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The Tony Awards’ strategy for drawing viewers? The right amount of ‘Hamilton’ (and James Corden)

"Make it joyful and they'll watch," Tony Awards host James Corden says.
(Jason Bell)

During rehearsal sessions for the Tony Awards, theater seats are adorned with cardboard images of nominees’ names and faces. Broadway’s biggest night, which takes place Sunday at the Beacon Theatre, is an elaborate choreography, and directors want to know where everyone is seated so they can ensure maximum fluidity.

On Thursday, it was impossible to walk the Beacon’s aisles and not bump into a name from “Hamilton.” The heads of 18 people (representing the musical’s record-setting 16 nominations) popped up everywhere. A reporter, seeking a less daunting spot to watch the proceedings, finally gave up and sat next to George Washington, aka Christopher Jackson.

“Isn’t that bad luck for him if you sit there?” inquired Ricky Kirshner, one of the telecast’s directors. “Or maybe it’s good luck for you.”

Certainly Kirshner and the rest of the Tonys team are hoping “Hamilton” delivers a rabbit’s foot. After a 2015 in which the telecast averaged a measly 6.4 million viewers and a historic low in the 18-49 demographic, along comes “Hamilton” to answer their prayers.

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The Lin-Manuel Miranda show is a once-in-a-generation phenomenon that could greatly expand the Tonys audience. Helped by a youthful and popular first-time host — the CBS late-night personality (and Tony winner) James Corden — a perpetually niche show could suddenly turn into a national event.

But those staging the Tonys may also want to keep a talisman on hand. The near-certain dominance of “Hamilton” — the hip-hop history piece is expected to win top prize of best musical, as well as honors in direction, score and acting categories, among others — could drain a typically suspenseful ceremony of much of its drama.

Directors and writers for the Tonys (8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS but covered live by The Times) have also been puzzling over where to place key moments such as the “Hamilton” number, without frustrating viewers by waiting too long or squandering an opportunity by going too fast.

And maybe most important, the Tonys must figure out how to speak to the influx of newbie viewers unfamiliar with Broadway without alienating its dedicated base.

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“It is all,” said Jack Sussman, CBS’ executive vice president for specials, music and live events, “a very delicate balance.”

One of the ways the show will seek that equilibrium is by dropping references to “Hamilton” throughout.

While head writer Dave Boone has said he has tried to bear in mind the “‘Hamilton’ fine line” in planning meetings, escape is futile. As a best musical nominee, the production will get a number to itself. Miranda will almost certainly come to the stage multiple times to accept prizes. And “Hamilton"-themed jokes are likely to dot presenters’ speeches. If you’re a little tired of “room where it happens” puns, Sunday night on CBS is not the place for you.

Even other nominees have been readying themselves for the Revolutionary War onslaught. Jessie Mueller, the actress shortlisted for her role in “Waitress,” quipped that she and other nominees were headed to “The Hamiltons,” a variation on the social-media nickname “The Hamiltonys.” The most apt comparison may be to the Oscar year of “Titanic” — it’s as much coronation as competition.

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But the Tonys also must try to make sure other productions get their due. Lost in some of the “Hamilton” hype has been the fact that, on Broadway, this has been as rich and varied a season of creative expression as the Founding Fathers might have hoped for.

Energetic new musicals derived from films (“Waitress,” “School of Rock”) sit alongside re-invigorated revivals (“Fiddler on the Roof,” “Spring Awakening).” Bold new dramatic work (“Eclipsed,” “The Humans”) share attention with original interpretations of classic pieces (director Ivo van Hove’s takes on “The Crucible” and “A View From the Bridge”).

And after a season when the Oscars were maligned for a lack of diversity, the Tonys will serve up not only “Hamilton” but race-themed shows such as “The Color Purple” and “Shuffle Along.”

Clips and numbers from many of them will be on display Sunday night. In the Beacon on Thursday, several dozen performers glided around the stage rehearsing “Sunrise, Sunset” from “Fiddler,” underscoring the point.

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“It’s an interesting alignment. ‘Hamilton’ is a great show, and it comes at a time when word can spread virtually, which is something past phenomena like ‘Chorus Line’ or ‘The Producers’ or ‘Rent’ didn’t have,” said Glenn Weiss, the veteran live-television director who is helming the Tonys with Kirshner. “But I don’t know if it’s a motif that runs through the show. We want to take its great material and bring thunder to the rest of the community.” Weiss, Kirshner and Boone have gone to meetings and added, then red-lined, jokes as they debated how much is too much.

As he sat on the steps in the balcony taking in the moment, Corden said he had been thinking a lot about the issue and, with the kind of enthusiastic directness that is fast becoming his trademark, he had reached a conclusion.

“I mean, come on, you have to hit it head on,” he said.

Corden had already done his trademark “Carpool Karaoke” with a “Hamilton” spin as he and Miranda rapped in the front seat. They were eventually joined by stars from this Broadway season — Audra McDonald (“Shuffle Along”), Jesse Tyler Ferguson (“Fully Committed”) and Jane Krakowski (“She Loves Me”) — to sing classics from the likes of “Rent.” By Friday morning, just days after it went online, the clip had surpassed 6 million views on YouTube.

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The 37-year-old said he had thought the Tonys had the potential to rival the Oscars, at least culturally.

“Hamilton” is a phenomenon, Corden said, adding that he doesn’t subscribe to the notion that people won’t tune in because they don’t know the nominees. Viewers watch the Oscars when they haven’t seen many of those movies, he noted. And look at the “Carpool Karaoke” clip. “People didn’t know who everyone was but they watched it because it was joyful. That’s all we’re trying to do,” he added. “Make it joyful and they’ll watch.”

(The “Hamilton” historic moment could help too. The record for most Tony wins is 12, held by “The Producers” in 2001. “Hamilton” could break that, but because its 16 nominations include multiple nominees in some categories, it would have to win every one of the 13 categories in which it’s nominated.)

The host, of course, is another weapon in his own right. Corden’s Broadway bona fides are secure; indeed, many Tonys viewers got their first glimpse four years ago when he rolled clear across the Beacon stage and beat himself up with a garbage-can lid for his performance in “One Man, Two Guvnors.” He said there will be no such prone activity this year “unless I fall down.”

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Still, moments like that prompt CBS to believe it has a host not just for this show but down the road, with this year a test-run of sorts. Sussman said that “what James brings to the party is both total Broadway credibility and an amazing capability of performing live on television, which almost no one else has.”

Boone said he hoped to marshal Corden’s chops in its own way. “If Hugh brought song and dance and Neil was the P.T. Barnum showman” he said, referring to past hosts Hugh Jackman and Neil Patrick Harris, “then what James brings is joy. He comes from the suburbs in England and just has this working man’s love of theater, and I think that translates to people at home.”

The Tonys returns to the Beacon this year (from its more regular place at Radio City Music Hall) for the first time since 2012. To viewers that translates mainly as a trade-off of grandeur for intimacy — a swap that Tonys insiders believe plays to Corden’s strengths.

Directors also want to take advantage of this edition of the Tonys, the 70th, to connect to Broadway’s history. That means a presenting moment from Barbra Streisand, who has not been on the Tonys stage in 46 years. And it means performances of old hits from the casts of “The Color Purple,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Hamilton.”

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That, too has a “Hamilton” tint, since it was inspired by the “Ham 4 Ham” phenomenon, in which various famous singers perform a rendition of a “Hamilton” song.

If all the “Hamilton” attention was bothering other performers, they weren’t showing it. “Fiddler” star Danny Burstein has garnered his sixth Tony nom without a win. He could be among those most hit by the “Hamilton” juggernaut. Despite talk of vote-splitting, the lead actor in a musical prize is likely to go to “Hamilton’s” Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr or Miranda in the title role.

“It’s new blood and I love it,” Burstein said as he took a seat in the Beacon during a rehearsal break. “All the guys in my category are an honor to call friends. And there are all these great shows,” Burstein added, noting that because of his work schedule he hasn’t yet had a chance to see “Hamilton.” “Many of the shows have lasted and we’re open for business and we want the world to come to Broadway and see them.”

The year’s largest shadow couldn’t entirely be avoided, however. As Burstein stood up he revealed what cardboard face he’d been sitting next to: Andy Blankenbuehler, the Tony-nominated choreographer of “Hamilton.”

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steve.zeitchik@latimes.com


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