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The Tony Takeaway

Art and commerce fought each other to a draw on the battlefield of Radio City Music Hall during the 2009 Tony Awards. As in previous years, several categories were cut from the telecast, this time to comply with CBS president Les Moonves' decree that the ratings-challenged ceremony contain more musical numbers. Eleven competitive awards—mostly in design categories but also for choreography and book of a musical—and three special awards were bestowed before the broadcast. Best revival of a play was also reportedly set to be axed, but apparently the producers changed their minds after last-minute grousing in the New York Post by Kevin Spacey, who as artistic director of London's Old Vic Theatre helped produce the winner, The Norman Conquests. But the protests of Stephen Schwartz, president of the Dramatists Guild, failed to do the same for the winning book writer.

At least some of the overlooked honorees got some airtime. All the competitive winners who were present had brief bits from their speeches shown, and a list of the nominees was quickly flashed on the screen. Eric Schaeffer, artistic director of the Washington, D.C.–area Signature Theatre, the winner for outstanding regional theater, also had a national audience for a sentence or two of his remarks (see related story, Page 20). But special honorees Shirley Herz (for her career as a press agent) and Phyllis Newman (for her work on women's health issues) were excluded.

And what did we get for the excision of these vital contributors to the theater? Three songs from touring productions of shows from previous Broadway seasons. Two of the numbers, from Mamma Mia! and Legally Blonde, looked decidedly second-rate and small-scale. Only the song from Jersey Boys—which cleverly incorporated the actors who play Frankie Valli in different productions—worked. The point was to get TV viewers outside New York to patronize their local theaters and put bucks in the pockets of road producers—a significant portion of the Tony electorate. It's too early to tell if the ploy was successful, but placing second-tier performers next to Broadway casts did not make the former look good.

Once again, straight plays were given short shrift compared to musicals. The four best-play candidates were showcased by introductions from cast members, followed by incredibly short video excerpts—about one line of dialogue per show. This is a long-standing problem with the Tonys: how to properly show off the nonmusical contenders. They've tried montages, video clips, and live scenes, but nothing seems to work. On the Oscars, the best-picture clips last a few minutes rather than a few seconds and give some sense of the story and characters.

On the upside, Neil Patrick Harris made for a funny and entertaining host, particularly in his closing number—concocted by Hairspray songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman to tunes from West Side Story and Guys and Dolls—which simultaneously wrapped up and kidded the entire evening. Despite sound problems and rock star Bret Michaels getting clocked by a piece of scenery, the numbers from the musical and musical-revival nominees largely offered exciting flashes from one of Broadway's most successful seasons. Harris' high Q score may have been instrumental in drawing more viewers. Preliminary ratings show a bump from last year, including double-digit increases in total viewers and key adult demographic groups.

Some purists have complained that the Tonys are too specialized to ever draw a large network audience. They contend that the producers should give up on CBS and air the show on PBS or an arts cable channel. But that would seriously diminish the opportunity to expose Broadway to the largest possible audience. So in order to both honor and promote Broadway, art and commerce must lay down their arms and compromise.   

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