Playbill On-Line has learned that discussions took place on Oct. 25 concerning the possibility of producer Elizabeth McCann taking the reins from Edgar Dobie, the incumbent managing producer of the Tony Awards program. The New York Times and New York Post have posited McCann in the new role, while acknowledging that no official appointment had been made.
For 14 years the American Theatre Wing and the League of American Theatres have jointly produced the Tony Awards show. The two groups negotiate a broadcast deal for the televised awards ceremony, which is being aired under contract with CBS for the next few years.
The news of McCann's consideration as the Tony's managing producer indicates that the Tony Awards show is being re-thought in a big way. Sources unanimously agree that while no one is out to tear the show apart, some of Broadway's best executive talents have rolled up their sleeves and have put their shoulders to the wheel in an effort to invigorate and improve theatre's single most visible production.
League of American Theatres and Producers president Jed Bernstein told Playbill On-Line that he concurred with the notion that a constructive but very thorough approach is being taken with the Tony Awards show. "Yes, I think so," Bernstein said. "I think everyone realizes the importance of this show, and that the entire community recognizes that certainly its performance as a television show is less than satisfactory. We need to try to do better. Individuals may differ about what that means or how radically they are willing to change to make things better but, speaking for myself, I think everything needs to be considered and examined if we are to return the luster to this event."
Appointing a respected producer of McCann's caliber to the managing producer slot is a serious first step in such a program. "There's no deal yet," said American Theatre Wing president Roy A. Somlyo, "but it's true that we're talking to her. She hasn't been engaged, but hopefully she will be." Somlyo confirmed that there was a meeting on Oct. 25 to discuss McCann's appointment as managing producer of the Tony Awards. While all parties agreed that it would be premature to announce McCann in her new role at this time, the job appears to be hers for the asking. "We all love her," a source said.
Somlyo told Playbill On-Line that the current managing producer, Edgar Dobie (of Watt Dobie Productions) was planning to assist in the transition. "Edgar's agreed to be involved in the transition and to do whatever it takes to help, " Somlyo explained. "When he withdrew, he offered his services to a limited extent, meaning as much as his producing schedule would allow. He's been very gracious about that and it's because he didn't want to drop the ball. He never intended to leave us in a lurch."
When Dobie took over from Somlyo as managing producer of the Tonys, there was a transition built into the deal. "He trailed around with me throughout the whole first year," Somlyo said. "Then I handled it off to him and he went through a second year under my guidance. So Edgar will also provide a transition, even if he won't be able to be there on a day to-day basis."
At the same time, Somlyo explained, "Liz doesn't come to this from a stand still. She's been on the Tony Award management committee as a member, so it'll come much easier."
If McCann's appointment becomes official, there will be changes in the lives of both producers: McCann will likely recuse herself from the Tony Award management committee, while Dobie will be increasingly busy producing the new Don Schlitz-Ken Ludwig musical, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer which is recording a CD sampler Oct. 28 and is scheduled to open in New Haven in February. Dobie has also been involved with Riverdance.
Somlyo also addressed the issue of traditional, low-grade conflict between the League and the Wing when it comes to the Tonys. "The League has a philosophy and the Wing has one," Somlyo said. "You can have different spokespersons for either side and they'll still disagree on the same issue. But, there are many points where we are completely on the same page. They're a trade association, which often involves issues of marketing, and our interest is often in the preservation of integrity. When it comes to issues where we don't necessarily have corollary views, that's when we struggle."
While being the managing producer of the Tony Awards is not a job that requires exclusivity, it is demanding and the fact that McCann has a deep staff to call on is something that will work in her favor should she be appointed. McCann admits her political and negotiating experience will also be valuable, humorously describing herself in the Times as an "Irish politician and a moving target."
"I guess I meant they haven't found a way to nail me yet," McCann told Playbill On-Line.
While there is a great deal of anticipation over the Tony Awards show and there are things that remain to be ironed out in her deal, McCann was careful to clarify the nature of her future involvement with the show. One issue is creative influence. "People sometimes don't understand that the managing producer of the Tonys is answerable to the Tony Administration Committee, " McCann explained. "If I'm the managing producer of the Tonys, I'm not producing a television show, I'm acting as more of a liaison and business manager."
As difficult a job as that may be, the challenge of reworking the Tony Awards show will actually fall on an entire team, comprising both executive and creative talent. In addition to a managing producer, the Tony Awards will name an executive producer who will be responsible for conceptualizing the show. In time, key issues and questions, like who will host the awards program, will be addressed. For now, organizers are keen to establish the essential structure necessary for creativity to occur.
If people become crystallized in their positions over the years, and even suspicious of change, it stands to reason that it becomes that much harder to pull out their best instincts during a critical project. If so, McCann's challenge will begin with building on her established relationships with the Wing and the League.
Meanwhile, the theatre community awaits an announcement. "Until you get any official word from Roy and Jed," McCann said, "there really isn't any story."
-- By Murdoch McBride