Why I'd Love to be Wrong About Hamilton and the Tonys

Tom Briggs

OnStage North Carolina Columnist

In my previous column [TONY BALONEY] I opined that the presence of the blockbuster musical Hamilton on the Tony Awards telecast may not spike the show’s ratings as many anticipate it will.  I admitted that mine was a minority opinion but I didn’t realize just how much in the minority I am.  No one is buying it.  My pal, D. Michael Dvorchak, an extremely savvy man of the theater, pointed out that it’s the only place to see Hamilton for less than $1,000 (their appearance on the Grammy Awards presumably notwithstanding); that teachers across the country have been using the recording in history classes; that the recording has remained firmly lodged in the Billboard Top 20 (it was released in the fall of last year).  I would add that being only the ninth musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, since the Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing in 1932, has helped bring it to the attention of a certain echelon of the citizenry.  

Just about everyone involved in Hamilton, short of the ushers, have been making appearances on day and late night talk shows.  When was the last time a musical became part of the national discourse?  But amongst whom?  Who discussed it yesterday at their respective water coolers?  Theater geeks and aficionados, that’s who, and they would tune into the telecast to hear me sing a medley from Bittersweet.  They have announced that Barbra Streisand will be on the show.  Now there’s a ratings booster.  Without the excitement generated by Hamilton, she may have passed.  Or perhaps she signed on to plug her upcoming tour, or to announce the latest news regarding her on-again-off-again film of Gypsy.  Who knows?

What's really extraordinary about Hamilton is how it is the last word in diversity on Broadway, which has been miles ahead of Hollywood forever.  Audra McDonald won her first Tony for Carousel in a role traditionally played by a Caucasian actor, and was nominated for 110 In the Shade, again playing against her ethnicity.  James Earl Jones starred in traditionally white roles in revivals of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man and You Can’t Take It with You.  There have been many such examples throughout the years, not including all-black revivals, but nothing, ever, like Hamilton’s casting of actors of African, Asian, Hispanic and who-knows-what descent to play the founding fathers of America.  

Might that translate to a more diverse viewing audience for the Tonys?  I’d love to think so but I’m skeptical.  Will curious viewers tune out after they’ve seen the number from Hamilton?  Will their number open the show and get it off to a flying start, or will they save it for last in hopes of retaining the audience?  Of course there will be a lot of entertainment value on the show, it having been a wonderful season for musicals.  (Alas, plays are not often featured on the show.)  Numbers from Shuffle Long, Waitress, Bright Star, School of Rock, The Color Purple, Fiddler On the Roof, Spring Awakening and She Loves Me are bound to captivate.  As are numbers featuring host James Corden, and inspired choice IMHO, including an inevitable carpool karaoke.  

In any event, I hope that my smart friend, Mike, is correct and that this year’s Tony Awards will be the most viewed annual commercial for Broadway ever.  If not, trust me – I’ll mourn, not gloat.

"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.

Becoming Part of the Process

Skip Maloney

  • OnStage North Carolina Columnist

I have been told that I have a bad habit (or two). One of them, particularly irksome to my grown daughter, is the way I express my surprise that an individual with whom I am speaking has not seen a particular play or musical that has come up in a conversation. I don't just raise an eyebrow, nod, say "Oh well" and move on. I make a point, which, according to my daughter, is usually expressed with more drama than I intend.

"What??!!" I'll say, as if not having seen a professional production of Sweeney Todd, or Equus, or some other play or musical were an affront to civilized society. As if it were some sort of crime. But more importantly, expressed with an attitude articulating visible disdain for someone's apparent failure to have availed themselves of such an experience.

"What," says my tone of voice, "is the matter with you?"

The strongest and hardest reaction for me to effectively curtail is my reaction to a discovery that a person with whom I am speaking, has never seen any sort of live theater performance.

This absolutely astounds me. I don't think that I'll ever be able to respond casually to that. What is even more astonishing to me is the number of people who don't find such a thing to be at all unusual. Given the size of audiences, compared to population (they'll say), you'd have to know that there are a lot of people in any given community that do not attend live theater. You're bound to run into a few of them when you're out and about.

So what's the big deal? Why the surprise, over-exaggerated or not?

Those of us in the theater community, in whatever capacity, be it professional, semi-professional (which usually means paid, but not much), or amateur theatrics, try to reach these people who don't attend our shows, and to a certain extent, I think, we're losing the battle. Not just to movies, video games and reality shows, all of which we can combat with good productions of our own, but to an education system, particularly in the lower grades, that undervalues theater's contributions to our lives.

Not universally, but seriously enough for me, at least, to note the increasing number of 20-to-40-year-olds who not only do not attend live theater, but find the idea just a little quaint, old-fashioned.          

No interest.

How do we get to these people?

In Wilmington, NC, where a healthy local theater community is very active in promoting and supporting youth theater, the pre-teens and teens we're watching down here right now will carry the torch just fine into their 20-to-40s. You can see it in their eyes. They're excited about theater, the way we here in the choir are.

Our next responsibility, beyond education, is to give these people, when they do come, a reason to buy tickets for the next show. We need to tell them a good story. We need to make that story sing with energy, sometimes literally, and we need to be meticulous in our adherence to certain theatrical principles of good story telling. It is not enough, we must come to realize, to entertain people. We need to excite them.
I would argue that the most important people in any theatrical company are the ones who choose the scripts. There is no more sure-fire way to keep people away than to produce inappropriate material. I was witness to this when a theater company in Plymouth, Massachusetts chose to produce The Prodigal, by Jack Richardson. Based on the Greek legend of Orestes, it was, according to the description of it by Dramatists Play Service," an attack on the senselessness of war." It was also a painful demonstration of what not to do.

In February. In Plymouth.

There was a night when there more people on stage (15, and I was one of them) than people in the audience.

Before a play is chosen, it will generally go through a process of variably random selection.

Everybody and his brother will have suggestions for a theater company's next season and winnowing that initial field of 'appropriate' material might, or might not, entail an established process. It's at a different level with the 'pros,' of course, but in some ways, it's very similar.

Pick a play, or a bunch of them.

At the community theater level, this process will most often engage people to read the plays that have made it to a final selection phase. These readers, along with the people who make the final decision (sometimes the same, sometimes not), are the real secret to a local company's ability to recruit converts to the wonderful world of theater. 

It helps if these readers and decision makers are acutely aware of their group's abilities, and financial constraints, but more importantly, they need to know their audience. And they need to know them well.  Well enough to give them what they know from attendance the audience wants, and once in a while, well enough to challenge their own basic assumptions about what's 'appropriate' and take a risk.

There is a tendency, variable from community to community, toward selecting the familiar.

There was a time, back in the 20th century, when you couldn't spit without hitting the production of a Neil Simon play. And right now, as we converse here, there are likely multiple productions of musicals like Annie, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, Oliver, Grease, and Bye, Bye Birdie being mounted all over the country. Anthony J. Piccione wrote an essay for this site in June, suggesting 10 musicals that, according to the headline, "community theaters should just stop producing." Piccione was not judging the musicals in terms of their quality, merely pointing out his contention that "there is such a thing as too much of a good thing."

But what's a local theater company to do? They have an obligation to select plays and musicals that will effectively put fannies into seats, and history has told them that the standards are the ones most likely to accomplish that objective. There is no easy answer to the question, but communities interested in maintaining a lively theatrical presence within their community should take note of any opportunities to become involved in the play selection for a company's season and participate in that process.