Tony Awards prepare for TV audience, potential tourists and Twitter buzz

Tony Awards prepare for TV audience, potential tourists and Twitter buzz
New York's Radio City Music Hall hosts the 2015 Tony Awards on Sunday. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

When a scene from one of Broadway's hit musicals or plays is performed on Sunday's CBS telecast of the 69th Tony Awards, an immediate surge of online and telephone orders for tickets is almost guaranteed.

The American Theatre Wing's Tony Awards have always been the trophy show with the most direct influence on the future business of its nominees, but the show's importance has intensified as the water-cooler chatter of live TV events now happens in real time, thanks to social media.

Jack Sussman, executive vice president for specials, music and live events for the network, said that has been the pattern for awards show viewing in the Internet era — but it's even more pronounced with the Tonys.

FULL COVERAGE: Tony Awards 2015

"That moment in time on television is really important for that production," Sussman said while watching the cast of "An American in Paris" rehearse a Gershwin medley on the stage of Radio City Music Hall, where the ceremony will be held. "Winning the Tony makes a big difference. [People] are going to say, 'When I get to New York, that's the show I want to see.' "

The Tony Awards, watched by just over 7 million in 2014, do not generate the massive audiences of the Academy Awards, the Grammys or Golden Globes. Ratings had once fallen to a point where the first hour was handed over to PBS to broadcast. But over the last decade, CBS has committed to turning the TV event into a celebration of Broadway.

"Yes, it has kind of a niche audience, but it's broadening every year," Sussman said. "[Stars] are coming to Broadway who hadn't come to Broadway before. It's a celebration of a great year in American theater that allows people who can't get to Broadway or haven't had a chance to get to Broadway to basically see the best of Broadway in three hours."

While Broadway had a strong year at the box office — grosses were up 7.6% to a record $1.36 billion for the 2014-15 season — none of the nominated shows became huge pop culture breakthroughs, such as "The Producers" or "The Book of Mormon."

"It's a strange year, and many of the shows opened up in the last week of eligibility," said Glenn Weiss, who co-produces the show with Ricky Kirshner. "The chance of people watching at home having seen the show is really slim. Some of the shows have only been open five or six weeks at this point."

The range of nominees also reflects the kind of split-personality season that just ended. There are traditional crowd-pleasers such as the balletic "An American in Paris" and the revivals of "On the Twentieth Century" and "The King and I." There is also newer, edgier fare such as "Fun Home," a musical based on a graphic novel set in a funeral home; the Shakespeare-as-rock-star story in "Something Rotten!" and "The Visit," a macabre Kander and Ebb work that took nearly 15 years to get to Broadway.

You can also expect an appearance by the demonic puppet from one of the nominated plays, "Hand to God."

"It was a full year," said Broadway veteran Kristin Chenoweth, who is cohosting this year's telecast with Alan Cumming. "There's something for everyone. I think these shows are going to be here for a second."

The Tonys show will also feature numbers from three musicals not nominated but still running on Broadway — "Finding Neverland," "Gigi" and "It Shoulda Been You."

"We decided to open the show up to give as much entertainment value as we could and brought other musicals that are up and running into the telecast," said Sussman. "They are alive and well on Broadway, and we wanted to celebrate them."

Weiss and Kirshner take a firm hand in deciding which musical number or play excerpt is performed on the air.

"We try to walk in objectively and say, 'If I'm watching this 31/2 minutes, is this giving me enough to want to buy a ticket?' " Weiss said. "If we feel we're presenting it well enough that people want to see the show, then we feel like we've done something right."

The telecast is "really important not only for the business of Broadway but also for the interest in theater," Weiss added. "We want people to come to Broadway, but we also want people to connect to theater."

Theater aficionados should appreciate the effort by Chenoweth, who this week has been rehearsing at Radio City Music Hall during the day and costarring each night in "On the Twentieth Century" at the American Airlines Theatre.

"It's the hardest thing I've ever done," she said during a meal break at Friday's rehearsal. "I'm not quite sure what I was thinking. But when all is said and done, I'll be happy. I need sleep."

Tireless trouper that she is, you'd think her patience would be tested by having to come out on stage in an E.T. costume, having confused "phone home" with "Fun Home."

"It didn't take much convincing," the diminutive diva said. "I fit the costume."

Indeed, a theme park career could be a viable backup plan to Broadway, she joked. "I used to work at Opryland when I was 18," she said. "So maybe I can go back there when I retire."