Even more amazing than its New York success is the fact that the show has become a wide-ranging phenomenon, doing very well in cities around the country from San Francisco to Minneapolis and even in several international spots. Over the years, Tony 'n' Tina's has racked up some impressive statistics: More than 100 tons of pasta have been consumed by the show's "guests," and some 60,000 bottles of champagne have been used to toast the perennial bride and groom.
So why is Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding so popular? Well, for one thing, it comes with dinner. Also, by its nature, the show emphasizes theater as a community experience; the audience participates in the action and enjoys the fun of feeling a part of it all. Producer Joe Corcoran (CEO of TheaterMania) thinks it also helps that patrons aren't bullied into becoming part of the action, but are allowed to take their time getting into it. "We give the audience the ability to participate in their own good time," says Corcoran. "They have control over how they choose to be entertained. They may spend time with their favorite character, sit back and watch, or take on their own role. It's not uncommon for audience members to make believe they're Tina's grammar school teacher or Tony's probation officer. They can suspend their disbelief and, for two hours, be whomever they want."
Tony 'n' Tina's began as an improv created by the troupe Artificial Intelligence; director Larry Pellegrini had been working with the group on another show when he was given the opportunity to direct a new production to be called Tony n' Tina's Wedding, and he remembers that it was a challenge to keep the show to the script and yet give it the feel of spontaneity: "TNT takes so much discipline on the actors' end. They have to be able to improv with the audience but meet their blocked cues. Since we have so many different areas that are 'live' playing areas, I had to come up with a way to make sure all of the actors could pick up their cues, no matter where they are in the venue. So I chose the music to act as a live soundtrack; the cues are almost 100% timed to songs that are being sung by [the character] Donny Dulce [who leads his band Fusion at each performance]. No matter where the actors are, they can hear the cues in the music and get to where they need to be."
Corcoran became involved in all of this when he was invited by an actor friend to participate in a couple of performances of TNT. He quickly realized that acting wasn't his niche but, seeing what a good time so many of his non-theatergoing friends and family members were having at the show, he realized that there might be an untapped market out there for such frivolity. "At that point," Corcoran relates, "I approached the authors, secured the rights, and teamed up with my brother Dan to raise the money. The rest is history."
The cast and creators have made an effort to keep Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding fresh after all these years, in a variety of ways. Several celebrities have come in to play Tony, from the New York Mets' Lee Mazilli to US Soccer champ Tony Meola. And Pellegrini has encouraged the ever-changing cast to keep focus and stay invested in their characters. "I was at every performance of the play during its first year," says Pellegrini. "I always worked with the cast to make sure that they felt confident in what they were creating. I wanted them to continue to develop the play as long as they were going to perform in it. That's why TNT is still so vital."
Each performance of the show starts with the wedding ceremony at St. Luke's Church in the theater district and then moves down the street to Vinnie Black's Coliseum at the Edison Hotel for the reception. "I think the move from the Village after 10 years to our current location on 46th Street has given the show a spark that brings it to another level of excitement," says Corcoran. "And I must give a lot of credit to my cast. They don't just appear to be having a good time during the show; they really are having a good time! That definitely rubs off on the audience."
Since Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding opened in 1988, the bride and groom have seen many similarly interactive shows produced, from funerals to dinner parties; but none have had the staying power of TNT. Corcoran thinks there's something about weddings that especially appeals to people. "I can't tell you how many times I've heard, 'I was at a wedding where the mother of the bride was just like that character,' or how many people have been anxious to share some wedding horror story," he says. "I must say that the audience plays the guests at the wedding quite well. They dance, drink, eat, and mingle with the characters to the point where people often wonder if certain audience members are actually part of the cast."