Sixty-five dollars. For the price of a ticket to a typical Broadway show, you can get all of Broadway (well, the best of it, anyway). Tickets for the 1997 Antoinette Perry "Tony" Awards are on sale to the general public for the first time in the 51-year history of the event.
As widely reported and confirmed at an April 9 press conference at Radio City Music Hall, the awards will, indeed, be held at that venue. Since a typical Broadway theatre has only 1,000-1,500 seats, and Radio City holds nearly 6,000, not only will entire casts of nominated shows be allowed to take part in the event, but half the auditorium's seats will be on sale to the general public, with tickets set at $65 and $125, to go on sale May 5. The Tony nominations will be announced at 8:30 AM that day at a press conference in the theatre district restaurant, Sardi's.
Appearing at that conference will be O'Donnell, Raquel Welch (soon to be the new Victoria Grant in Victor/Victoria), and Alec Baldwin (A Streetcar Named Desire, next season's Macbeth). Joining them will be Isabelle Stevenson, president of the American Theatre Wing, and Jed Bernstein, executive director of the League of American Theatres and Producers.
The April 9 press conference's big moment came when Rosie O'Donnell traipsed comically down the long, carpeted staircase of the outer room of the main auditorium, finally confirming the two-month rumor that she would be hosting the award show on CBS. The actress confirmed that she was instrumental in having the venue changed from a Broadway house to the music hall.
"It's important to have a huge venue." She told reporters she got the idea from watching the Grammys at Madison Square Garden and seeing how much excitement the giant hall brought to the event. In other big news, people who've complained for years that two hours just isn't enough time to do the Tonys properly will have reason to cheer: From 8-9 PM E.S.T. on Tony night, PBS will offer an hour of Tony coverage, including an overview of the Broadway season and the announcement of the technical awards. That show, still being planned (no host has been chosen) will likely follow a documentary format and be titled, "Broadway `97: Launching of the Tonys."
Twelve awards will be announced on the main CBS broadcast: Best play, musical, revival of play and musical, actor and actress, and featured actor and actress, as well as special awards not yet decided upon. PBS will cover nine awards, among them best director, set, costumes, book, score, choreography, lighting, and a new category: orchestration.
Gary Smith, in his fifth year as executive producer of the Tonys, opened the press conference by expressing his exhilaration at the event's "totally new aspects." "This is the 20th anniversary of the Tonys on CBS," Smith said, "and it's exciting that CBS is re-orchestrating the event with Rosie O'Donnell, who has demonstrated her passion and respect for Broadway."
Smith said the theatre unions were consulted about the venue change and "unanimously accepted the idea." "Big can be better!" added American Theatre Wing president, Isabelle Stevenson.
CBS' CEO, Peter Lund, said he's happy about "this new relationship with channel 13, WNET." Asked why the League of American Theatres & Producers and the American Theatre Wing, who administer the Tonys, chose PBS instead of a cable channel, League executive director Jed Bernstein said that PBS offers "100 percent reach. The Tonys will reach every household in the country -- a potential audience greater than that of any cable network."
WNET's president, Bill Baker, said the idea for a PBS pre-show was started by his daughter, Angela, an aspiring actress, who told him, "The Tonys are so important; wouldn't it be great if all the theatre community could be honored and take part?"
Taking part in the big announcement was Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who reminded the assembled that "Broadway shows are the single most important reason people come to New York. 8.5 million people attended 40 Broadway shows last year, with a gross of over $400,000." Bernstein added that 1996-97 will be the second largest grossing season in Broadway history.
Plans for the CBS Tony broadcast won't fully take shape until the nomine ennounced, but O'Donnell did make clear the emphasis would be on musicals -- and not just the new ones. "The opening number will represent shows that didn't open this season but are still on Broadway. This will be a two-hour commercial to America about Broadway. We'll even have a red carpet outside Radio City and film the entrances, just like at the Oscars."
O'Donnell said the two things she hates most about awards shows will be eliminated: speeches read from cards and banter. "We'll remove the time limit for acceptance speeches," she said, "though we'll tell them at the Tony luncheon in May to think as if they're going to win. Prepare a 30 second speech (which will probably run a minute). This way we get the passion; people can speak from the heart. Also, we'll have single presenters. I don't want schtick or the silly banter between hosts. One person will give a short speech for perspective and then announce the award."
CBS president Lund, responding to speculation that poor ratings have weakened the network's interest in the Tony ceremony said, "We have two years left on our contract with the Tony Awards. But we expect the Tonys to be on CBS in perpetuity."
For tickets ($65-$125) and information on the 51st Annual Tony Awards, June 1, at Radio City Music Hall, call (212) 307-7171 (after May 5).
--By David Lefkowitz