Tony Awards: Why producers are turning to oldies but goodies

Tony Awards producers under pressure to put on a good (ratings) show this year will spotlight material that viewers 'know and love,' not just numbers from nominated plays.

Joan Marcus/Boneau/Bryan-Brown/AP
Andrea Martin and Matthew James Thomas during a performance of "Pippin," at Broadway's Music Box Theatre in New York. "Pippin" is nominated for ten Tony Awards.

Sunday nights’ 67th Annual Tony Awards may provide a toe-tappin’ evening, but that won’t necessarily be thanks to any show nominated for Broadway’s top honor.

In a break with the awards-show tradition of showcasing nominated material, tunes from past hits such as “Phantom of the Opera,” and the current box-office darling “Motown” – not up for best musical – are set to deliver some of the broadcast’s big musical numbers.

There’s a reason.

“This just illustrates how bad the split between commercial and critical hits has become,” says playwright Charles Evered.

Of course, ever since the founding days of Broadway, playwrights have bemoaned producer’s demands to sell tickets. Nonetheless, says Mr. Evered, “there are many good examples from the past … even more recent past such as ‘The Lion King,’ that show it possible to be great art and a big hit.”

But this year, the broadcast’s producers are facing a mandate to lift the CBS event from last year, when only six million viewers tuned in and the show scored its lowest ratings in two decades.

This refrain is familiar, too. The Tonys have routinely scored behind other awards shows such as the Oscars and the Grammys, says Anthony Chase, theater critic and assistant dean of the School of Arts and Humanities at Buffalo State University in New York.

The standard line on this audience lag, he says, goes something like this: “There will be 6,000 people watching from the audience in Radio City Music Hall Sunday night, and maybe that many will be watching on TV,” he says, somewhat ruefully.

Producers acknowledge this year’s approach is a departure. “This year is a bit different for us because we’ll be putting on a show about iconic Broadway,” producer Glenn Weiss told the Los Angeles Times. “We felt that that was important for [viewers] who didn’t make it for the first month of opening. They need material they know and love.”

Frontrunners such as “Matilda The Musical” and “Kinky Boots” are not exactly household names and tell relatively unfamiliar tales.

The first is based on a dark Roald Dahl story about a lonely girl mistreated by a vengeful headmistress. “Kinky,” with songs by pop diva Cyndi Lauper, is based on a story about a languishing British shoe factory that gets back on its feet after discovering a niche market in fetish footwear.

Some of the nominated shows are not even running on Theatre Row anymore. “The Testament of Mary,” a one-woman show starring Fiona Shaw, closed only a few weeks after the Tony nominations were announced at the  end of April.

While Tom Hanks is up for his turn in the also-nominated Nora Ephron play, “Lucky guy,” Tony voters looked past some other big Hollywood names currently on Broadway. The list includes Bette Midler, holding down an 80-minute, one-woman show, “I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers,” and Sigourney Weaver, starring in Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” which is nominated for Best Play.

Broadway is a very small universe, points out Professor Chase. Indeed, the 26 Tonys are decided by 868 voters from the awards’ co-sponsor, the American Theatre Wing, Broadway’s unions and craft guilds, the New York Drama Critics Circle, and the Broadway League.

But live theater is something every small and large city in the nation should care about, he points out.

“These are the shows that will eventually land in your local community theater, be performed by your high schools and college students,” he says. “These are the shows that will give life to the most primal art form we have, the art of live storytelling.”

If that is not reason enough, consider the numbers, says Chase. The big Broadway musicals that eventually spawn touring companies are “the economic life blood of many downtowns where the big touring shows play in those big local theaters,” he adds.

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