Now that June is here, it’s that time of year when the Broadway theater community looks back on the season just concluded and celebrates its excellence. The big night – the 66th annual American Theatre Wing’s Tony Awards, presented by The Broadway League and the Wing – takes place this year at the Beacon Theatre in New York on Sunday, June 10, with theater professionals competing in 26 categories, including the coveted Best Musical and Best Play awards. The star-studded ceremony is also an opportunity to showcase Broadway at its best for the rest of the country through the live Tony telecast, which airs on the CBS television network at 8 pm Eastern that night.
“It is a challenge to translate live theater on to the television screen,” notes Jack Sussman, Executive Vice President, Specials, Music and Live Events, CBS Entertainment, “but the team that is putting this together is really good at it. They are unbelievable collaborators who work with the producers and creative teams of each show that is going to participate and perform. Their challenge is to take the creative vision of that individual show, producer and director and turn it into a great moment on television.” Susssman is referring to the Emmy-award winning team of Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss, executive producers of the Tony telecast, who have been putting on the show for nearly a decade. “What is amazing,” Sussman continues, “is that during the three hours on this one night there is probably more live performance talent congregated under one roof than any place on the planet. It’s not like you are taking one great group, Bruce Springsteen or U2, and putting them on TV for an hour. You are doing live set changes with casts that have scores of people in them. Sometimes there are over a hundred people on that stage and they are making turnarounds in a commercial break. There is no lip-synching and there is no second take — it all happens live in the moment — so you have to have the A-team involved.”
Producing the Tony telecast is indeed an impressive logistical and creative challenge, and a particularly intricate balancing act. Typically, eight or nine productions get to present a segment that best represents their show for the telecast. The attention of a national audience is, of course, very desirable to the producers. If, as is often the case, that production is still running on Broadway, any number of things could go awry. Pieces of scenery from the show’s current Broadway home may have to be transported to the awards show venue just for that one night. The actors who are giving 8 performances a week may actually be performing in a matinee for their own show that very afternoon. Additionally, because there is no venue large enough to accommodate dressing-room space for the casts of eight separate shows, actors have to get into costume in their own Broadway theater and get bused to the awards show venue in time for their respective numbers.
“We want to produce an entire strung-together, three-hour telecast, where everything has a flow from one act to the next, that keeps the audience engaged,” Sussman continues. There is also a parade of celebrity presenters booked for the awards show to help ensure the television audience stays tuned-in. This year’s line-up so far includes Broadway veterans Angela Lansbury (also a nominee this year), Christopher Plummer, Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, who will receive this year’s Isabelle Stevenson Award for volunteer service; as well as well-known names from the worlds of music, film and television, including Sheryl Crow, Amanda Seyfried, recent Broadway star Nick Jonas and Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain, who is slated to star in the fall in a new Broadway revival of The Heiress. But the main task of keeping the show lively and entertaining falls to the evening’s host. This year, for the third time, star of stage and screen, Emmy Award-winning actor Neil Patrick Harris takes on that duty. “He can sing, he can dance, he can act and he can make you think, when he looks into that camera, like he is talking to you at home in your living room. That’s the key to a successful host,” says Sussman. “If we walk away with an audience that is bigger than it was last year and engage viewers from 8 through 11 o’clock and get people to say, ‘I want to go to New York and see a show’, then we have done our job.”