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Curtain Calls : THE TONYS: AN AWARDS SHOW WHERE THE PLAY’S THE THING

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The curtain goes up Sunday on the 47th annual Tony Awards, which honor the best in Broadway theater. The Tonys, airing on CBS, may not be the most-watched awards show on TV but it has the reputation for being the classiest.

And for director Walter C. Miller it is one of the best gigs in the business. Miller is celebrating his seventh year as director of the Tonys. “I love the Tonys,” says Miller, who has won three Emmys, two Peabodys and three Directors Guild of America awards, including one for the 1991 Tony telecast. “Why wouldn’t I want to keep doing them?. You know, it’s still the only touch we have with the live theater. As far as television is concerned, they don’t do an awful lot of it.”

Miller also has a personal mission in directing the Tony Awards, which is hosted this year by two-time Tony winner Liza Minnelli. “If I just get one or two or three or four people to come to New York to see a play, we have accomplished something,” Miller says. “Television gives them a little insight into the pageantry and size of it.”

The Tony Awards, a.k.a. the Antoinette Perry “Tony” Awards, is presented by the League of American Theaters and Producers along with the American Theater Wing, which founded the award in 1947 to honor distinguished achievements on Broadway. This year, the Tonys celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Broadway theater and the 50th anniversary of the musical milestone, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Oklahoma!”

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And California’s regional theater is well represented. The La Jolla Playhouse is receiving a special Tony for excellence. And two of the top nominated shows, Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” and the musical “The Who’s Tommy” were both developed in Southern California: “Angels” at the Mark Taper Forum and “Tommy” at La Jolla.

Time is not on the side of the director and producer of the Tony Awards. Only two hours are allotted for the show with no extensions.

“It is not enough,” says Emmy-winning producer Gary Smith, who has produced the Emmy Awards, the 1988 and 1992 Democratic Convention and “Baryshnikov on Broadway,” and is producing the Tonys for the first time. “It’s certainly enough to give out 20 awards, but when you have Liza Minnelli, you want to do some entertainment things with her,” Smith says.

Minnelli, Smith says, will perform for the first time with her half-sister Lorna Luft, who is touring the country in “Guys and Dolls.” Minnelli also is doing an opening number called “Celebrate Broadway,” which was written especially for the show. Besides airing performances from the four nominated musicals, Smith is trying to find a way to illustrate the four plays.

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“I have been trying to think of a way to bring one segment together that focuses on the plays, but not as four separated excerpts,” Smith says. “I am trying to find an idea that holds them all together as one piece. That sounds a little strange, but I think I am on to it. It will show the process of what takes place in a play from the audition to the final step and use the four plays to illustrate how the process works.”

Smith’s idea may work since history has nothing to do with it. The Tonys tried unsuccessfully for several years to do three-minute excerpts from the dramas. “The last two years we have not been doing them,” Miller says. “The fact is, it’s almost impossible to try to tell the story in three minutes. How do you possibly give them the amount of time they need to get the story?”

To ascertain which productions from the nominated Broadway musicals will work for the Tonys, Miller and Smith attend each musical at least once. Because Miller is such a familiar face on the Great White Way, the theater producers are pretty open to his suggestions.

“You always have to be aware of the fact they want to protect the product,” Miller says. “You can make suggestions and they are willing to work with you. They seem to cooperate.”

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Usually the musical numbers, which run on the average of four minutes, go off without a hitch on the live show. “Most of these shows are running, so they have a chance to clear out kinks and straighten them out,” Miller says. “We don’t really get into too many problems.”

He did have a problem two years ago with “Miss Saigon.”

“What we did is pre-tape the helicopter landing because we couldn’t possibly get it in our theater,” he says. “But we finished live on stage. So if it gets too complicated, we try to make a combination of both live and tape. But we like to get as much of it as we can live because it is theater. It is Broadway and the audience gets caught up into it. It is better for the performer.”

Because of time constraints, several of the awards are presented before the telecast begins. Everyone involved in the Tonys decides what awards will be presented off camera. “It’s very hard to do a thing like that,” Miller says. “They work hard--costume designers, lighting designers. It’s hard to do that to someone, but it’s just impossible to get it into two hours.”

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Though there will not be a musical tribute to “Oklahoma!,” Agnes DeMille, who choreographed the musical, will be on hand to receive its special Tony. “Oklahoma!,” Smith says, “was never able to receive the Tony because it was before the Tonys. Agnes DeMille was one of the most important parts of ‘Oklahoma!,’ and frankly what she did in that show, in a sense, set the standard for what dance became in the Broadway theater. It got away from the sort of traditional little Broadway chorus kind of dancing. It brought ballet, classical and modern ballet into the theater.”

Tribute also will be paid to the first lady of the theater, Helen Hayes, who died earlier this year at age 92. “She was not only a great actress, but she won the first Tony Award as an actress for her role in ‘Happy Birthday’ in 1947,” Smtih says. “She was also president of the American Theater Wing for a short time.”

Through the years, Miller’s discovered working with theater actors to be far easier than performers from other mediums. “In film and television, it’s always hard to get people to open up time to rehearse,” he says. “But when you work with theater people, once they hit the theater, they pull together. They want to rehearse and do the best they can. They change their attitude. I do other awards show, I do the Grammys, the Country Music Awards and the Emmys. They deal more with the electronic wonder. We try to stay away with that.”

Smith and Miller have their own opinions as to why the Tonys stand out among the awards shows. “I think it’s the respect the performing community gives the show,” Smith says. “The play’s the thing. I think when people gather in the theater, they are really gathering for a very genuine tribute to the theater’s finest. It’s also more intimate and there’s a very special kind of pride because it is more intimate.”

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“The integrity is important to everybody,” Miller says. “You have to answer up to these theater people and they are strict. As far as I am concerned, I pride myself with the feeling that whatever we can do to enhance the integrity of the theater and preserve it, we do it.”

“The 47th Annual Tony Awards” airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS.

THE PLAY LIST

The 1992-93 Tony Award nominations are:

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Play: “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches,” Tony Kushner; “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me,” Frank McGuinness; “The Sisters Rosensweig,” Wendy Wasserstein; “The Song of Jacob Zulu,” Tug Yourgrau.

Musical: “Blood Brothers,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “The Goodbye Girl,” “The Who’s Tommy.”

Revival: “Anna Christie,” “Saint Joan,” “The Price,” “Wilder, Wilder, Wilder.”

Actor, Play: K. Todd Freeman, “The Song of Jacob Zulu”; Ron Leibman, “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches”; Liam Neeson, “Anna Christie”; Stephen Rea, “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me.”

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Actress, Play: Jane Alexander, “The Sisters Rosensweig”; Madeline Kahn, “The Sisters Rosensweig”; Lynn Redgrave, “Shakespeare for My Father,” Natasha Richardson, “Anna Christie.”

Actor, Musical: Brent Carver, “Kiss of the Spider Woman”; Tim Curry, “My Favorite Year”; Con O’Neill, “Blood Brothers”; Martin Short, “The Goodbye Girl.”

Actress, Musical: Ann Crumb, “Anna Karenina”; Stephanie Lawrence, “Blood Brothers”; Bernadette Peters, “The Goodbye Girl”; Chita Rivera, “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

Book, Musical: “Anna Karenina,” Peter Kellogg; “Blood Brothers,” Willy Russell; “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” Terrence McNally; “The Who’s Tommy,” Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff.

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Score, Musical: “Anna Karenina,” Daniel Levine music, Peter Kellogg lyrics; “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” John Kander music, Fred Ebb lyrics; “The Song of Jacob Zulu,” Ladysmith Black Mambazo music, Tug Yourgrau and Ladysmith Black Mambazo lyrics; “The Who’s Tommy,” Pete Townshend, music and lyrics.

Director, Play: David Leveaux, “Anna Christie”; Eric Simonson, “The Song of Jacob Zulu”; Daniel Sullivan, “The Sisters Rosensweig,” George C. Wolfe, “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches.”

Director, Musical: Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson, “Blood Brothers”; Michael Kidd, “The Goodbye Girl”; Des McAnuff, “The Who’s Tommy’;’ Harold Prince, “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

Featured Actor, Play: Robert Sean Leonard, “Candida”; Joe Mantello, “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches”; Zakes Mokae, “The Song of Jacob Zulu”; Stephen Spinella, “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches.”

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Featured Actress, Play: Kathleen Chalfant, “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches”; Marcia Gay Harden, “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches”; Anne Meara, “Anna Christie”; Debra Monk, “Redwood Curtain.”

Featured Actor, Musical: Michael Cerveris, “The Who’s Tommy”; Anthony Crivello, “Kiss of the Spider Woman”; Gregg Edelman, “Anna Karenina”; Paul Kandel, “The Who’s Tommy.”

Featured Actress, Musical: Jan Graveson, “Blood Brothers”; Lainie Kazan, “My Favorite Year”; Andrea Martin, “My Favorite Year”; Marcia Mitzman, “The Who’s Tommy.”

Scenic Design: John Arnone, “The Who’s Tommy”; John Lee Beatty, “Redwood Curtain”; Jerome Sirlin, “Kiss of the Spider Woman”; Robin Wagner, “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches.”

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Costume Design: Jane Greenwood, “The Sisters Rosensweig”; Florence Klotz, “Kiss of the Spider Woman”; Erin Quigley, “The Song of Jacob Zulu”; David C. Woolard, “The Who’s Tommy.”

Lighting Design: Howell Binkley, “Kiss of the Spider Woman”; Jules Fisher, “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches”; Dennis Parichy, “Redwood Curtain”; Chris Parry, “The Who’s Tommy.”

Choreography: Wayne Cilento, “The Who’s Tommy”; Graciela Daniele “The Goodbye Girl”; Vincent Paterson and Rob Marshall, “Kiss of the Spider Woman”; Randy Skinner, “Ain’t Broadway Grand.”

A special Tony Award for continued excellence by a regional theater: La Jolla Playhouse.

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Other special Tonys will be given to:

“Oklahoma!”: The landmark Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.

The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and Moving Picture Machine Operators of the United States and Canada: Labor union of professional craftspeople in 900 locals.

Broadway Cares-Equity Fights AIDS: The entertainment industry’s most active charity addressing the challenges of AIDS.

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