particularly not in this era of niche TV, when few shows draw huge audiences and success is gauged by how dedicated a show's fans are. We theater lovers may be small in number when compared to those who watch the NBA Finals but I dare you to find fans who are more devoted than we are.

In this week's episode, my pals Patrick Pacheco, Bill Tynan and I talk about the ceremonies past and future. Click the orange button below to hear what we have to say or check out all the Tony Talk podcasts on SoundCloud by clicking here 

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