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NY Times: Broadway Is Not Stale... So Why Are The Tonys?

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Hello. I found this interesting article in the NY Times website.

I stood gaping in front of the Samsung as I watched the first few minutes of this year’s Tony Awards telecast. I had the eerie sensation of having slipped into a time warp.



It was not the gin and tonic I’d had with my early dinner, let me assure you. There on the screen last Sunday night was a woman in exotic garb and red face paint, belting away in — well, whatever African language it is they employ in “The Lion King.” Behind her, a menagerie of puppets frolicked.

Had the past 10 years of my life been an illusion? Was I watching the 1998 Tony ceremony? Bliss, if only it were so. Mistakes have been made, and I’ve reached the age when subtracting a decade of experience sounds like a pretty good deal.

Nope. There was the incontrovertible evidence of the Samsung, for one. No flat screens in 1998. No DVR either. (I admit I time-shifted the Tonys, just a little.) And yet here was the best-musical winner of 1998 opening the Tony ceremony a full decade later.

For a minute I feared that a tasteless joke was in the offing. Would Stew and the crew from “Passing Strange” suddenly start cavorting amid the puppets, announcing to the world that after 10 years, Broadway finally had another show featuring an ample cast of African-Americans?

No, thank God. But the reality was not much more cheering. The decision to kick off the telecast with the by now familiar opening number from “The Lion King” sent the viewing audience a message that the best Broadway had to offer this year was a decade-old Disney musical.

Some observers of this enjoyably eclectic and unusually solid Broadway season might want to make that case, but you would expect the Tony producers to take a more sanguine view of the current scene. Instead this year’s telecast seemed desperate to erase distinctions between the nominated shows and the (often justly) overlooked, between seasons present and past.

The ceremony, ostensibly the occasion for the theater industry to honor the artists who they believe created the best work of the year, was primarily an infomercial for the generic Broadway brand — meaning the big, splashy shows in which Disney specializes. Cramming in numbers or brief, uneven visual gags from what seemed like every new or old musical on Broadway, the ceremony was like an audiovisual version of the Theater Directory advertisements in The New York Times. The parceling out of the awards themselves felt like an afterthought. (A good dozen of the awards were handed out before the televised ceremony, more than in any past year.)

Admittedly, the Tonys have had a rough time on television over the last decade. The ratings have been declining for years, the occasional upward blip notwithstanding. For a few years CBS cut the show to two hours, necessitating an awkward preshow on PBS. And the wide world of sports often seems determined to crush Broadway’s annual party under a Nike-clad foot. This year both basketball and golf rained on the parade. The ratings essentially tied last year’s all-time low, when Tony Soprano and family staged their ambiguous exit on Tony night.

The telecast producers’ reaction to the free-falling numbers — and presumably to fears of decimation from CBS executives — has been increasing desperation, and this year the show reached some craven new lows. Whoopi Goldberg, generally a gracious and underused host, took an almost supplicating tone in her introductory remarks. After you watch the glorious festival of theater to be presented, “maybe it’ll inspire you to come see a Broadway show,” she said.

Maybe? Why not, “Please!” Please come see a Broadway show — they’re really fun. Like “The Lion King,” with the big puppets and stuff! Remember “Phantom of the Opera?” It’s still here too! And who’s that — why it’s Mary Poppins! Ms. Goldberg spent most of her time playing an elaborate game of “Where’s Whoopi?” She popped up in fancy dress in little vignettes from various musicals, to decreasingly amusing effect.

The theater lovers who tuned in to the telecast might also have been puzzled to see Julie Chen introducing a segment devoted to the season’s straight plays. They might have wondered, as I did, who Ms. Chen is, and what her connection to the theater could possibly be. Ms. Chen may have popped into the celebrity spin cycle that is “Chicago” at some point, but if she did, I missed it. I also missed her introduction, so only the next morning, when I read news coverage of the ceremony, did I learn that Ms. Chen is a “television personality” associated with CBS shows like “Big Brother” and “The Early Show.”

I also learned that she happens to be married to Leslie Moonves, president and chief executive of CBS. It is hard to avoid concluding that Ms. Chen’s presence was primarily a way of currying favor with the man who can snap his fingers and exile the Tony Awards to the Siberian wasteland of PBS.



But, really, would that be such a bad thing? The pleasure of the Tony Awards, for me and probably for most theater lovers (and, seriously, who else watches?) is a chance to see artists we admire rewarded for their work, to see them acting joyous, excited, flustered, grateful, maybe a little foolish — in short, human, divorced from the stage personality, without the mask of character to obscure them. The glow of that kind of happiness is always touching. The highlights of all Tony telecasts, for me, are the acceptance speeches, in general more articulate, intensely felt and thoughtful than the overly processed equivalents for the Oscars, Golden Globes or Emmys.

This year was no exception. It was worth enduring any number of ill-staged, dehydrated-and-reconstituted musical segments to hear Patti LuPone’s wonderful mixture of giddy gratefulness and tongue-in-cheek, it’s-about-bloody-time grandeur. The wonderfully gifted Jim Norton was moving, Rondi Reed delightful, the actor-turned-playwright Tracy Letts dryly witty in his confession that winning a Tony “beats the hell out of auditioning for ‘JAG.’ ” And Mark Rylance? Plum crazy, but you won’t hear poetry at the Oscars.

I would have liked to hear a little more of Stew than the amusing M&M’s-in-the-pocket sound bite that was excerpted on the telecast, and from the other winners whose moment of triumph was reduced to a split-second footnote.

Stage actors, directors and designers — heck, even producers — earn a fraction of what their counterparts do in film and television (or what they themselves earn when working in those mediums), so it is rather cruel to deny them their moment of public acclaim in the fruitless hope that a more entertainment-oriented telecast will up the ratings.

It didn’t this year. It never does. Why not allow awards shows to be the intermittent bores they always are, except to the tense nominees in the audience and the truly interested viewers at home? The Oscars and Emmys aren’t much better, and in fact the ratings for almost all awards shows have been declining in recent years.

The only contests Americans in great numbers seem to tune in to these days are those in which they are allowed to have a direct say. Are the Tonys going to open up the lines so viewers at home can phone in their votes for their favorites? In which case perhaps “Grease” would have been the year’s big winner.

Not likely, obviously. But I am not so naďve as to think the producers’ insistence on using the show as a platform to sell tickets (however little the bump most shows get from the telecast) is going to abate. Perhaps the most we can hope for is a little more savvy and wit — and less anxiousness — in the creation of the show. I semiwhimsically suggest that next year the producers put promotion and maybe production of the telecast into the subversively witty hands of the creators of the “Xanadu” YouTube campaign.

If you missed it, try typing the name Cubby Bernstein into an Internet search engine. You’ll find a series of cheeky video vignettes with Broadway regulars like Ms. LuPone and Cynthia Nixon.

The funniest is Episode 6, in which Nathan Lane visits a stripping Cheyenne Jackson in his dressing room. In about three minutes Mr. Lane gives a performance subtler and more endearing than anything we’ve seen from him since he’s become a big Broadway superstar. The clip has registered more than half a million viewings (beefcake factor definitely a draw). Those numbers aren’t bad. They’re not Oscar-size, obviously, but even Oscar isn’t what he used to be.


from RC in Austin, Texas



NY Times
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folkyboy
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It is hard to avoid concluding that Ms. Chen’s presence was primarily a way of currying favor with the man who can snap his fingers and exile the Tony Awards to the Siberian wasteland of PBS.

But, really, would that be such a bad thing?


Amen sistah!
Ed_Mottershead
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I think Isherwood was right on target and welcome the day that the shows returns to PBS -- all of it.
BroadwayEd
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canmark
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I think for one they need to move the show back into a Broadaway theatre. When they tried to big it up and move it into Radio City Music Hall, that was the first sign of its downfall.

Unlike the other awards, which are about pre-recorded performance (movies, TV, music), the Tonys are for LIVE performance. That's why live peformances and lengthy speeches were part of what's good about the show. For example, Whoopie appearing in Mary Poppins costume was funnier than in the the special effect A Chorus Line segment--hello, theatre is about doing things live, not pre-recorded.

The Tonys should try to be more innovative and different from the other awards shows. It's not the Oscars, it's not the Grammys, but it needs to create the kind of excitement that those shows create for their stars.
Coach Bob knew it all along: you've got to get obsessed and stay obsessed. You have to keep passing the open windows. (John Irving, The Hotel New Hampshire)
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Moving the Tonys to PBS rather than keeping it on a network would mean Broadway would get even less national exposure than it already does. Both the industry and the art form would be further marginalized. You'd get the four and a half hour ceremony of your dreams, but at the considerable loss of a valuable outlet that Broadway relies upon to promote itself.

There's little chance anyway that CBS would drop the Tonys, at least while Les Moonves is still there. In spite of the low ratings the Tonys receive, the broadcasts always attract major advertisers who are eager to reach the Tony Awards viewership. The advertisers figure that if you can afford to go to the theatre, you might be the type to own a VISA card or purchase a Cadillac. The Tony Awards are usually Emmy-winners - even the rotten broadcasts, so it's also a prestige program for CBS.
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JoeKv99
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For the millionth time, if you hate the Tonys so much don't watch them. For a show everyone hates they sure consume a lot of board space.
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Updated On: 6/21/08 at 03:15 PM
Ryan4
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I think they should definitely stay at Radio City - the event has become so much bigger, more exciting, more fun to watch than when it was at a Broadway theater. It makes it a New York event, not just a special night at a Broadway house in the theater district for insiders. We've got Rosie O'Donnell to thank for that.

And while I did love the couple of years that PBS did the Tony pre-show with all the interviews with the nominated designers, directors, etc, I think the three-hour CBS exposure is good for the industry.

This year was an uncharacteristically bad Tony show...but think back to recent years like 2004 (Jackman and "One Night Only" opened the show with the casts of all the shows, or 1998, when LuPone, Buckley and Holliday opened the show...these were great broadcasts). It's proven that it can be a big, commercial show on CBS and still be worthwhile.
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"don't watche them"

JoeKevvy. Maybe you watche them but I just watch them.
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We watche them because regardless of how their quality is decreasing, they're still fun to watche.
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Corine2
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I love the Tony Awards and this year, Whoopi became my favorite host.
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sanda
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Comparing to the past couple of years, I think this is the best Tony awards ceremony I saw. Whoopi did a great job and shouble be the host for next year.
TheEnchantedHunter
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The more important question is why the New York Times has become so stale with their pointless articles like this one and their obsessive fascination with the new media like YOUTUBE which is sure to eclipse them in the next few years. When a dumb thing like Cubby Bernstein is a referent in the Times, you know the handwriting is on the wall.




Updated On: 6/22/08 at 11:32 PM