Musical variety and station breaks: the 2011 Tony Awards

June 13, 2011

The 65th annual Tony Awards have come and gone. One understands the logic behind the televised awards program on CBS, but that doesn't mean one likes it or agrees with it.

It's been more than a few years since the telecast was re-fashioned primarily as a musical variety show and only secondarily as an awards ceremony. This decision was made consciously by those who present the Tony telecast: the American Theatre Wing, the Broadway League and CBS. The Broadway League saw an opportunity to use the Tony Awards to market Broadway productions (both in New York and touring shows) while CBS saw it as a way to improve ratings.

As a musical variety show, the broadcast was good. Neil Patrick Harris was charming and funny (good writing) as the emcee and closed the evening with a really clever pseudo-rap number.

The program rolled out star after star (especially if they had an affiliation with CBS) from Hugh Jackman to Vanessa Redgrave, from Chris Rock to Angela Lansbury and from Daniel Radcliffe to Whoopi Goldberg.

And the big production numbers from Broadway shows looked and sounded exciting, colorful and mostly funny as very little time was spent on anything serious or romantic.

But the program makes time for musical variety by (1) presenting half the award categories off-air during the extended commercial breaks, and (2) spending vastly reduced time on non-musical Broadway productions--you know, plays?--which are promoted in :30 summaries rather than by presenting scenes from them.

Instead, this year's Tony Awards saw fit to offer musical numbers from shows that weren't even in the running for a Tony Award such as Memphis (honored with a Tony last year) and Spider Man, which hasn't even opened on Broadway.

Then, there were totally extraneous moments such as a song-and-dance duet between Neil Patrick Harris and former host Hugh Jackman, and a four-minute monologue by John Leguizamo from his show Ghetto Klown, which closes July 10. 

Please understand: this was good material and a pleasure to watch, but every second of it meant a second less to honor actual Tony Award nominees and winners.

Among honors most egregiously relegated to the station breaks were a lifetime achievement Tony Award for Athol Fugard, one of the most influential playwrights of the 20th Century who helped bring down apartheid in his native South Africa, and the Tony Award for Regional Theatre, won this year by Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre Company.

Naturally, I'm partial towards Lookingglass, but even so the Regional Theatre Tony is the one-and-only Tony that's (1) truly national in character (vs. Broadway local), and (2) dedicated to a non-profit theater company vs. commercial theater interests.

The Lookingglass ensemble includes a genuine TV star, company co-founder David Schwimmer, as well as writer/director Mary Zimmerman, who has won two Tony Awards herself. A nano-second of creative thinking suggests that the Tony Folks might have had them present the Regional Theatre Tony Award to their own troupe, and to do it on-air.

The telecast producers cite time as the deciding factor in relegating categories to station breaks. Even so, the telecast ran about seven minutes long as each extraneous entertainment segment takes as much time, roughly, as presenting two awards would take.

As for ratings, well, sorry, but the Tony Awards are NOT the Academy Awards and never will be as long as theater remains essentially local (one production opens in one theater in one city) vs. global (a big movie opens on 1500 screens in one day). I do not need to see the overnight Arbitrons or Nielsons to guarantee that the final NBA championship game on ABC slaughtered the Tony Awards in the ratings. The only question is whether America's Got Talent on NBC did too.