Theatre Lover's Journal for April 1999

Time for a Change at The Tony Awards

by John Kenrick

During my years in the theatre, some have questioned my sanity. (I take no offense at this, since people who think you're wacky give you lots of leeway for behavior!) One specific reason I have been called crazy is my often expressed belief that it's time for the Tony Awards to leave network television and move to PBS. Unthinkable! Blasphemous! And yet, as recent events have proven for the umpteenth time, it is becoming the only sensible option.

When the Theatre Wing initiated the Antoinette Perry Awards in 1947, they were presented during an Easter Sunday luncheon at the Waldorf Astoria. A chance for theatre people to honor each other, the Tony's were only one of many distinguished annual awards. Once the Tonys made it to television in 1956, they became the pre-eminent theatrical award, one which could make a show a hit or give luster to an actor's career. The 25th Anniversary broadcast in 1971 was a major TV event, with original stars from every "Best Musical" returning to sing highlights – and it drew a sizable national audience.

However, in 1999 most American don't give half a hoot about Broadway or the Tonys. The Oscars, Emmys and other awards shows draw hefty ratings, while the Tonys settle for numbers that would embarrass a sitcom starring Saddam Hussein. As a result, the same networks that think nothing of letting the Oscars run for four hours or more have imposed a strict two hour time limit on the Tony broadcast. This has forced Tony producers to do some ill advised things in recent years, including giving some awards before showtime and cutting off important acceptance speeches in mid-sentence.

Perhaps the most ill-advised move of all was to kow-tow shamelessly to Rosie O'Donnell. Two years ago, when Ms. O'Donnell was at the brief height of her popularity, she hosted the Tony's and was credited with bringing the ratings from the basement up to . . . well, somewhere on the basement steps.

Acclaimed as a miracle worker, Ms. O'Donnell demanded and received full creative control over the next Tony broadcast, disposing of the experienced production team and replacing it with one of her choosing. With no one to restrain her, she carried on loudly during the awards, subjected America to tasteless jokes (one about tampons was particularly unnecessary), and was surprised when the ratings slips a few steps back into the basement. Having turned things inside out, she has blithely announced that she cannot take part in the 1998 Tony broadcast – seems she just can't fit it into her schedule – so many more important things to do. Good grief!

Now please don't send hate mail – I'm not blaming Rosie O'Donnell. Her behavior is no more than what should be expected from someone who has never been more than a theatrical dilettante. However, I do think it is time that the Tony ceremony was freed from a destructive slavery to network ratings. The Tonys are the only night of the year when Broadway can strut its stuff for a national audience. Why continue to cripple that event for the sake of extreme time constrictions and self-indulgent celebrity hosts?

For many years, hosting the Tonys was reserved for people who had dedicated their lived to the theatre – in recent years, Julie Andrews, Angela Lansbury, Glenn Close, Gregory Hines and dear Nathan Lane were just some of the best hosts. Rosie may mean well, but with one critically razzed Broadway performance to her credit (Grease), she is not in that stellar league.

So I appeal to the American Theatre Wing and the League of NY Theatre and producers to stop this ratings-driven nonsense. Two years ago, they had the good sense to put the first hour of the ceremony on PBS – it is time to go whole hog, tell CBS "hail and farewell" and put the rest of the show on PBS too. The musical excerpts could be longer, scenes from plays could be included again, and the winners could again be allowed more than thirty pathetic seconds to say thank you. Some say PBS won't get a big enough audience – well it can't do much worse than CBS in recent years.

The Tonys never were the highest rated awards show, but for many years they were the best. Move the whole broadcast to PBS, and perhaps it can be that way again.

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