Ask Playbill.com is a weekly Playbill.com column that answers questions about theatre, generated by readers and Playbill.com staff, every Thursday. To ask a question, email AskPlaybill@Playbill.com. Please specify how you would like your name displayed and please include the city in which you live.
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This week's question comes from Peter Mitchell of Chanhassen, MN.
Question: With the Tony Awards coming up, I was wondering how the nominees for Best Musical and Best Revival of a Musical choose which song (or medley of songs) they will perform? Once the songs have been selected, how do the organizers of the Tony Awards ceremony pick the order in which the casts will perform? Is there any kind of technical rehearsal and/or dress rehearsal to incorporate the design elements and work all of the songs and transitions before the ceremony? Answer: Glenn Weiss, director and producer of the Tony Awards, says that every season, before the nominations even come out, he and his team sit down with the producers of each new musical on Broadway to discuss potential songs for the Tonys telecast.
"We're looking at the shows from the eye of what would make a great three-minute television performance, which is sometimes not what people would perceive as the best number of the show," he says. "It must be something that holds together out of context of the show."
While the Tony Awards producers (Weiss co-produces with Ricky Kirshner) and CBS have the final say, Weiss says, he wants all parties to agree.
"There's a lot of compromise that goes into it and give-and- take," he says. "It's a total collaboration. No one's going in bullying anybody else. We really talk through with their creative people and come to consensus on what we feel represents their show."
Adam Epstein, the producer of one of this year's Best Musical nominees, Cry-Baby, plus past nominees Hairspray (the 2003 Best Musical winner) and The Wedding Singer, says that in deciding what song to suggest, "usually we use two criteria: What is the most energetic and robust number that a TV audience could watch that would make them want to buy tickets? What is the largest number that could include the most people so that you're doing an ensemble number, to show people that you're doing an old-fashioned and heavily populated Broadway musical?" Cry-Baby will perform the song "A Little Upset," which, while not including everyone in the cast, is a group number that "we think is out best foot forward," Epstein says. As for his discussions with the Tony producers, he says, "I've never had a situation where we've disagreed. TV producers and theatre producers arrive at the same idea because clearly there's highlights of every show."
Rob Ahrens, a producer of Xanadu, says that the producers and creative team looked to similar out-of-context presentations for guidance in picking which song would work. They had presented a medley of four songs at a cocktail party during the Broadway League's recent conference for road presenters. "We felt one of the songs played very well there, so we decided to do that song again at the Tonys, and to expand it a little bit," he says.
As for the order of the songs, Weiss says, "Our objective is to keep it interesting, keep it exciting so that viewers have an interest in staying." Does that mean putting more recognizable shows later in the show? Not necessarily, he says, but "that is one of many calculations that could go into the formula."
Another part of it is making sure the songs flow from one to the other. Weiss says the process is "much like in the music business, what song plays first on an album what song plays second an album — trying to create a flow that you're happy with." He implied that that might involve making sure songs that are back to back aren't too similar in terms of tempo, perhaps, but was hesitant to spell out hard-and-fast rules. "There are no guidelines or rulebook," he adds. "It's more just creating something that feels like a natural flow. Like anything else in the art world, that's subjective."
Stage logistics is also a factor. Sometimes the order is determined by when sets have to be moved on an off. At other times, "these nominees are playing in that number so we can't put that award next to that number," he says. "It's an interesting jigsaw puzzle. For every concept on paper that might flow well, you have to look at nuts and bolts."
And yes, there are rehearsals, including a dress rehearsal on Sunday morning (June 15), the day of the Tonys. AskPlaybill.com will address more Tony logistics questions next week.