Musicals sing for their supper at Tony Awards
— In 1994, Stephen Sondheim’s “Passion” beat Disney’s Broadway musical version of “Beauty and the Beast,” its closest competitor, in the race for the best musical Tony Award. “Beauty and the Beast” collected only one trophy — for best costumes.
But in the days after the award telecast, Disney’s Broadway musical brought in a record-breaking $1.6 million in sales while “Passion” managed a fraction of that and closed six months later. “It just goes to show you what a best costume Tony can do for you,” one insider quipped.
Of all the Tonys that will be presented Sunday night on CBS, only one — best musical — usually spikes the box office. This year, “The Book of Mormon,” the mega-hit from the creators of “South Park,” is heavily favored to win. But an effective musical number on the telecast can make a sizable difference to a show’s receipts and prospects — as “Be Our Guest” from “Beauty and the Beast” potently demonstrated.
Such recent musicals as “Wicked,” “Next to Normal,” “The Secret Garden,” “Smokey Joe’s Café" and “The 25th Annual Putnam Valley Spelling Bee” are all examples of shows that lost the best musical Tony but received a significant — and in some cases lifesaving — commercial boost from the telecast.
“You can’t minimize the potential impact, not with 8 million people watching,” says veteran producer Barry Weissler, whose “The Scottsboro Boys” will be competing against “Mormon” along with “Sister Act, the Musical” and “Catch Me if You Can.”
Technically, only the producers of the nominated musicals are given the privilege to spend, on average, $200,000 of their own money for a four-minute segment on the telecast. That includes the best musical revival nominees, which this year are “Anything Goes” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” But given the perennial uphill battle for ratings, executive producers Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss found it impossible to turn down Bono and the Edge’s offer to do a number from “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” which has been in previews since November. According to reports in the New York Post, they will perform “Rise Above” on the show with actor Reeve Carney, two days before the musical’s much-postponed premiere June 14.
While the television audience can accept Bono and the Edge performing on the Tonys somewhat independent of “Spider-Man” — as rocker Billie Joe Armstrong did last year with “American Idiot” and Billy Joel in the year of “Movin’ Out” — most nominated numbers must establish a clear context if they are to have any emotional impact, a tall order given the time constraints.
“You have to capture the essence [of the show], and yet the storytelling still has to have a beginning, middle and end, and it has to build,” says Kathleen Marshall, the nominated director-choreographer of “Anything Goes.” “You have to let go of your favorite parts, write bridging material, go at a slightly faster pace, and deal with a cast that is pumped up and nervous.”
The creative team of each musical works in consultation with the telecast’s producers to create a “scratch tape,” a rough approximation of what they’d like to perform in their allotted slot. The producers then map out camera angles and make additional suggestions to refine the numbers. “You sort of feel that you’re auditioning for them for the best placement on the show,” says Marshall.
Marshall says that splashy production numbers, such as Tony nominee Sutton Foster’s rendition of the title song of “Anything Goes,” often work better than a medley. However, she notes that, in 2006, when she chose to feature Harry Connick Jr. in “Hernando’s Hideaway” from her lauded revival of “The Pajama Game,” she also included a minute of the song “There Once Was a Man” for star Kelli O’Hara, who was not included in the big dance number. “You play to your strengths,” she says.
That can mean spectacle, as in the “Defying Gravity” number from “Wicked,” or comedy, as demonstrated by “Spelling Bee,” which featured a surprise appearance by Al Sharpton as a contestant. Star power, of course, also helps. Among this season’s musical nominees, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” boasts both Daniel Radcliffe and John Larroquette. While the former was snubbed by the nominators, Tony nominee Larroquette will be featured along with his famous costar in “The Brotherhood of Man,” one of the strongest ensemble numbers from the show.
“We may not win the Tony, but I think with Harry Potter singing and dancing his heart out we have the better shot at winning the telecast,” says one of the producers of the revival, who wished to remain anonymous because of an edict by the telecast’s producers against discussing the musical numbers.
The innocent heart of “Brotherhood of Man” is of a piece with several of the other musical nominees, including “Anything Goes” and “Sister Act, the Musical,” the stage adaptation of the popular Whoopi Goldberg film that will have its nuns shimmying up a sequined storm on the telecast.
But, surprisingly, it is closest in spirit to “The Book of Mormon,” whose contribution to the telecast has elicited the most interest, given its insouciant, sacrilegious humor and profane language. The New York Post recently reported that the “Mormon” producers lobbied the telecast producers in an unsuccessful bid to open the show with a chorus of doorbell-ringing missionaries, summoning stars out of their dressing rooms, including this year’s host, Neil Patrick Harris. They had to settle for a spot later in the show that will feature “I Believe,” Tony nominee Andrew Rannells’ anthem to his Mormon Church’s catechism, clean enough to spare the censor’s bleeps.
“Mormon,” for which tickets are scarce, has the least at stake among the four nominees. The telecast offers the most potential blessings — as well as perils — for those shows that haven’t set the box-office afire. “Catch Me if You Can,” based on the Leonardo DiCaprio film about a charming con man, has been doing middling business but now has the opportunity to turn things around when Tony nominee Norbert Leo Butz sings “Don’t Break the Rules,” backed by a line of long-legged chorines and noir detectives.
While most producers welcome a Tony nomination, it can also be a double-edged sword for a show that is struggling at the box office, sapping capital that might be better spent in other ways to keep it running. Such was the case of a 2006 nominee, “Cry-Baby,” based on the John Waters film. The show’s producers had little chance of winning, yet they could not turn down the opportunity. The number on the telecast made little difference at the box office, and the show closed shortly after.
“Scottsboro Boys” didn’t even make it that far — it closed last fall. Even though the musical had good reviews and strong word of mouth, a show about the notorious injustice of nine black Alabama youths falsely accused of rape in the 1930s did not draw an audience. What’s more, this last work of the composing team of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb (“Cabaret,” “Chicago”) was framed as a minstrel show.
That did not stop Tony nominators from remembering it in 12 categories.
“Being on the telecast gives us the opportunity to honor the work, remind people how terrific the production was and try to make for an afterlife,” says Weissler, cobbling together a national tour of “Scottsboro Boys” beginning later this year. The Tonys spot will help raise its profile in regional theaters as well. (It is part of the Old Globe’s new season in San Diego.)
Susan Stroman, a double nominee as director and choreographer of the show, says preparing for the telecast is never easy, whether it is choreographing a chorus line of old ladies with walkers, as she did for “The Producers,” or conveying a tragic chapter of racial history. “When you’re dealing with dramatic and emotionally gripping material, that can make for even better television,” she says.
And good television is what it finally comes down to. Which gives the producers of “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” some hope that their jukebox drag extravaganza might emerge from the Tonys with a tailwind. Even though it was not nominated for best musical, it will still have a musical moment on the telecast to dazzle with its show-stopping costumes, which it is heavily favored to win. Designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner won an Oscar for the 1994 film on which the musical is based — who could forget Gardiner’s famous American Express Card gold dress?
They can only hope that the best costume Tony will do for “Priscilla” what it did for “Beauty and the Beast.”
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