NEW YORK — The 2012 Tony Awards drew some of the best reviews of any award ceremony in years, picking up an Emmy in the process.
The telecast saw bits that included Neil Patrick Harris descending upside-down from above the stage in a sly homage to “”Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark” and the cast of “Once,” the emo musical and multiple Tony winner, performing a showstopping number.
The evening went swimmingly for the CBS telecast, with one exception: Only about 6 million people tuned in, the lowest number in more than two decades.
With that in mind, Glenn Weiss and Ricky Kirshner, the longtime producers of the show who return this year, are seeking a balance between the new and the familiar.
For the 2013 ceremony, which airs at 8 p.m. Sunday, East and West coasts, from Radio City Musical Hall the pair say that they’ll feature numbers from the year’s big musical nominees, including “Matilda: The Musical” and “Kinky Boots.”
But with many of the new shows unknown to mainstream audiences — they've been open only briefly, and Broadway sales have been flat for the first time in several years, further reducing the shows' awareness — the producers will also look to major productions of yesteryear. That will include an opening medley that will celebrate long-running shows and a stand-alone tribute to “Phantom of the Opera,” currently celebrating its 25th anniversary.
“This year is a bit different for us because we’ll be putting on a show about iconic Broadway,” Weiss said. “We felt that that was important for [viewers] who didn’t make it for the first month of opening. They need material they know and love.”
Weiss, who is also directing the show, was sitting in the Radio City orchestra with Kirshner on Tuesday while nearby a crew was chain-sawing scenery and dragging equipment for the theater world’s biggest day.
Though Harris returns as host for the third consecutive year and fourth overall, there will be a major shift: it is back at Radio City after a two-year absence. Radio City, with a capacity of 6,000 seats, is more than twice the size of the intimate Beacon Theater, where the show was held while Radio City was occupied by a Cirque de Soleil production.
On Tuesday, a false proscenium could be seen on Radio City’s enormous 110-foot-wide stage, shrinking it to the roughly 44-foot width of a Broadway theater. A passerelle had been built in the front of the stage that extended toward the audience in an effort to increase the intimacy.
“We wanted to take the philosophy of what we learned at the Beacon back to Radio City with us,” Kirshner said. “But we also wanted to take advantage of the space here.” That means, he said, bigger musical numbers because there’s simply more room backstage for cast to wait and prepare.
It won’t be the only adjustment producers hope will bring in viewers.
Sigourney Weaver, who was overlooked for a nomination for her role in Christopher Durang's “Vanya, Sonya, Masha and Spike," will nonetheless present at the telecast, as will Scarlett Johansson, similarly snubbed for her turn in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
Johansson will be joined by a number of fellow youthful Hollywood-friendly stars that include Jesse Eisenberg, Anna Kendrick and Jake Gyllenhaal, all of whom have some measure of theater cred. Though the question of Hollywood firepower is a perennial at the Tonys, producers say they’re not worried about potential criticism.
“If we went outside the [theater] world and got X number of new viewers so now more people care about Broadway, that's not a bad thing,” Kirshner said. Added Weiss: "Our goal is not to promote one show over another or one personality over another. It's about getting as many people to come to Broadway as we can."
Meanwhile, the Tonys' closing number has proved to be a piece de resistance for Harris, who two years ago famously rapped a recap of the show that was written on the fly during the telecast by Lin Manuel Miranda ("In the Heights"). Kirshner and Weiss hinted that something in that vein was a possibility this year, though they declined to provide details. (Weiss would say only that “we’ve made great strides in having material written during the show. There are a lot of avenues in play, and which one we take will depend a lot on what happens on Sunday.")
One 2012 element that won’t be back: a controversial in-show promotional segment by Royal Caribbean. Last year Broadway mainstay Harvey Fierstein came out in swimwear and introduced a “Hairspray” number from a distant cruise ship, which turned out to be a paid sponsorship. The number drew criticism for its in-show commercialism in the otherwise decorous Tonys.
“It’s not anything that's being repeated,” Weiss said Tuesday. (Fierstein, though, will be back; he's nominated for writing the "Kinky Boots" book.)
The Tonys, which seeks to avoid screen clips as it re-creates the feeling of a Broadway show, will face some hurdles. Producers cope with a perpetual challenge in trying to work in nods to nominated plays; excerpts from a new work like Nora Ephron's "Lucky Guy," even when performed by Tom Hanks, who plays the lead role, can seem out of context and disorient viewers.
Also, fans of the short-lived "Hands on a Hard Body," which had its world premiere at LaJolla Playhouse, take note: the show, despite three nominations and a pile of critical praise, won't get a production number on Sunday night's broadcast. "Motown," on the other hand, despite being dismissed by many critics, has been one of the season's biggest hits and will be duly represented. (The show has received four nominations.)
The Tonys, a joint venture of the Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing, has walked a line between tradition and modernity that has long eluded the Oscars.
With fewer than 900 people voting on awards, the Tonys also traditionally manage to keep the drama level high for many of the prizes. This year is no different, with “Kinky Boots” and “Matilda” locked in a battle for best musical and the race for lead actor in a play between front-runner Tom Hanks (“Lucky Guy”) and challenger Tracy Letts (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) shaping up to be a juicy one.
Unlike the Emmys or Oscars, producers have only about a month to formulate a game plan once they know nominees. They also are thrown for loops by shows that close and are thus unavailable for musical numbers. A revival of “Jekyll and Hyde” that opened in April was to occupy a prime position at the show, for example. But those plans were scuttled when the show closed in May after fewer than 50 performances.
“If you look at what we think we’re doing back in February versus what we end up doing,” said Kirshner, "you’d think it was a different show.”
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