Tony Talk 2009


Part 3- Everything Else

In this third and final installment, I'll go through my thoughts on the remaining awards, and then I'll rant a bit about the upcoming broadcast, and why I think the Tony Award Broadcast is needlessly becoming dumber and dumber each year. But first…


Design Awards

This is only the fifth year in which there have been separate design awards for plays and musicals, and only the second in which an award has been given for sound design. So whereas in 2004 there were only three design categories, now there are eight. The winners in these categories are often the hardest to predict. But for those who want to win a Tony contest (like the one on theatre is Easy), the design categories can be crucial.

Of course, it is hard to know how people vote. It isn't that I think voters are mindless when they vote for design awards- it is just that there is so much to take in when you see a play once. While I believe that many voters try to select the most deserving nominee, I think sometimes it is hard to figure out who that is. Sometimes, they just vote down the line for whatever is the big show of the season. This happened in 2001 with The Producers (I am STILL annoyed about this- the lighting for Jane Eyre was far superior). And last year, South Pacific won all four musical design awards, but in this case, I felt it deserved them. Since Billy Elliot has been nominated for all four musical design awards, a sweep is possible. On the other hand, design awards are often a place where voters can award a show that they liked, but didn't vote for anywhere else. For example, last year The 39 Steps (which is somehow still running) won two Tony awards- for Lighting and Sound Design. Voters may also vote based on the designer's history at the Tonys: for example, costume designer Jane Greenwood received her 16th Tony nomination this year for Waiting for Godot, and has never won. (And I doubt she'll win this year). But that would mean voters say to themselves "Michael Yeargan should win Best Scenic Design of a Play," as opposed to saying "Joe Turner's Come and Gone should win Best Scenic Design of a Play." (It would also mean they know who has and who hasn't won a Tony.)

It could be that voters "vote down the line" more with musicals than with plays. Or it could be that because scenic and costume design is more "concrete" (you can spot it in a photograph, for example), voters are more likely to actually vote based on the designs. In comparison, lighting and sound design have less tangible "products", and so perhaps in these categories, voters just go with the show they liked the best. It's worth mentioning that the Tony website ( has this year started what will hopefully be an ongoing feature- there is a three minute clip of every nominated show (play, musical, and special event). The clips I saw seemed to provide a good sample of each nominated production. So if you want to make some informed guesses in the design categories, it might be worth checking these videos out.

Here are my best guesses as to who will win the design awards. But some of these categories are really tough to call.

Best Scenic Design of a Play - I'm guessing 33 Variations here—it has the most intricate set, and I can still remember those sheets of paper flying through the air as the set was moved. (Also nominated: Exit the King, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, and The Norman Conquests).

Best Costume Design of a Play - Tough category. Rule out Blithe Spirit. Exit the King has regal costumes, and a bit absurdist. Waiting for Godot has the Susan Lucci of costume design (Jane Greenwood). But I'll go with Mary Stuart, if only because the concept (women in Victorian dresses, men in modern suits) was so brilliant. Plus, I think voters will want to reward this show with something.

Best Lighting Design of a Play - Again, tough call. I'd rule out Equus, simply because it closed. But it's a toss up between the other three. Joe Turner's Come and Gone has Brian MacDevitt, who has three Tonys already. 33 Variations has a beautiful overall aesthetic, which could help it stand out. And Mary Stuart has rain.

Best Sound Design of a Play - I'd go with Exit the King, if only because it has the most memorable "effects". Equus also had some great "effects" (the scraping of horse hooves was particularly haunting). But again, it closed. (Also nominated: Joe Turner's Come and Gone and Mary Stuart).

Best Scenic Design of a Musical - Ugh- the set for Billy Elliot isn't pretty, but it moves around in interesting ways. And it's big, which is always a plus. I'd actually give it to [title of show] (which wasn't nominated), for daring to only have four chairs and a keyboard, but I'm perverse like that. (Also nominated: Guys and Dolls, Next to Normal, and Pal Joey).

Best Costume Design of a Musical - Hopefully this will be the category that will prevent a Billy design sweep. Many are predicting Tim Hatley's designs for Shrek will win, but I also wouldn't count out Michael McDonald's gorgeous costumes for Hair, which are clearly visible to the audience since the performers often come right up near you. (Also nominated: Rock of Ages).

Best Lighting Design of a Musical - Kevin Adams is nominated twice here, and while his designs for Next to Normal were good, I hope he wins for Hair - the lighting in that show is stunning. But Billy Elliot is also a possibility. (Also nominated: West Side Story).

Best Sound Design of a Musical - Hair has people running out into the audience, and Next to Normal has an orchestra scattered around the stage. I'd actually vote for Rock of Ages - as loud as the music was, I could also hear every single word and sung lyric, even during the loudest guitar riff. But while I thought the sound design to Billy Elliot was atrocious (rarely do I notice sound design this much!), I'm betting it has a good chance of winning.

Best Special Theatrical Event

Ok, so this is the one category in which I didn't see ANY of the nominees. Does this mean I have nothing to say? Ha! Liza's at The Palace is a sure winner here, and while I still regret not trekking out in the show to see Liza Minnelli's show this winter, I'm looking forward to an entertaining acceptance speech. Her closest competition would seem to be Will Ferrell's one-man show You're Welcome America- A Final Night with George W. Bush. At least, this is the show that did the best at the box office. But Ferrell isn't someone Tony voters care much about- especially since he refused (repeatedly, I heard) to host the Tony awards this year (Neil Patrick Harris is hosting this year). The other two nominees are Slava's Snowshow - a holiday transfer of a Russian clowning spectacle, and Soul of Shaolin - a Chinese martial arts spectacle. Both may have been nice shows. But they aren't Liza, and as one might say, Liza IS the Tonys!

The Snubs

It's worth briefly reviewing some of the people and shows that didn't receive nominations this year. Almost every one was from a show that closed in 2008 or January 2009. And while shows that don't run into the spring often don't do as well in the Tonys, the sheer quality of the Fall shows, and the almost total lack of nominations, is particularly noticeable this year. In fact, not counting the special theatrical events, only three shows that closed in or before January received any nominations- [title of show] received one, and Dividing the Estate and Irving Berlin's White Christmas each received two.

While I didn't see Impressionism, A Man For All Seasons, Hedda Gabler, The Philanthropist, Accent on Youth, or Cirque Dreams, they all received mixed to negative reviews, so I'm not surprised that none of them received nominations. Two of the worst shows I saw this season, To Be or Not To Be and Desire Under the Elms, also did not receive any nominations (although some people, including New York Times reviewer Charles Isherwood, apparently loved Desire Under the Elms). Some feel that Tovah Feldshuh and James Barbour should have been nominated for their performances in Irena's Vow and A Tale of Two Cities. I found Feldshuh's performance a bit over-the-top, but I agree that Barbour probably should have been nominated (instead of Contantine Maroulis). Likewise, I think Daniel Radcliffe made an astounding Broadway debut in Equus, and should have been nominated for his performance. And Mercedes Ruehl, probably the best part of The American Plan, also should have been nominated.

It was a great year for play revivals, so I guess it is inevitable that some revivals were undeservedly shut out, most notably The Seagull (which I missed) and All My Sons (which I loved). But all four plays nominated for Best Revival opened in the spring, by which time both The Seagull and All My Sons had closed. Apparently Casey Mulligan was excellent in The Seagull, and All My Sons had several Tony-worthy elements, including performances by Dianne Wiest, John Lithgow, and Patrick Wilson, and direction by Simon McBurney.

Likewise, I thought two musicals, both of which closed by the beginning of January, deserved more attention from the nominating committee. While many did not like 13, the musical with a thirteen-member teenage cast, I thought it an extremely well done, exciting new musical. If nothing else, Jason Robert Brown should have been nominated for his score. I also thought Aaron Simon Gross's performance Tony-worthy- certainly better than any of the kids from Billy Elliot. And while [title of show] received one nomination for its book, I think it should have also been nominated for Best Score, Featured Actress (Susan Blackwell), and Best Musical. And I wonder, if it had been running on Broadway in the spring, if it wouldn't have received more nominations.


The Tony Awards Broadcast

To quote from a recent press release: "The Tony Awards telecast on Sunday, June 7th will feature performances by each of the Tony-nominated Best Musicals and Best Musical Revivals, including: Billy Elliot, The Musical; Guys and Dolls; Hair; Next to Normal; Pal Joey; Rock of Ages; Shrek the Musical; and West Side Story. Additionally, The Tony Awards will feature special performances from three touring shows – Jersey Boys, Legally Blonde The Musical and Mamma Mia! "

Ugh. I'm all for performances from the season's musicals. I still remember watching one of my first Tony awards, and seeing the cast of Falsettos perform "The Baseball Game." These early musical performances, from shows I had never even heard of, riveted me. Unfortunately, the CBS execs, especially head exec Les Moonves, have decided that people are ONLY interested in watching musicals. And so the more musical performances, the better- which is why space is being given in the broadcast to performances from touring shows. The design awards are not shown on television- you can only see them by logging onto the Tony website's live feed- for the "Creative Arts Awards". Also part of this segment are the awards for Orchestrations, Choreography(!), Book of Musical(!!), and Revival of a Play(!!!). I am appalled by this. (It happened last year too). If the Academy Awards can find a way to fit in the award for Best Animated Short Film, shouldn't the Tony Awards be able to fit in Best Revival of a Musical?

CBS is clearly trying to "boost" ratings by stacking the broadcast with performances, and thus getting rid of the "boring stuff". However, the Tony awards is NEVER highly rated. No one who isn't already planning on watching is going to tune in because the touring cast of Legally Blonde is performing. I believe that the Awards show that takes place in Radio City Music Hall should be shown in its entirety. One could argue that the American public doesn't care about orchestrations. But how do we know, if we don't let audiences learn about them? What if there was a short speech before the award was presented that explained what an orchestration is (like in the Academy Awards)? Why must television programming always be dictated by what executives think audiences want to see?

Perhaps one could argue that the Academy Awards are more star-studded. And although everyone can see movies, only a small handful travel to New York to see a Broadway show. So maybe a comparison between the two awards shows isn't exactly fair. But what CBS forgets is that people aren't just interested in seeing familiar performances. I always watched the Tonys growing up because it would give me insight into the hidden, magical world of "Broadway". And not just musicals- I remember watching one year and repeatedly hearing a five-word phrase "Angels in America: Millenium Approaches." I had no idea what it was about, but I was fascinated. I don't believe that American audiences aren't interested in plays- I think they are, but they aren't given the chance. I believe that things like the Tony award broadcast make it seem like Broadway is all big and flashy musicals. Broadway theatre is many things, and big flashy musicals are only one part. But in recent years, the Tony Award broadcast has become increasingly dumber, in a futile effort to draw in more audiences. But I don't think CBS will ever draw in more viewers this way- I think they have the wrong strategy. I think the only way they can increase viewership is to put back in all of the "boring stuff", because I'd argue that this is the one thing not available anywhere else. I think viewers actually want to be challenged. Many people will never watch the Tonys. A much smaller group will always watch. And I believe that the group in the middle- the ones who might watch if the show is good- are tired with an awards show that has so little to do with celebrating achievement. They want to learn more about theatre (including things like lighting design), but have given up on the Tonys as a source for this.

Ok- rant over. Now go watch the Tonys.


The 63rd Annual Tony Awards

The Tony Awards will be broadcast live in HD, from Radio City Music Hall on CBS, Sunday, June 7th, 8:00 – 11:00 p.m. (ET/PT time delay). The 2009 Tony Awards are presented by the Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing. To view the live Tony Awards pre-telecast, featuring the Creative Arts Awards, please log onto at 7:00 p.m. (EST) on Sunday, June 7th.

For the first time ever, fans in the New York area are invited to watch the Tony Awards simulcast in Times Square. Live from Radio City Music Hall, the Tony Awards will be simulcast on the Clear Channel Spectacolor HD Screen, from 7:00 p.m. – 11:00 p.m. and will feature the pre-telecast Creative Arts Awards and the Tony Awards broadcast. Seating will be provided in Duffy Square.