Tony night -- one disenchanted evening? A skimpy season for musicals meant some categories were dropped; but play nominations are strong

IF the Broadway melody strikes a slightly sour note at Sunday night's Antoinette Perry (Tony) Awards ceremony, only confirmed stage buffs will hear the overtones. To the millions watching the live CBS telecast from the Shubert Theatre, the dissonance will be inaudible. Whatever the backstage blues, the Tony show does go on. And ever since these annual rites took to the airwaves in 1966, the musical spectacular has been the main event. Indeed, the Tony presentations have seemed at times almost incidental. The American Theatre Wing's 1985 TV special should prove no exception. The entertainment will include numbers from three of the four nominated musicals: ``Big River,'' ``Grind,'' and ``Leader of the Pack.'' (``Quilters,'' the fourth nominee, has long since closed.)

The evening will honor composers Jule Styne, Cy Coleman, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Their work will be performed by a battery of stars including Stephanie Powers, Dick Van Dyke, Susan Anton, Hinton Battle, George Hearn, Leslie Uggams, Chita Rivera, Rex Smith, Maureen McGovern, Jim Dale, and Juliet Prowse. (Executive producer Alexander H. Cohen and his wife, writer-producer Hildy Parks, are the reigning champs of the celebratory salute.)

Alas, to borrow from ``The Music Man,'' there really is trouble in River City for this year's Tonys. Trouble was foreshadowed by the fact that the 1984-85 season hasn't produced a single bona fide, big-hit musical. The current long-running favorites -- such as ``A Chorus Line,'' ``Cats,'' ``Dreamgirls,'' ``42nd Street,'' ``La Cage Aux Folles,'' ``Sunday in the Park with George,'' and ``The Tap Dance Kid'' -- are all holdovers from previous seasons. ``The King and I'' is a lively revival.

The season's poor record somehow produced a disenchanting effect on those responsible for the functioning of the Tony machinery. The flap began when the whimsical Tony Awards Administration Committee of the League of American Theatres and Producers decided to reduce last year's categories by one. Arguing that Leilani Jones of ``Grind'' was the only contender, the committee eliminated the category of outstanding performance by an actress (in other words, a star) in a musical.

Next, the producers of ``Big River'' asked the league to permit Daniel H. Jenkins (Huck) and Ron Richardson (Jim) to be eligible for best actor in a musical, even though they are not starred. The league refused. Finally, the Tony Awards Nominating Committee (a cross section of theater experts) dropped the categories of outstanding performance by a leading actor in a musical, and outstanding choreography.

Hackles were rising. Marshall W. Mason, president of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, fired off a letter of protest to the administration committee. He wrote: ``We abhor the nominating committee's action, and vigorously protest the insulting implication that no choreographic work was outstanding this season.''

Protest came from another quarter when Harold Prince spoke up on behalf of cast members and the choreographer of ``Grind,'' the cumbersome musical he directed. In a full-page advertisement in Variety, the show business weekly, Mr. Prince deplored the nominating committee's action and saluted stars Ben Vereen, Stubby Kaye, and Timothy Nolen ``for outstanding performances by an actor in a musical''; Leilani Jones for ``outstanding performance by an actress in a musical''; and Lester Wilson for ``outstanding choreography.''

Apart from the caucus race in ``Alice in Wonderland,'' there is scarcely such a thing as a wholly satisfactory prize distribution. Anomalies are nothing new in the world of the Tonys. Last year, for instance, the nominating committee neglected to name Dustin Hoffman for his extraordinary performance in ``Death of a Salesman.'' Furthermore, the worth of awards will always be debatable. They recognize achievement, give at least a momentary career boost, and may be good for business. A Pulitzer Prize, for instance, is said to sell tickets. A ``best play'' or ``best musical'' Tony can be trumpeted in the ads. Beyond such generalizations, the matter is moot.

This year's Tony furor occurred in the wake of what, by many measures, has been a disappointing season. According to the above-mentioned league, the 33 openings in 1984-85 marked a low for the century. While still high on a long-term basis, box office income dropped from $227 million in 1983-84 to $218 million this season. The league estimates total attendance at 7.4 million, the lowest in nine years. Experts disagree on whether the decline represents a cycle or a trend reflecting accumulated artistic and economic problems.

In contrast to the falling off in the field of musicals, the 1984-85 season has made a more than respectable showing with serious plays and comedies. They have included award winners ``Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'' (Critics' Circle) and ``As Is'' (Drama Desk), as well as ``Biloxi Blues,'' ``Doubles,'' ``Hurlyburly,'' and ``Pack of Lies,'' plus the revivals of ``Joe Egg'' and ``Aren't We All?''

When all is said and done, the Tony extravaganza is a fairly parochial piece of show-biz hoopla. To be sure, the ceremony will include special awards to Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company and the New York State Council on the Arts. Edwin Lester will be honored for founding the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera and leading it for more than 40 years. The league will salute Yul Brynner with a special Tony as Mr. Brynner approaches his June 30th farewell appearance as the King in ``The King and I,'' after an ``unprecedented record of more than 4,500 performances.''

Which brings this account back to the Broadway sector and a couple of final observations. Important as it is, the Great White Way and its immediate environs are only part of New York's lively playmaking scene. At this writing, 31 of the 54 entertainments in a typical Gotham listing are Off Broadway productions. Off Broadway has had an impressive season. A current sampling would include works as varied as ``Rat in the Skull,'' ``Hannah Senesh,'' ``Orphans,'' ``The Foreigner,'' ``The Marriage of Bette and Boo,'' ``Tracers,'' ``Penn & Teller,'' and ``Mayor.''

This much noted, it must be added that a slide in Broadway's fortunes is a matter of concern not only for New York but for the American theater as a whole. In their odd and quirky way, the Tony imbroglios have brought the season's woes into a kind of reflected focus. But viewers of Sunday night's Tony telecast need not concern themselves. The show will go on. -- 30 --

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