Putting It Together: Backstage Magic Makes the Tony Ceremony Fly

News   Putting It Together: Backstage Magic Makes the Tony Ceremony Fly
 
A glimpse at the planning and teamwork behind creating the Tony Awards telecast.
Glenn Weiss and Ricky Kirshner
Glenn Weiss and Ricky Kirshner

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When the music starts for the 2010 Tony Awards on June 13 and the audience is relaxing into their seats, the evening is shifting to hyperdrive backstage for Glenn Weiss and Ricky Kirshner, partners in White Cherry Entertainment and co-producers of the live telecast. Weiss and Kirshner have to worry about every detail, from lengthy acceptances to scenery getting into place, with an eye to creating a memorable telecast. They and an army of stagehands and technicians stand ready to trouble-shoot any problems.

Weiss and Kirshner have mounted the show as executive producers for seven years now, each having worked on the Tonys in various capacities before that. They have won three Emmy Awards for their efforts, and Weiss was honored with an Emmy for his direction of the 2003 telecast.

They work in tandem with Jack Sussman of CBS, the executive vice president for specials, music and live events, to plan the event. Months before the nominations are announced, the White Cherry partners scout the musical contenders for good, four-minute numbers that will pique the interest of TV viewers. They consult with a show's producers, says Weiss, "about what can translate the story, about what can make people at home say, 'Gee, Broadway's fun. I want to go.'"

Nominees are advised that they'll have about 50 seconds from the time their name is called, and speeches with lists of professional associates send up red flags. But, says Sussman, "as long as you're doing something that's interesting, passionate, and genuine, you can have more time that we might have built into the rundown."

Despite rehearsals and the best-laid plans, unexpected glitches arise. If a piece of scenery isn't in place for a number, a presenter or the host may be advised to "vamp" until everything is ready. That's not as catastrophic as a mike going dead, says Weiss, who oversees the broadcast from a mobile unit on 51st Street with a bank of 25 to 30 monitors. But even when something goes wrong, making it right "can be construed as a great victory for 'The show must go on.'" Because the musical numbers and tempos can't be changed on the fly, if the evening is running long the team has to start trimming from later elements of the show. Astute observers may notice the banter lessen as the evening goes on, and for some awards just the names will be announced.

Much of the special magic of the Tony telecast depends on what Weiss calls making "judgment calls and thinking quickly." One such call came at a Sunday morning rehearsal in a year that Hugh Jackman hosted. Sussman recalls that Jackman showed the team a number he had performed in a one-man show and suggested he might use it during a commercial break to entertain the audience. (During commercials, the Radio City audience sees live or taped entertainment.) But the number went so well in rehearsal, Kirshner says, "We decided around 1 PM to reprogram and shuffle some other things in the show so it would all fit." Jackman rehearsed it, and millions saw him perform it live a few hours later.

During the ceremonies, there's yet another show going on backstage. There, Sussman says, stagehands and scenery are exiting and entering, stars review their lines on TelePrompTers, and old colleagues, who may have worked on a play together years before, exchange quick greetings in passing. Last year, stage manager Garry Hood recalls, Jane Fonda arrived in the wings, ready to go on, when she asked for her BlackBerry, took it and shot a picture from backstage, then went out to give an award. When she came back, she fiddled again with her device. "She was tweeting," he says, marveling. "All this technology!"

(This year there will be a fleet of TonyAwards.com Tweeters, Facebookers and bloggers backstage during the show, giving fans an insider's view of all the fun at Radio City. Playbill is also tweeting and has a Facebook presence, and will report from the press room backstage. Check out Playbill's plans for 2010 Tony coverage.

Once, when Rosie O'Donnell hosted, she carried a Polaroid camera. "She used to take pictures of any entertainer, any star, on the show and have them sign it," says Hood.

But then, what fan of Broadway could resist that opportunity? As Sussman notes, "On that one night in Radio City Music Hall, in the span of three hours, there is more triple-threat, legitimate live talent than anywhere else on the planet."

Edward Karam is a freelance theatre writer based in New York City. The story appears in the Playbill for the 2010 Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall.

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