"Tony Baloney": No game changer for a telecast that may have outlasted its purpose

Tom Briggs

  • OnStage North Carolina Columnist

The musical juggernaut Hamilton has proved to be a game changer for the Broadway musical.  Previous game changers such as Show Boat, Oklahoma!, Hair, Company and Rent certainly paved the way for the current musical’s uber-success.  With a record breaking 16 Tony Award nominations, it is destined to win in most of the categories in which it is eligible.  While it may not best the record set by The Producers’ 12 wins when the awards are bestowed on June 12th, you can bet on it walking away with just about everything other than the seats in the Beacon Theater.  And while Hamilton has undeniably reinvigorated the Broadway scene as no production has since…well, The Producers, it is unlikely to do the same for the annual Tony telecast.  In fact, some may skip the show entirely, already knowing how it’s going to end.

I realize that this opinion puts me firmly in the minority.  Common wisdom has Hamilton mania translating into a larger audience for the telecast, the ratings for which have been in a downward spiral in recent years.  Certainly that’s the prayer being offered up by the American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League, which jointly administer the awards, and CBS, which has bravely stuck by its commitment to broadcast the awards since 1978, through thick and, mostly, thin.  

For those of us who live in the world of the theater, the Tony Awards is akin to going to church.  It surpasses Christmas, Hanukkah and the Super Bowl as the most important day of the year.  But, alas, most people are not us.  I very much doubt that my Midwestern sisters, brothers-in-laws or nephews are even aware of Hamilton, and they are not alone.  The theater is a niche market, whether in New York, London or Waukesha, Wisconsin.  Even aficionados across the globe are unlikely to be breathless as to whether David Rockwell might cause an upset by taking Best Scenic Design for She Loves Me from Hamilton’s David Korins.  Not that you’ll see that award given on the telecast anyway.

The Tonys no longer broadcast what are known as the Creative Arts Awards – designers, choreographers, composers, orchestrators, or even writers, without whom there would be no theater.  Those awards are handed out prior to the televised ceremony and during commercial breaks.  Why?  Because most people just don’t care.  They have been dispensed with in favor of more production numbers thus adding more entertainment value to the television special.  Ironically, this means that the brilliant mastermind behind Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, may not be able to speak at the Tonys.  While he’s a shoo-in winner for his book and score, neither award will be broadcast.  He’s also nominated for his leading performance in the musical but could well lose to his co-star, Leslie Odom Jr.  Presumably, when they announce the Best Musical award, which goes to the producers, Miranda will be afforded the opportunity to say a few words.  

But getting back to entertainment value, in 2012 I certainly enjoyed the opening number from the always reliable Neil Patrick Harris as well as, later in the show, his mashup of songs from South Pacific, Cabaret, Rent, A Chorus Line, Cats, Evita, Avenue Q, etc., and still later, his closing number.  However, I would rather have spent that time hearing Newsies choreographer Christopher Gattelli give his first acceptance speech, and Broadway stalwart Mike Nichols give what would be his ninth and final speech for his direction of Death of a Salesman.  But that’s just me and some other theater geeks who are actually invested in the awards themselves, and we are in the minority of viewers.

The Tony Awards made their official debut in 1947 as a dinner celebration at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.  They were first telecast in 1967, the celebration thereby transforming into a television special.  In the nearly 50 years since, the viewing audience has found the special less and less special, as dwindling ratings have shown.  (Last year’s telecast was down 9% in total viewers from the previous year, which itself was down about 6% from 2013.)  So here’s a thought:

Let’s take the Tony Awards back to the Waldorf and dispense with the telecast.  Every category will be fully acknowledged and acceptance speeches won’t be cut short by the orchestra coming in after 45 seconds.  When the legendary Elaine Stritch finally won a Tony after 60 years in the business, she was played off mid-speech.  At the Waldorf, she could still be delivering that long awaited acceptance speech.  Who cares if the event runs three hours or five?  And before those at the Wing, the League, and those of you who live for the Tonys have a collective aneurism at the notion of dumping the broadcast…

The Waldorf affair will be taped and posted online (and carried on local cable in NYC) for those of us who really care whether Danny Bernstein, after six nominations, will finally win for Fiddler On the Roof and want to hear what he has to say.  And each spring, post-Tony Awards, the Wing, League and CBS will collaborate on the television special, The Best of Broadway!  It features every show on The Great White Way and every star in the universe.  The clips of shows can all be taped in their home theaters and the celebrities can be taped wherever in the world they happen to be.  Tom Hanks!  Nicole Kidman!  Steve Martin!  Julie Andrews!  Jake Gyllenhaal!  Angela Lansbury!  Alec Baldwin!  Gloria Estefan!  John Travolta!  Oprah Winfrey!  Bruce Willis!  Julia Roberts!  Jessica Lange!  Meryl Streep!  Phantom of the Opera!  Kinky Boots!  Fun Home!  Matilda!  Bright Star!  Shuffle Along!  Cats!  On Your Feet!  Fiddler On the Roof!  And, of course, this year’s Tony Award-winning musical, Hamilton!  

Now there’s a commercial for Broadway, loaded with entertainment value, which is what the Tony telecast has long strived to be.  There will also be a “Coming to a town near you!” segment showcasing touring productions, letting those in the hinterlands know that you don’t have to live in NYC to be invited to the theater party.  Maybe we’ll even feature a high school and community theater production, sending out the message that all theater is vital, wherever it may be.

Meanwhile, I’ll be glued to the tube and the 12th, pulling for Jane Houdyshell, Reed Birney and Ann Roth.  Chances are, if you’re reading this missive, that you know who they are and perhaps even care.  There won’t be much suspense as to most of the categories in which Hamilton is nominated.  And that musical’s presence may give the telecast a modest ratings bump of a point or two, but don’t count on it giving The Big Bang Theory a run for its money.