By Bill Hirschman
First: As I sat watching a cat food commercial Sunday night, knowing that someone who has worked their whole life for recognition was being honored off camera, it became clear that something needs to be done about the Tony Awards telecast.
That was a “technical” award competing for time with the feline food. But later, equally invisible to the entire country, was Jason Robert Brown receiving the award for best score and Robert L. Freedman winning the award for best book of a musical. All any of them got was a five-second clip jammed in while viewers were returning from the bathroom.
In the first 37 minutes, the Tonys gave out two awards on camera and eight off camera, not to mention three of its prized special honors before the telecast even began. Obviously not special enough, even though one was to Rosie O’Donnell.
And here’s a doozy: There was a memoriam section – 2 ½ minutes that didn’t even get the five seconds on the telecast. Tony Finstrom shared the You Tube link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIXpMuDbUe4&feature=youtube_gdata Now that’s downright shameful.
Look, I know theater is dead. No one cares about it. Especially on Broadway where this season it only grossed a bit over one billion dollars and attracted nearly 12 million people – more people from around the country and around the world than attended all the professional sports games in New York all year combined.
I know there’s no mass media interest, except that when I attended the post-nomination press event last month in New York, there were print, broadcast and cyber journalists present from nearly 100 outlets.
I know young people don’t give a damn about theater except, for the millions who have kept Wicked and The Lion King going for 10 years-plus and the tens of thousands involved in youth theater programs. I know Boomers don’t care either, except for the tens of thousands who keep going back each time Jersey Boys tours or who go see The Book of Mormon.
I know it’s not very lucrative except for Cameron Macintosh who 10 years ago reported amassing $8 billion gross from four shows alone; Lord knows what that figure is now, especially since two have been revived this season.
I know that big corporations see Broadway and theater in general as a minor profit center, well, except for Disney, Sony and a few others multi-national monsters who recognize that shows like Phantom have grossed more than several mega-blockbuster films combined including Titanic.
I know that big-name actors much rather do better-paying movies, but Daniel Craig, Ethan Hawke, Zachary Quinto, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Denzel Washington were on the boards in NYC this season and not for the first time.
I know all those criticisms and more.
But it’s time for the Tonys, CBS and especially PBS to wake up that there is interest worth rewarding. The Tony ceremony has about another hour that is ghettoized, unseen and disrespected. Once upon a time, CBS broadcast the entire show much as is done today with the Globular Globes, People’s Choice Popularity Poll, VMAs, CMAs, IRAs. The networks used to broadcast the whole ceremony. Later, PBS took over the first hour, giving air time to those categories. But they threw in the towel, too.
It’s time for someone to step up on a national scale and televise the whole thing. It’s not altruism; it’s satisfying a market.
Second: You know who is stepping up? Social media. This was the first year Florida Theater On Stage has Facebooked and Tweeted throughout the show. We joined at least three dozen theater critics, arts reporters, major news outlets, public relations types and pundits furiously pounding out each development and issuing commentary as the show ensued. Even the Kravis Center had someone Tweeting live to point out its relationship to the newly-anointed winners or the shows being performed. The New York Times had three Twitter streams at least. There were likely many more that I just did not subscribe to. Once, again, apparently, these foolish people don’t know there is no interest in theater. In fact, Twitter updates were how I was reminded that the Tony ceremony was continuing non-stop even though folks outside Radio City Music Hall couldn’t see or hear it
In fact, there was more information coming from the cyber-world than anyone could take in unless they had ADHD and six computer screens to distract from the actual awards ceremony. There was a simultaneous backstage video feed, live streaming interviews of the winners as they left the stage (with reporters asking via Twitter if their viewers had questions to ask), instagram feeds, selfies, on and on and on – all simultaneously with each other and the ceremony.
The problem is no one can take that all in, least of all if they actually wanted to watch the ceremony on TV. Personally, I had half an eye on my Facebook and Twitter job. It felt like when you see those tourists on a trip who see all that lovely scenery through the lens of a video camera or Iphone.
Third, everyone will select moments that touched them and jokes that bored them, and everyone will take issue with one award or another (For me, of course, the crime was Kelli O’Hara getting robbed for a fifth time and the most moving moment was Audra McDonald falling apart on stage to a standing ovation for her record-setting win.)
But generally, the show seemed a lot more lively and inventive this year, especially thanks to emcee Hugh Jackman whose energy, charisma and obvious joy is infectious enough to be investigated by the Centers for Disease Control. Even the sillier jokes and bits had a bounce to it (sorry, couldn’t help that one) thanks to his delivery. The producers and writers were smart to enliven the recitation of nominees for best actress by having him go into the audience and sing to each one. He must be sex incarnate in person to make the self-possessed Kelli O’Hara become non-plussed.
There were numerous judgment calls that could be debated. Prime among them: Most observers agreed in advance that while the best music and lyrics of the season were in The Bridges of Madison County. But because it did not get a best musical nomination, it closed about three weeks ago. But there was no number from that gorgeous score reflected in the Tony broadcast. (The New York Times reports that show producers pay five and six figures to get their number telecast). What was included? A song by Sting from his show The Last Ship that may come to Broadway in the fall. Plus a song from Finding Neverland, which opens in Cambridge this year and isn’t even slotted for Broadway but got the prime last performance slot of the night and was sung by Jennifer Hudson who definitely isn’t going to be in the cast. Plus the most bland rendition of Wicked’s “For Good” I’ve ever heard, commemorating its 10th anniversary. Plus a funny but purposeless rap-inflected riff on The Music Man’s “Rock Island” number by veteran Shakespearean actors LL Cool J, T.I. and the game Jackman. All these robbed those folks who didn’t get time on camera to receive their award.
Of course, some of this is because theater is unabashedly show business and the Tonys are seen as a major promotion tool by theater producers. Good example: Once again, there were many presenters who couldn’t find Broadway without a car service ferrying them in from the airport, notably Clint Eastwood who directed the soon-to-be-released film of Jersey Boys.
Fourth: It’s all been said before, but isn’t it long past time for the Tonys on or off to acknowledge the massive amount of brilliant theatre occurring more than a few blocks from Times Square – meaning, of course, Off-Broadway. No, not as long as Broadway producers own the Tony Awards. Perhaps a second category so that access to resources isn’t an issue. We can dream.
Fifth, I have mixed feelings to put it mildly about the Tony Award for regional theater going to Signature Theatre in New York City. This is the first time since the award’s creation in 1976 that it has been given to a New York City company. Few could argue with the high quality and public service that Signature has rendered over the years. It’s just that it’s not a regional theater.
A little background: I am on the national board for the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) which created the award with the Tony administrators – although this is inarguably the American Theatre Wing’s award, not ours. Since 1976, we have recommended a regional theater to the Tony Committee annually after a complex and confidential nominating and voting process. In every case, the recommendation has been accepted, leading to honors for major names like Steppenwolf in Chicago and lesser known honorees like Theatre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis.
But this season, the Tony Committee unilaterally changed the rules so that folks they hobnob with in Manhattan watering holes with could get a little glory from the Tony program. But the exclusion of theaters like Signature has been by the Tony committee’s own design (see problem cited above) because it steadfastly limits its honors to shows at Broadway houses and Lincoln Center.
The Tony committee did make a rule change that said no city can be the home of winners in consecutive years – unless they change the rules again.
My colleagues at ATCA are, shall we say, divided over this. I fall on the side that there are many awards possible for Signature and their brethren, starting with the Obies and ending with special awards that can be given by the Tony Committee. But there is no other major national award recognizing theaters such as (yet to receive it) GableStage, the Maltz Jupiter Theatre or the Asolo. This makes it more unlikely they ever will.
By the way, if you missed the show, you can catch it for a limited time online at http://www.cbs.com/shows/tony_awards/video/ExgPNVIjEn7jZSwp___g4Ci5OLtMKyt6/68th-annual-tony-awards/