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America Eschews the Tonys

This year, once again, the Tony Awards telecast was a ratings flop. logo

The Tony Award
The majority of Americans turned their back on Broadway and opted for such other forms of entertainment as the season premiere of Sex and the City, the NBA Eastern Conference finals, and even a repeat of The Practice on Sunday night, giving the CBS Tony Awards telecast a final national rating of 6.3--only slightly less awful than last year's 6.2, both statistically equivalent to the same 10 share. (For what it's worth, Tony press rep Keith Sherman said that advertising was up significantly for this year's show.)

Lord knows, anyone who tuned in at the very start of the PBS portion of the Tony telecast (8-9pm) had reason to expect great things. The opening bit involving Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick reclining in Masterpiece Theatre-style armchairs, sipping tea, and tweaking the highbrow image of PBS, was hilarious. The pair scored every time they appeared for PBS and, later (9-11pm) for CBS, garnering additional laughs with their supposedly candid backstage chatter about being approached sexually by Anne Bancroft, a.k.a. Mrs. Mel Brooks. More good news is the fact that the musical numbers from The Producers, The Full Monty, and 42nd Street came across extremely well as edited and shot for TV; both shows reportedly received huge bumps in box office sales yesterday. (Hard to believe The Producers could possibly sell more tickets than it had already been selling, but that's the word.)

And yet the Tony show still offered much opportunity for carping, which theater fans proceeded to do on the internet even as the PBS and CBS broadcasts were in progress. The Jane Eyre excerpt was not beloved, though a better choice of excerpt wouldn't have been easy. A lot of people felt that the merciless cutting of Polly Bergen's "I'm Still Here" from Follies--she was only allowed to sing one-third of the song, at most--was inexcusable. Faith Prince's performance of "I'm Going Back" from Bells Are Ringing didn't suffer quite so much from being edited, but one had to wonder why the producers didn't go with one of the show's two monster hit songs, "Just in Time" or "The Party's Over." And the ill-conceived mish-mash of snippets from A Class Act featuring Lonny Price, unwilling to relinquish the spotlight despite having been hospitalized for a perforated colon the day before the Tonys, surely did more harm than good to that Ed Kleban musical. (A Class Act, Jane Eyre, and Bells Are Ringing are shuttering on Sunday. And though Follies had announced an extension of its limited engagement and had been selling tickets through September, unofficial word is that it will now close on its originally announced end date of July 14.)

Though a valiant stab at offering the TV audience representative scenes from the nominated plays was once again made, these moments failed to work (as always). Even Viola Davis' anti-pregnancy aria from King Hedley II, the highlight of that show in live performance, came across badly when shorn of its context and seen in close-up. Indeed, the fellow seated next to me at the TheaterMania Tony party commented, "That's really bad acting and really bad writing," and wasn't persuaded by my insistence that he had to see the show to get the proper effect.

Also the subject of much discussion in Tony post-mortems was Christine Ebersole's very well prepared but extraordinarily cold, emotionless speech in accepting her award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical for 42nd Street--an award many felt to be undeserved, if only because of the size of the role in question. And there were extremely mixed feelings about Mel Brooks' conduct throughout the evening, as viewers responded positively to his inimitable sense of humor but negatively to his lack of humility. Brooks' failure to leave time for a few words by Thomas Meehan, his collaborator on the book of The Producers, caused much talk--especially since everyone (including the man himself) knew that Brooks would almost certainly be brought back to the stage of Radio City Music Hall twice more during the evening.

Most of all, people have been talking about a general backlash to The Producers' dominance of the musical awards. However deserved any of its individual Tonys may have been, it was a bit much to see one trophy after another after another given to the show's personnel while extraordinary work by Polly Bergen, Faith Prince, Kathleen Freeman, André De Shields, Jack O'Brien, David Yazbek, and others went unrewarded. If only the really good shows and performances could be spread out over a number of years!

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