Tonys on TV bring Broadway home

Slew of well-known actors host theater's big award show

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Broadway has burst its New York boundaries: Of the record 26.5 million people who saw Broadway shows during the 1998-99 season, the majority, almost 15 million, did so through touring productions.

Indeed, there's enough national interest that the 1999 Antoinette Perry Awards (the Tonys) will be televised Sunday night. The first hour of the awards ceremony will be broadcast on PBS (June 6, 8 p.m.) and then picked up by CBS (9-11 p.m.).

Along with recognition for excellence, commercial viability may be on the line. A passel of Tonys for "Parade," the acclaimed but defunct musical with nine nominations, might help it to be revived.

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Many observers say they believe that a Tony kept the "Titanic" from sinking, while others note it did nothing to keep "Passion" alive. A 1997 Tony Award for Best Musical reversed the course for Maury Yeston and Peter Stone's "Titanic," drawing larger audiences to the troubled project, which ran for another two years and now is touring. But a 1994 Tony for "Passion," by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim, failed to fan interest, and the show closed shortly after.

"When we survey audiences about what makes them choose to attend a particular show, they mention winning a Tony Award as fourth on their list, behind other considerations, such as whether the show has a star and if they're familiar with the story," says Jed Bernstein, of the League of American Theaters and Producers, which co-produces the Tony ceremonies with the American Theater Wing.

Still, the Tonys are to Broadway what the Oscars are to Hollywood. They are more than just a "who's hot, who's not" test because they add an important measure of visibility to winners.

Instead of a single host, as in past years, a series of actors who have Broadway credentials will preside. Heading the list are Kevin Spacey and Jason Robards, each of whom has tackled the powerful, challenging lead in Eugene O'Neill's four-hour masterpiece The Iceman Cometh. Spacey is playing the role on Broadway now and has earned a Tony nomination.

Nominees are chosen by a committee of 30 artists, educators, and theater professionals from shows that opened during the season, which ended April 28. This year 17 plays and 14 musicals were eligible. Then more than 800 voters, drawn from every sector of the theater community, see the nominated shows and cast their ballots.

This year's nominations provide some drama. Some expected choices, such as Helen Hunt (Twelfth Night) and Lea DeLaria (On the Town) were passed over.

In the Best Musical category, three of the four nominees can be better described as revues. Fosse, It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues, and Civil War present an array of songs and dances with no narrative or story tying them together beyond their obvious themes. Ten years ago, a similar production, "Jerome Robbins' Broadway," made up of selections from the renowned director-choreographer's career, garnered the Best Musical prize.

The only true musical in the field this year, Parade, by Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry, closed last winter. Despite its departure, sentiment has been growing to reward its accomplishments, since many say they believe it was the bankruptcy of its lead producer, Livent Inc., and not the merits of the show itself, which led to its closing.

"Parade" winning a Tony would also not be unprecedented. In 1968, a closed musical, "Hallelujah, Baby!" by Arthur Laurents, Julie Styne, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green, was chosen Best Musical. A recent statement by "Parade" writer Mr. Uhry that plans are under discussion for the show to mount a national tour next year and then head back to New York increase the value of a potential win.

In the Best Play category, only one new American work made the ballot. Sideman tracks the tortured, tender memories of a young man growing up with a jazz musician father and an alcoholic mother in the 1950s, when jazz was in decline and the pressures of that development took their toll on his family.

Two British dramas, Patrick Marber's Closer and Martin McDonagh's Lonesome West, along with a recently discovered early Tennessee Williams play Not About Nightingales, are the other contenders. The success of Williams's play, along with O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh," and the revival of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, offer Broadway audiences a rare opportunity to sample some of the finest playwriting America has generated. Mr. Miller, whose career began with "All My Sons" the same year the awards were created (1947), will be honored with a special lifetime achievement Tony.

Star-watchers may see Judi Dench pick up an award for Best Actress in Amy's View, following her Oscar win in March.

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