First things first, as I noted earlier, I wanted to get this posted on Thursday, because it's been too long. But it was dinner time when I began writing and then had to rush off. No time to proofread, so it was full of typos. But I've gone back now, and fixed things and done a bit of rewriting of it, too.
And now, on with the show.
For all the postings I do here about musicals, it might have seemed an omission not to have made any comments about the Tony Awards broadcast last Sunday. I've written a lot about the Tonys in the past, so didn't feel I had much to add to my "theoretical" comments about how the show should be structured. As for the specifics, I had other things to write about that held my interest more, and just chose not to go into any lengthy write-up.
Basically, I agreed with Mark Evanier's comments here.that the show was basically fine and fairly entertaining, with a great opening number from the show Something Rotten, a song about Nostradamus predicting the Broadway musical. I wasn't as impressed with Kristn Chenoweth and Alan Cummings as hosts, finding them a bit forced, though mainly because the material was just too cutesy. Though they were fine, and it was okay.
For the most part, I felt that the broadcast has been moving closer to what I've been suggesting for years, that the Tonys had to recognize they're a TV show and present themselves that way, not just offering numbers from the five musical nominees, but all manner of musical numbers, including those that feature well-known actors if their shows weren't nominated, and new shows and such. The point is to make it a good, entertaining broadcast, and not focus on the awards as much.
The reason I'm writing this now is because Mark linked to a long analysis of the broadcast written by Mark Harris of Entertainment Weekly, which you can read here. It's highly critical -- and while it makes some points I very much agree with, I mainly disagree with its main point significantly.
I agree with Mr. Harris that the Tonys shouldn't be afraid of the theater and its history. And I mostly agree that they shouldn't be afraid of the nominated dramatic plays, which are always given painfully short shrift. TV viewers are fine watching drama on TV -- they do it every single night of the year, and have for 60 years. A riveting scene of a great play, put in proper context for TV viewers with an introduction would be...riveting.
I also agree that the Tonys shouldn't ignore some of the more important, but non-actor awards, as they do to save time and because the TV audience won't know the nominees involved, showing instead (with two directing exceptions) only the acting awards. Hint to the network and show's producers: TV viewers don't have a clue who most of the actors are either. Okay, let's play a game. Here are the 10 nominees for Best Featured Actor and Actress in a Play.
Best Featured Actor in a Play
Matthew Beard, Skylight
K. Todd Freeman, Airline Highway
Richard McCabe, The Audience
Alessandro Nivola, The Elephant Man
Micah Stock, It’s Only a Play
Best Featured Actress in a Play
Annaleigh Ashford, You Can’t Take It With You
Patricia Clarkson, The Elephant Man
Lydia Leonard, Wolf Hall Parts One & Two
Sarah Stiles, Hand to God
Julie White, Airline Highway
Have you heard of any of them? I'm guessing that the only person of the 10 who some in the audience might know of is Patricia Clarkson. And the list of "unknowns" to the general public isn't all that much greater in any of the other acting categories. They're all hugely talented, and deserving of the attention. But they're just as unknown as the talented and equally-deserving artists in the other categories. So, why ignore another important category just for the sake of showing unknown actors?
As for what's most missing, I'm mainly speaking of the two writing categories for musicals -- Best Book and Best Score. Yes, as a writer, I'm biased. But I think the public in general believes too that who wrote the shows are, indeed, actually important, even if they don't know the nominees. The Tonys do present a Best Play award that is actually for the writer (even though the producer tends to grab the microphone first.) And they do present two Best Directors awards -- which is oddish, since in the theater there is a Dramatist Guild contract that actually gives writers more authority. (This isn't like feature film, after all. Theater is far more a writers medium than film is)
More to the point, though, if you look at the list of nominees for Best Score of a Musical, there actually ARE names there that the public would recognize! Even more than most of the actors. For instance...Sting. Hear of him? And Kander & Ebb, who wrote Cabaret and Chicago. Moreover, the winners this year of Best Score were -- for the first time in Tony history -- a team of women, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, for Fun Home, I think the audience might have quite-enjoyed seeing their entire acceptance and appreciated the drama of the moment. And enjoyed it (and even enjoyed just seeing Sting as a nominee) over the acceptances by Annaleigh Ashford and Richard MCabe. And Ruthie Ann Miles, Sam Gold, or Marianne Elliott.
So, there are things I do agree with Mark Harris in his article. But these points noted above are a small part of his complaints (though a larger part of mine). His larger point, if I may paraphrase, is that the Tony Awards should basically screw the general TV viewer and focus on the real, true theater fans, even if they are older and not in the coveted 18-34 age range that networks pursue. And he points to examples in the Oscars and Grammys and other awards shows where they present lesser-appreciated awards, all for a sense of history. This is the bulk of his main point.
And this is where I profoundly disagree with him.
There is a massive, almost unbreachable difference between the Tonys and the Oscars, Emmys, and Grammys. (He also includes the Golden Globes, but...well, you know me and the Globes Globes. They are to craft honors what Barnum & Bailey are to the Nobel Prize for Medicine.)
The massive, monumental difference is that...most of the viewing public has seen almost every movie nominated, or at least HEARD of them. And actually knows almost all the actors. And has seen all the TV shows nominated, as well as the actors. And knows all the songs and musicians on the Grammys. And most of the American public not only doesn't know who the actors are that have Tony nominations...they don't even have a clue what the plays are. And moreover -- they will likely never see the shows -- or even have a chance to see them.
Here are the Best Play and Best Musical nominees. Again, these are The Best. The very best. They are --
Hand to God
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Wolf Hall Parts One & Two
Forget the question, "Have you seen them?" Other than Wolf Hall, have you heard of any of them? And do you there's a reasonable chance you'll never see them?
An American in Paris
Other than An American in Paris, had you heard of any of them before last Sunday? And for the prized 18-34 year-old TV audience, I suspect most of them have never even heard of An American in Paris.
So, to compare the Tonys to the Oscars, Emmys and Grammys is a fools errand. They are different fish. The Tonys can't come close to competing on familiarity. What the Tonys can offer, though, and beat all comers with is live, vibrant entertainment. So...show that. Present the best entertainment you can, in any way you can, as much as you can. And that will promote theater and Broadway far, far, far more than any award category presentation.
You do, of course, have to present many of the awards -- it's part of the drama of the night, it's the context of the night, and it's the point of the night. But ultimately, if someone really is desperate to know who won any award...everyone can go online and find out all the winners in a minute. And you can always present the remaining awards in another ceremony, or earlier than night and broadcast that in its entirety for theater geeks on cable or online.
But to say "screw you" to the viewing public at the expense of "theater history fans" is shooting yourself in the foot. Because...No One Will Watch. Ratings will be below that of the show Interesting Reptiles of the Amazon on the NatGeo Channel. And the Tonys will end on network TV. The networks don't put on shows that no one watches, no matter how prestigious. To think otherwise is wrong. If they did, Frank's Place would still be on the air.
Let me put this in perspective:
I think it's clear to people who read these pages here that I absolutely love the theater and musicals. I've written a research paper on the history of the Broadway musical. I've written a musical. I have an embarrassingly large collection of musical scores from around the world, numbering in the far too many hundreds, including flops, obscure gems, and major hits in their foreign productions. I am not the in prime viewer age for networks, but am in the center of that theater and history buff range. I am almost exactly who the Tony Awards should appeal to.
And I haven't heard of many of the shows. Or actors. And don't care much at all who wins. I record the show, as I do all awards shows, and fast-forward through. What I'm interested in is seeing the shows themselves, both musicals and plays. And I don't care if they show productions that didn't get nominated. I want to see interesting, thoughtful, entertaining numbers and scenes, whatever they are. I want to see theater. Not strangers thanking their cast members for something I don't know.
And if that means that they show a scene from, as happened on Sunday, the musical version of Finding Neverland that didn't get nominated but is a huge hit -- great. And if that means they show more of the plays -- all the better.
The Tonys presentation still need improvement. And several things that Mark Harris says are spot on -- as is his love of theater. But I believe he's very deeply wrong about what the Tony broadcast should be. And for all the improvement it needs, they're doing things far better than a decade ago, and are going in the right direction.
Here's that wonderful opening number from Something Rotten, with a score by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Kerey Kirkpatrick, and book by John O'Farrell. The scene features Brian D'Arcy James (from Northwestern, I might add, of course -- who played Debra Messing's husband in the TV series, Smash) and Brad Oscar, who played Franz Liebkind in the stage musical version of The Producers.
I have one quibble about the scene. It should have been literally the opening of the broadcast. And then, after, bring out the hosts for their monologue. But the broadcast began with the monologue, and then went into this. As you watch it, I think it's pretty clear that THIS is how you open a broadcast, this is what would grab an audience in -- much like last year when they opened with the amazing "Bigger" number with Neil Patrick Harris.
Still, even for showing up second, it's great fun. And a terrific way to almost begin
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
Feedspot Badge of Honor