Behind the Scenes at the TONY Awards

Paul Broussard reports in about his first trip to the TONY Awards.

Saturday June 16, 07
by Paul Broussard,

So, folks, for the three of you that watched this year’s Tony Awards, what did you think? Did you see me at Radio City Music Hall? I TiVo’d the whole thing and every time they’d show a wide shot with the balconies, I’d pause it and try and see if I was in view. Nope. But that’s okay; I’m not looking for my .0000015 seconds of fame on CBS, especially when the rest of America was watching The Sopranos. But for those of us that wait an entire year for the American Theatre to get its night on TV, the Tonys are the real deal. A lot of people have asked me how I got tickets to the Tony Awards? Well, they weren’t comps. Anyone can buy tickets to the Tony Awards through the evil empire known as Ticketmaster. Mind you, dear reader, that the tickets aren’t the cheapest thing around. You won’t get in for under $200 a head, but for a theatre savant like me, the price was well worth it. In fact, I had so much fun; I’m likely to do it again, especially if groundbreaking shows like Spring Awakening, Grey Gardens, and The Coast of Utopia make their way to the Great White Way in future seasons. Except I want to be a seat filler next time, or maybe stand on the red carpet and report! “Bernadette, who are you wearing? Ah yes, Bob Mackie.” One can dream…

Why the Tony Awards? The short of it is I love a good awards show. I’ve been taping the Tony Awards since I was in fifth grade, except in 1995, when Sunset Boulevard and Smokey Joe’s Café were the only two new musicals to open on Broadway the previous season (what’s even more depressing was that was the year Lamb Chop on Broadway played, ugh.) I was in Boston on Tony day, and my family went out to eat for dinner, and I stayed in and watched the Tony Awards on TV! It’s kind of been a childhood fantasy come true. And now that the Tonys are held at the 6,000 seat Radio City instead of an 1,800 seat Broadway house, everyday Joes can attend!

Well, this year was a “hostless” year, like last year’s awards. This means that there wasn’t anyone bankable enough with the ratings and savvy enough to host this year. Apparently only Hugh Jackman can do it? But, what it does mean is something like Night of 1000 Stars. Besides, what is the host going to do but tell some topical jokes, make fun of a few weird outfits and rehash some old material?

Well, they had no host, but they sure rehashed the old material. Despite my affection for the Tonys (and the Oscars among others), Awards Show patter is dreadfully boring. And this year was no exception. The awards tend to be a fight between the network (CBS), the producers of the Tonys (The American Theatre Wing and The League of American Theatres and Producers) and the Producers of each nominated show.

What results are gridlock and an unchangeable formula that is way past its prime. But love it or hate it I still watch it. And this year, I got a front row seat (front row on the third balcony, baby!) to the festivities.

Let’s talk about drama for a minute. No, not dramatic plays like Radio Golf or Translations. Dish. Dirt. Gossip.

There was a big fight this year because CBS wanted more musical numbers on the show because musical numbers are always good for ratings (unfortunately, these things happen because of the bottom line.) So, it was mutually agreed upon by CBS and The League and the ATW that the new musicals that were left out of the Best Musical category (LoveMusik and Legally Blonde) would get to perform a number on the show. Both musicals had nominated actors and actresses, and that seems fair, right? Sure! Well, several days later, that offer was rescinded, after having announced it to the casts of the shows and in the press. Apparently, producers from some of the nominated Best Musical shows spoke out against this, saying it would shorten their air time. Don’t you love a good bickering? I do! Well, my thoughts are that it’s a win/win situation any time a Broadway show gets air time during prime time TV. By the time the awards air, they will have let an “old” show get a performance on the telecast. American Idol winner Fantasia, who replaced Tony winner LaChanze in The Color Purple and is not eligible for a Tony (don’t get me started on the Replacement Tony category fiasco) gets an entire musical number on the telecast, though. That surely ruffled some feathers. I loved her performance, but it’s kind of tasteless to make an exception, purely for ratings reasons. Also, did it bother you that at every commercial break the announcer says “stay tuned for a performance from American Idol winner Fantasia from The Color Purple!” – but we don’t see her until the very end of the awards?! I’m sorry, but if people were flipping channels and saw Laura Bell Bundy singing and dancing her little heart out in a number from Legally Blonde, the ratings would go up….

Well, CBS got their wishes for more musical numbers, but made no friends in the process, with an additional performance by last year’s Tony winner Jersey Boys. Their performance was piss-poor. Those guys were standing out on their platform in the middle of the house, obviously not able to hear themselves properly, even with ear pieces. If you saved the telecast, look at how they pound the stage, trying to stay on the beat. Their harmonies are off, and half of them can’t find the beat. Trust me, if you can get tickets to see Jersey Boys on Broadway, their performances are slick – being properly amplified and monitored is crucial to this kind of harmonizing.

But this digression -- delving too deep into the reasons for overhauling the format of the Tonys (and the Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes, Grammys, SAG, Cable Ace, GLAAD Media Awards, ad infinitum) is maybe for another column.

Here’s what I thought about the onstage (onscreen) performances. These mean a lot to the producers of the shows, because a good performance can mean instant cash in the box office and a healthy run, particularly when summer can be deadly for shows on Broadway (we’re already seeing casualties like Company and Radio Golf):

A Chorus Line opened the telecast with an exterior (pre-taped) version of “I Hope I Get It” using the beautifully lit marquee of Radio City as its backdrop. It segued into the roster of presenters, and then joined the telecast live, as the cast of A Chorus Line rises up from below the stage (like the Rockettes) to sing “One”. This opening number ranks as one of my all time favorite Tony openings. My favorite was the year the revival of 42nd Street opened the telecast with the entire cast riding the subway to Radio City Music Hall, tapping their way into the theatre. All it takes is a little imagination, folks….

Curtains made the right choice in performing “Show People”. They were originally going to perform “A Tough Act to Follow”, which is not an ideal number to attract audiences to your show. “Tough Act” is a traditional Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers fantasy number, complete with chorus rushing on stage to join in the number’s ending, which works fine in the show, but it just wouldn’t pop on its own. “Show People”, however, sounds like a classic Kander & Ebb song, and it was on fire! Listen to Debra Monk when she sings, wow, what a voice! She belted like she wasn’t mic’d, and that was the right move.

Mary Poppins was cute, but you’ll have to see the show at the New Amsterdam Theater to fully appreciate the largeness of this show. There was no way for Bert (the dapper Gavin Lee) to tap his way up the side of the proscenium in “Step in Time” on the telecast, but they did a nice job with the number. I was slightly underwhelmed when I saw Mary Poppins in previews, but if it’s spectacle and large, gravity defying sets you want, Poppins has it in spades. Wasn’t it appropriate that the cast sang “Anything Can Happen” when this year’s awards ceremony was full of surprises?

110 in the Shade’s Audra McDonald was (as usual) in top vocal form, and “Raunchy” showcased her comic side. Who knew Audra could be so goofy? It’s really a shame that when Usher announced her name as a nominee for Best Leading Actress in a Musical he called her “Audrey” – he only had to say five names – he couldn’t memorize hers?

Raul Esparza sang “Being Alive” from John Doyle’s new production of Company, and my jaw hit the floor. When I saw the revival at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, I was impressed, but his performance was much more introspective and quieter, but he rocked out on that song, giving audiences a sampling of his fine vocal chops, and giving us one of the best Tony performances ever.

Christine Ebersole’s performance in Grey Gardens didn’t quite work at Radio City. She looked lost on stage compared to the intimate surroundings at the Walter Kerr Theater. I think musical director Eliot Lawrence (who has conducted the Tonys since their first telecast 40 years ago) is to blame, the rhythms were off on “The Revolutionary Costume for Today”. Also, Ebersole’s delivery was slightly off, having to compensate for performing not only for a television camera, but for an audience of 6,000. I saw the musical three times on Broadway, and this number normally “lands”…it opens the second act and introduces the audience to the world of Big and Little Edie Beale that will be familiar to those who have seen the documentary film Grey Gardens. What did you think of her performance? Does it make you want to see the show? It should. Grey Gardens, for me, is one of the finest musicals I’ve ever seen, and both Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson give transcendent performances eight times a week, far more nuanced than actresses performing character roles. They are the Beales of Grey Gardens.

And the evening’s real winner, Spring Awakening used a medley of four songs: both versions of “Mama Who Bore Me”, “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally Fucked”. This show poses the most problems for broadcast television, with CBS especially wary of pushing too many FCC buttons these days. Steven Sater had to change several lyrics for “The Bitch of Living” to clean it up for television, removing the strikingly beautiful metaphors about self-pleasure. But I did like the clever self-censoring during “Totally Fucked” – the cast covers their mouths instead of dropping the F-bomb twenty times. I bet the arty Bill T. Jones had something to do with that decision. My suggestion: if you don’t already own it, pick up a copy of the Original Cast Recording and you can fully appreciate the angst-ridden rock score. Spring Awakening is really different than Rent completely unlike anything else ever seen in a rock musical.

I still wish Legally Blonde would have had a chance to perform on the telecast, besides their 10 second montage.

Now, on to the winners (and losers):

Spring Awakening won 8 of their 11 Tony nominations; Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book, Best Orchestrations, Best Director, Best Choreographer, Best Featured Actor, and Best Lighting Design. It takes a lot for a show to sweep, particularly one with an extremely youthful cast and racy subject matter. But, they pulled it off, winning where it really counts. My hotel was next door to the Eugene O’Neill Theater, and when I left to go to the airport the Monday morning following the Tonys, there were already people lined up outside the theater, waiting to get tickets. It was only 6 am! They enjoyed a brisk week at the box office, pulling in nearly 10 times their daily take on Monday.

The other big winner was a limited run of a very important play: The Coast of Utopia, by Tom Stoppard. Utopia picked up 7 of its 10 nominations, winning for Best Play, Best Featured Actor and Actress, Best Director of a Play, and the three design categories.

Here’s a great link of a few photos of the second part of this trilogy: Shipwreck.

I was fortunate to see all three parts of this epic play during one of their Saturday marathon shows, and I was completely floored by how powerful and rich Stoppard’s words flowed through the company. It deserved every single one of its awards. However, it was a shame that the last August Wilson play Radio Golf had to open this season. It didn’t stand a chance against the juggernaut Coast of Utopia and walked away empty-handed. Radio Golf will close July 1 after an all too brief run, and at a complete loss.

The two big surprises of the evening unfolded live on national television with the upset for Leading Actor in a Musical. Everyone picked Company’s Raul Esparza to win the award, and he lost out to David Hyde Pierce of Curtains. I shouted out a less tame version of “holy cow” that I’m glad wasn’t audible on the telecast. 6,000 people could be heard gasping over the underscoring by the orchestra. If you look closely, you can see Audra McDonald’s surprised reaction as she opens the envelope to announce the winner. Then, look at the split screen of the five nominees, and watch the pained expression on Esparza’s face as his hopes of Tony victory were dashed by the sudden upset. David Hyde Pierce didn’t expect to win, either, though his speech was quite moving, and yes, his performance was Tony-worthy.

I am glad Curtains did win for Pierce, because it is the show’s only Tony Award. It didn’t stand a chance against Spring Awakening for Best Musical, though it should have won for Best Score or Book, making a nice bookend for John Kander’s long and storied career. That just proves that sometimes Tony voters don’t go for the sentimental favorite.

Grey Gardens took home 3 awards. Christine Ebersole was essentially the only nominee in the Best Leading Actress in a Musical category, with the other four actresses just glad to be nominated. Review the split screen when they announce the winner, and you’ll see a relieved Audra McDonald as she was visibly panicked with the thought that she might actually win the award. She had just given the “big upset” to Pierce moments earlier. Tony voters did the right thing by locking in Ebersole to win.

New Orleans native Mary Louise Wilson won for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Grey Gardens, and she deserved it. Even she acknowledged that point in her comical acceptance speech (with a big “woooooo!”) – Wilson has been treading the boards for over 40 years, and this is her first Tony Award.

Grey Gardens also took home the Tony for Best Costume Design of a Musical, for William Ivey Long’s take on the iconic fashion of Edie Beale. Although the telecast shows highlights of the design awards, Long’s two second sound bite was actually a nearly five minute acceptance speech! He managed to discuss the state of the American Theatre and lead the audience to a standing ovation for fellow Spring Awakening nominee Susan Hilferty. I didn’t pick Hilferty to win because her 19th century German schoolboy meets punk rocker costumes for Spring Awakening were just a touch too drab to persuade Tony voters that Chuck Taylors with Dickies and suspenders should win out. And, Edie Beale’s mark on fashion is felt to this day. Her wardrobe choices in the 1975 documentary are legendary.

Singular winners include Mary Poppins for Best Scenic Design, the recently closed revival of Journey’s End picking up just one win in the Revival Play category, Julie White’s somewhat surprising Best Actress win for The Little Dog Laughed, and Frank Langella’s victory for Frost/Nixon.

I knew Spring Awakening would leave victorious, but I didn’t expect the complete sweep in all the categories. This year left clear cut victors and some losing shows that will have to struggle with future press campaigns, avoiding the fact that they didn’t cash out big at the Tonys. Let’s just hope that future seasons have so many worthy shows that there will be ample choices for winners. It’s not always the case, and some years in recent memory have been drought-ridden with nary a great show in sight.

Now, the question that all of you have been asking about: what happens when they go to commercial break at Radio City?

Well, we don’t watch the commercials, that’s for sure. Everyone makes a mad dash for the bar. With a clear view of the entire auditorium, I could see all the stars walk the aisles. People in the very front rows would stand and lean against the stage, chatting away. Meanwhile, cameras would be repositioned and the ominous cranes they use for wide shots would fly up and down, picking out their next choreographed shot. The audience in the theater was treated to video presentations during every commercial break, not seen by the television viewing audience. There was an impromptu montage of various Broadway theatergoers singing “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, with different degrees of skill: some were dead on, some were tone deaf. Some people didn’t know how to pronounce it at all.

During several commercial breaks, they would run archive footage of television commercials from Broadway shows past: Dreamgirls, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Shenandoah, La Cage aux Folles. My favorite interlude was a videotaped re-cap of this year’s Tony nominees for Best Musical, as interpreted by the song stylings of Kiki & Herb. It made me seriously think twice about who should replace Christine Ebersole in Grey Gardens.

Speaking of replacements in Grey Gardens, if they should last through the summer, Andrea Marcovicci would make a great candidate for the next Little Edie, don’t you think? Well, whoever replaces Ebersole will need to be a powerhouse. I hope the casting directors have something up their sleeves….

I hope you enjoyed my (not so brief) recap of this year’s Tonys. If you’ve been to New York and seen any of this year’s winners (or losers), what did you think? If you haven’t been to New York in a while, now’s the time to go, with direct flights daily on JetBlue and the theatre scene in New York buzzing with excitement. Besides, there’s nothing like a Broadway show.