It’s Not Just for Who Anymore?

By Marc Williams

A funny thing happened on the way to my DVR.  I watched the 2011 Tony Awards and enjoyed it.

Here’s a little back story:  my background is in theatre as both an actor and director.  When I was studying theatre as an undergraduate and for a few years after that, I always watched the Tony Awards live and always enjoyed them.  However, the Tony Awards has been holding on by a thread to its relationship with CBS due to historically low ratings.

In order to boost ratings, the American Theatre Wing has spent the past decade trying to validate the Tonys as a major celebrity event.  The Tonys looked to Hollywood, borrowing their celebrities for Broadway’s big night. Whichever Hollywood star happened to be on Broadway that season was begged to attend and present awards at the Tonys.  In 2004, for example, Sean Combs, Renee Zellweger, Nicole Kidman, and Scarlett Johansson presented awards—and their presence was endlessly emphasized by the broadcast.  Theatre icons like Helen Mirren and Joel Grey were virtually ignored.  This, to me, was not a celebration of Broadway but rather a desperate attempt to make Broadway seem relevant to a broad audience.  I understand the desperation.  In my BLS classes, we discuss the role of theatre in a variety of historical eras, including our own.  While students connect intellectually and emotionally to the plays we study, many students have trouble conceptualizing the texts as live performances; and that’s no surprise, really, because many students have never been to the theatre.

The Tony broadcasts of the past decade have literally begged the television audience to visit Broadway, using the glamor of Hollywood to sell its appeal.  These efforts have always seemed disingenuous to me.  Why can’t Broadway showcase its own stars?  If the work is solid and well-executed in the broadcast, surely audiences will want to see it in person. On these grounds, I’ve refused to watch the live broadcasts for the past few years.  I recorded them on my DVR and watched a few days or weeks later, skipping through all the stuff that I knew would annoy me. A few days ago, I watched the 2011 ceremony, which had aired live on June 12.

Host Neil Patrick Harris delivered an opening number that smacked the Tonys back into reality, both acknowledging and poking fun at the theatre’s niche audience.

The opening number even acknowledged that Al Pacino is “too famous” to participate in the song’s gag.  And I can’t imagine previous broadcasts would have mentioned Joe Mantello’s presence in the opening number–it was a joke only theatre fans could love. It was clear that the 2011 ceremony would be different from the recent broadcasts that had so annoyed me—and indeed it was different.  I watched every second of the broadcast, as it celebrated Broadway and avoided phony attempts to legitimize theatre’s place in popular culture.  I even found myself laughing hysterically at what appears to be Broadway’s biggest hit in years, The Book of Mormon (a new musical written by South Park co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone).

I immediately went to my computer to try to score a pair of tickets and plan a trip to New York.  I thought to myself, “yes! This is exactly what a Tony broadcast ought to make us do.”  The Tonys didn’t beg me to come to Broadway; they showed me something that I actually want to see.  I don’t know if next year’s Tony Awards will be as genuine as the 2011 ceremony but I am hopeful.

A side note:  I didn’t score tickets to The Book of Mormon.  The show is nearly sold out for the next six months.

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