This year's Tony Awards are making news less for what they are than what they're not:
* Radio City Music Hall, the show's home for the past two, high-profile years, is being renovated and is thus unavailable for this annum's event. No new venue has yet been selected.
* Rosie O'Donnell, who hosted the past two shows and helped boost ratings from 6.5 in 1996 to 9.6 and 8.4 in 1997 and 1998, has declined to host again, citing her busy schedule (including hosting the Grammy Awards).
* The American Theatre Wing and the League of American Theatres & Producers have been sparring, with new Wing president Roy Somlyo vowing to sever ties after this year's contract expires.
* Unlike last year's Lion King vs. Ragtime, Cabaret vs. 1776, and Art vs. Beauty Queen of Leenane match-ups, this year's field appears significantly weaker, with Parade and Side Man the only current front-runners for new material. * No date has been announced for the Tonys, though the ceremony is typically held the first Sunday of June, and the American Theatre Wing's January newsletter lists June 6, 1999 as the date for the Tony Awards.
When O'Donnell seized the title of hostess two years ago, she moved the Tonys from Broadway to the larger Radio City Music Hall. With Radio City under construction, the 1999 Tonys could land anywhere in the city, though spokesperson Keith Sherman told Playbill On-Line the 1998-99 event will definitely be held "in a Broadway house," though which one he couldn't yet say.
O'Donnell, who uses her weekday talk show to champion Broadway to great effect, was taken to task by some last year for making a few off-color jokes during the Tony broadcast, though others thought she'd loosened up from the year before and continued to bring new energy -- and new audiences -- to the show. Perhaps echoing the range of theatregoers' feelings about O'Donnell's presence in the annual Tony broadcast, the New York Times' former theatre critic Frank Rich said in a public forum Oct. 25, 1998, that he didn't like O'Donnell's "crude jokes" and populist approach to the awards. Producer Rocco Landesman, interviewing Rich at the 92nd Street Y event, disagreed, saying the comedian was a breath of fresh air.
Producer James Freydberg told the NY Post (Jan. 22), "She really helped turn the Tonys around," while Wing president Somlyo said, "She brought a considerable amount of excitement to the Tonys... I sincerely regret that she is not going to be available this year." Spokespersons at Roy Somlyo's office and at the Keith Sherman press agency (which reps the Tonys) both confirmed O'Donnell's declination. (Calls to both the Theatre League and Tony managing producer Edgar Dobie's office were referred to the Sherman office.)
No word on who will replace O'Donnell at the dais, though the NY Post mentions that sources are speculating on such names as Nathan Lane (co host in 1995, host in 1996) and The Blue Room's Nicole Kidman. Tony spokesperson Keith Sherman told Playbill On-Line it was premature to speculate on replacements, especially since hosting announcements are often made late in the game. "Rosie was just announced for the Grammys," said Sherman, "and that's a month away. In the past, the Tonys have waited till the end of April to announce. We know we're gonna have a big star, but it would be indiscreet to mention names being considered."
As for the Wing/League fractiousness, the two organizations, which have clashed in the past, began feuding anew in August 1998. At that time, the League sent a letter saying it would not renew its agreement with the Wing, and the Wing embraced that gesture at face value. The reasons for the split are murky, but since then Somlyo -- who took over for longtime Wing prez Isabelle Stevenson last summer -- has been adamant that there are no plans for mediation. "They've terminated the contract," he said in August. "I take no for an answer." The Wing's contract with the League expires after the 1999 ceremony.
As for this year's awards contenders, of the two top award categories -- best play and best musical -- the contest for play will be the more heated by far. Playwright David Hare, alone, is furnishing three productions. His hat trick includes the commercially successful The Blue Room ; the upcoming Amy's View starring Dame Judi Dench; and the dramatist's one-man show Via Dolorosa -- which could conceivably fetch Hare a best actor nomination.
Other English imports could also be contenders, including Conor McPherson's The Weir and Patrick Marber's Closer. Another possible nominee (and one of the few American ones) is the Alley Theatre's new production of the early Tennessee Williams oddity Not About Nightingales . Though the play is 60 years old, it has never had a New York production and could be termed a new play by the Tony committee.
The play revival contest should be equally stiff. On the play side, there is the Goodman Theatre's Death of a Salesman ; the London transfer of The Iceman Cometh starring Kevin Spacey; Zoe Wanamaker's smash production of Sophocles' Electra ; plus Roundabout Theatre Company's upcoming production of The Lion in Winter ; and the National Actors Theatre's revival of Night Must Fall .
On the musical side, however, the 1998-99 season is an open field. George C. Wolfe's troubled restaging of On the Town received mixed reviews and closed early; the Roundabout's mounting of Cy Coleman's Little Me garnered good houses and plaudits for Martin Short, but other aspects of the production came under critical scrutiny ; the Bernadette Peters revival of Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun ; and the upcoming remounting of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, directed by Michael Mayer.
Conversely, the Best Musical contest looks to be a weak one. The expected natural for the prize, the Jason Robert Brown-Alfred Uhry-Harold Prince Parade , received a rather cool reception, though it will still most likely receive several nods. And its main competitor, the much-lambasted Footloose hardly looks like a threat. The only other possible nominees are Fosse and Band in Berlin , though the first is a dance extravaganza and the latter a play with period music -- and some may question their status as musicals.
The diminished field may encourage other producers to rush in new musicals in time for the Tony deadline, in the hope of claiming the coveted trophy. There has been talk of bringing in Andrew Lloyd Webber's By Jeeves . And Captains Courageous , should it prove successful, may transfer from Off-Broadway's Manhattan Theatre Club.
Of course, no Tony season would be complete without a few tempest-in-a teapot type controversies. So far, though, only two minor potential scuffles have made themselves known. One involves the newly revamped version of last season's musical The Scarlet Pimpernel . Cablevision, the tuner's new producer, have made some noises about submitting the retooled Pimpernel as a new musical, thought the original show received a Tony nom in 1997. Also, some have suggested the much-praised Matthew Bourne production of Swan Lake may be categorized as a musical, thought the world has long regarded the classic piece as a ballet.
Such decisions are to be made by the Tony Nominating Committee, which will have its first 1999 meeting sometime in January.