The Tony Awards airing Sunday on CBS will be chock full of well-known names, as the stage adaptations of “Frozen,” “Mean Girls,” “SpongeBob SquarePants” and a new “Harry Potter” play are among this year’s nominees.
Two more names you’ll recognize: Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles, co-hosts for the Radio City Music Hall ceremony. The musicians have been good friends and self-professed theater nerds for years.
Groban, 37, nabbed a Tony nomination for his Broadway debut in last season’s ambitious musical “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.” Bareilles, 38, scored a Tony nomination in 2016 for writing the music and lyrics of “Waitress,” the first Broadway musical with an all-female creative team, and she also has stepped into the show’s leading role. This season, she’s nominated in the original score category for contributing a song to “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical.”
"We’re crossover Broadway actors who are crossing over to hosts in a very crossover season on Broadway," Groban said. "In a way, it’s pretty perfect for us to not feel like we have to be like anything that’s been done in the past, but to be just ourselves and embrace the fact that we're huge fans who have been able to fulfill our dreams as part of this community."
Groban and Bareilles, first-time awards show hosts, will take over the performance-packed ceremony just a year after the emcee was Kevin Spacey, who has since been accused of sexual assault.
"I think we have to light some sage!" Groban said in jest. “But really, our job throughout the night is not to harp on any drama that came before us but to celebrate all the people in that room, who put in all their effort eight times a week and deserve to be there for all the right reasons. We’re focusing on that positive energy and all the ways that theater can bring people together.”
Of course Spacey “weighs on the room,” Groban said, “but it’s something we want to try to exorcise through the course of the night.”
He and Bareilles have spent the last few weeks writing material for the show, including segments featuring their own musicianship ("I think if we don’t flex some vocal muscles, we’d be wasting just ever so slightly of an opportunity," Groban said) as well as their notoriously active social media lives ("We’re dreaming up some inventive ways to include our audiences at home," Bareilles said).
Though much of the show was still in flux this week, they assured viewers that the Tonys, like many of this year's televised awards shows, would acknowledge the #MeToo movement.
"We certainly are people who are extremely socially conscious and definitely inspired by so much of these conversations happening on a larger scale," Bareilles said. "I'm sure that will be reflected in some way, shape or form."
The telecast will be packed with familiar faces, as Robert De Niro, Tina Fey (a nominee for “Mean Girls”), Billy Joel, Kerry Washington, Jim Parsons, Christine Baranski and Carey Mulligan will present awards. The ceremony also will feature a rare televised performance by Bruce Springsteen, who topped the Broadway box office with his twice-extended concert memoir “Springsteen on Broadway.” He will be honored with a special Tony Award.
Whereas last year’s leading contenders (“Great Comet,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Come From Away,” “Oslo”) might have been unfamiliar to the public outside of New York, the widespread familiarity of this season’s titles, combined with Groban and Bareilles as hosts, may help the telecast pull in more viewers. With the exception of 2016, when the “Hamilton” cast recording made that musical a pop culture phenomenon, the Tonys ceremony has historically struggled to draw a TV audience. It won’t help that the telecast remains tape-delayed on the West Coast, even as the culture moves deeper into the era of social media spoilers.
But beyond rewarding good work, Tonys night is also meant to function as a three-hour commercial for the theater industry. Though the 2017-18 Broadway season jumped more than 14% to hit a record high of about $1.65 billion in ticket sales, attendance has remained somewhat flat at around 13 million admissions. Ticket prices are rising, not the number of people buying.
“People who normally don’t get to go out and see theater might be watching [the Tonys] with passing curiosity and see something that makes them say to themselves, ‘Wow, I really want to see the touring company of that production when it comes to our town,’ or ‘I finally want to take that trip to New York and see some shows,’” Groban said.
“We take that responsibility very seriously. We want the night to be fun inside that room, but we also have our eye on the outside, on the people watching who haven’t seen these shows,” he continued. “And I think a lot of younger people — with ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Frozen’ and ‘Mean Girls’ and ‘SpongeBob’ nominated — will want to tune in and see what the fuss is about.”
So for those who do tune into the Tony Awards for the first time, Bareilles has a bit of advice: “Enjoy getting to see a little snippet of what I consider to be this delightfully eclectic, beautiful, vibrant, inclusive, strange cast of misfits who just work their butts off in New York City every day. That’s how I felt when I experienced theater at a young age; I felt like I had found my tribe. And I know there are little kids out there who are gonna watch the Tonys and hopefully see themselves up there someday."
The Tony Awards
When: 8 p.m. Sunday (tape delayed on the West Coast)