STAGE TO SCREENS: A Chat with Tony Producer Gary Smith and Tony Musings

News   STAGE TO SCREENS: A Chat with Tony Producer Gary Smith and Tony Musings If you're reading this column, it won't come as a surprise that "The Tony Awards" are Sunday night. You also must be aware that the host is Hugh Jackman, and that (for the first time in several years) the ceremony is three hours, 8 to 11 PM ET on CBS. "They wanted more entertainment and longer acceptance speeches," says executive producer Gary Smith.

Does that mean that if Elaine Stritch had won this year, she wouldn't have been cut off? Claims Smith, "I actually thought of opening with Elaine coming out and saying, 'In conclusion. . . . ' But I realized that might make us long again." He laughs at my suggestion that Stritch sit atop Billy Joel's piano at the start of the show.

As has been announced, Joel begins the telecast from Times Square, singing "New York State of Mind." Smith notes, "We try to do something exciting for people around the country. You can get hooked on a show by a good opening."

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Several good openings enriched the 2002-03 season, which went from the ridiculous (The Play What I Wrote with the star what I saw) to the sublime (Long Day's Journey into Night with a sterling performance by Vanessa Redgrave). Highlights included Movin' Out, Take Me Out, Dinner at Eight and Nine.

At the Theatre World Awards last Monday, I had the opportunity to tell Bernadette Peters that I thought her performance in Gypsy was one of the best I've ever seen, and that I look forward to her singing "Rose's Turn" on the Tony telecast. It's unfortunate that a backlash exists. When did missing shows due to illness become a crime? It's not as if Peters were indicted for insider trading, or caught using a cork-filled bat. (In baseball, I thought it was the bases, not the bats, that were supposed to be loaded.) The Tonys are about comparisons, however odious that may be. While I consider Marissa Jaret Winokur a very talented newcomer, I do not believe that the part of Tracy Turnblad compares with Madame Rose, nor do the performances of Winokur and Peters. Standout differs from outstanding.

It wasn't the best year for musicals about dancing with vampires, riding mechanical bulls and walking through walls. A play about George Burns and Gracie Allen succeeded; one about Carol Burnett and family did not. And back where she belongs—lookin' swell, fellas, still goin' strong—was Chita Rivera. That's Chita, with a capital C, and that rhymes with P, and that stands for Perfect!

Besides marking Rivera's return, Nine introduced a very welcome Antonio Banderas to Broadway, and brought us a most memorable telephone call from Jane Krakowski. (If she descended from the flies every time a cell phone rang in a theatre, complaints would vanish instantly.)

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Some complaints will be heard due to the presentations of five Tonys prior to the telecast. Speaking last Friday, Smith told me that he couldn't divulge which categories were involved. Imagine my surprise the next morning when I read in the New York Times Arts & Leisure (which prints on Wednesday) that Smith "confirmed that five awards, including orchestration, the three design awards (sets, costumes, lights) and the special award for regional theatre, will be announced in advance of the live broadcast." Maybe the pressures of producing affect Smith's memory; perhaps he assumes that no one reads Arts & Leisure. Having interviewed him on previous occasions, I was disappointed not to be able to take the gentleman at his word.

Concerning the five awards, Smith explains clips of the winners "will be seen on the show. But instead of using up approximately 17/18 minutes, they'll be shown in a package that will take only a couple of minutes. CBS wouldn't have given us the extra hour just to do the same thing that was done on PBS [which, for the past five years, telecast the first hour]."

This marks Smith's eighth turn in charge. "What I'm doing a little differently this year is having the performer talk about the context of the number that the audience is about to see. Before he does 'Impossible Dream,' Brian Stokes [Mitchell] tells what it means in the show. Same with Bernadette and 'Rose's Turn.' We feel [the number] will work [outside Gypsy], because Bernadette will talk about its relevance." It takes "at least four minutes [each]," Smith believes, "to do 'The Impossible Dream' and 'Rose's Turn'—even though there will be brief cuts in them." (Cue more complaints.)

For the taped scenes from nominated plays, there exist "two or three versions," says Smith. "You don't know until you get into the show if you need the long, medium or short version. Time is always the issue.

"We're doing eight production numbers, including something from Def Poetry Jam, even though it has closed. It's so contemporary, and shows off a part of the theatre that's new and fresh. Other than Amour, all the [nominated] musicals are represented." (Maybe Michel Legrand should have written hip-hop.)

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The Peters-Winokur competition is not the only two-way race. Will it be Antonio Banderas or Harvey Fierstein? Brian Dennehy or Eddie Izzard? In retrospect, the original Rose, Ethel Merman, lost (to pal Mary Martin for The Sound of Music), but both Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly won as Rose in revivals. Raul Julia was nominated for originating the role of Guido Contini, but didn't take the prize; if Fierstein does, it will be his fourth Tony—and, matching Tommy Tune, each in a different category. (In 1983, Torch Song Trilogy won Fierstein awards for Best Play and Best Actor; in 1984, he won for writing the book of La Cage aux Folles.) Of the actors nominated as James Tyrone, Fredric March won and Jack Lemmon lost. Both of Izzard's Joe Egg predecessors—Albert Finney and Jim Dale—were nominated; neither won.

It's doubtful that first-time nominee Vanessa Redgrave can lose, though neither of the previously nominated Mary Tyrones won: Florence Eldridge (Mrs. Fredric March) and Bethel Leslie (in the Featured category). Two of Redgrave's competitors are up for roles that have a history of success. All Fiona Shaw's Broadway predecessors as Medea were winners: Judith Anderson, Zoe Caldwell and Diana Rigg, as were the actresses who played Victoria Hamilton's Joe Egg character: Zena Walker (in the Featured category) and Stockard Channing.

In the Featured Actor categories, there are two front runners: Denis O'Hare will probably score for Take Me Out (though Philip Seymour Hoffman could slide in), and Dick Latessa seems likely to win for Hairspray. The Featured Actress in a Play race would seem to be between Michelle Pawk, who garnered much praise for Hollywood Arms, and the much revered Marian Seldes, for Dinner at Eight. Pawk's never won; Seldes took the trophy for A Delicate Balance—36 years ago.

Chita Rivera (a two-time Tony winner), Mary Stuart Masterson and Jane Krakowski are nominees as Featured Actress in a Musical, as were the trio who originated their roles in Nine: Liliane Montevecchi (who won), Karen Akers and Anita Morris. One assumes that Krakowski's spectacular telephone call will make her a winner over Rivera for merely being spectacular.

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"The fact that we have three hours is lovely," observes Gary Smith. "Now there's time for more entertainment elements—and I don't mean only song and dance. I believe the tribute to Al Hirschfeld is entertainment. It's predominantly a Hirschfeld piece, but Hugh Jackman mentions that we also lost two other artists [during the past year]: Adolph Green and Peter Stone."

Might Jackman perform? "He may do a little bit of singing," says Smith. "We're still working on that. We've been talking to him. If he's comfortable with it, he'll sing something. He gets in so late. We've arranged for a private plane to bring him in from L.A., Saturday night. He shows up [at Radio City Music Hall] Sunday morning.

"He flies back right after the show, and has to be on a movie set at 6 AM, Monday morning. He really wants to do the show that badly. I think it's the first time that the Tonys are being hosted by someone who has never appeared on Broadway. Of course, he's coming [in October]. "We're not going with the theory that presenters had to have appeared on Broadway at some time. For instance, the theatre has had a wonderful impact on Barbara Walters. She talks about going to opening nights with her dad. You know who he was. [Lou Walters operated the Latin Quarter nightclub.] A couple of people fall into that category.

"The thank you speeches are the only variable; everything else is pretty much locked in. Having a little more breathing time on an acceptance speech can be entertaining—if the person uses it not just to read a laundry list, but to speak from the heart."

It was suggested in Arts & Leisure that ratings for the Tony telecast could be improved if performers such as Sting and Madonna sang Broadway tunes. Perhaps; I know I'd tune in to the Grammys if they had Nathan Lane and Barbara Cook.

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The first Antoinette Perry Awards were handed out in 15 minutes. On Easter Sunday, April 6, 1947, at Manhattan's Waldorf Astoria, the ceremony followed dinner, dancing and entertainment, and was broadcast by the Mutual Radio Network, WOR in New York. Awards—gold money clips with initials engraved for men, sterling silver vanity cases with initials engraved for women—were accompanied by scrolls. The Tony medallion, designed by Herman Rosse, was first presented in 1949.

Easter Sunday, April 1, 1956, marked the first Tony telecast, shown locally, from 9 to 10:30 PM, on the Dumont network, Channel 5, WABD in New York. Co-hosts (an odd couple) were Helen Hayes, then president of the American Theatre Wing, and comic Jack Carter. The first nationwide telecast occurred Easter Sunday, March 26, 1967, on ABC. I Do! I Do! co-stars Mary Martin and Robert Preston hosted from the Shubert Theatre, and it was the first of 20 mostly memorable ceremonies produced by Alexander Cohen, and written by Mrs. Cohen, Hildy Parks.

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Native New Yorker Gary Smith was "born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens." An only child, he's "always loved theatre, probably because my [maternal] grandfather, David Abrams, was a critic for the Yiddish Theatre. He wrote for The Freiheit. When I was a baby, my mother would take me down to Second Avenue, and I'd be in the company of Maurice Schwartz, Molly Picon, Luther Adler. In high school, I had an afternoon job at Triangle Studios; I painted scenery for Guys and Dolls and Top Banana."

Smith studied scenic design, graduating from Carnegie Tech in 1956. "I came to Manhattan, took the union exam and got in. Got a job at CBS, went over to NBC for 'The Perry Como Show,' and to California to work as designer and associate producer on 'The Judy Garland Show.' After five weeks, I was asked to produce the show; I was 27 years old, which I think is a record [for young TV producers]. What a baptism!"

He created and produced "Hullabaloo" (NBC, 1965-66), a rock-music series with guest hosts and a company of ten dancers, including Michael Bennett and Donna McKechnie. "That's where they met, and that's where I met my [second] wife," says Smith. Married 31 years, he's the father of five, but has no grandchildren ("I wish, I wish").

Smith's producing credits include a number of TV shows involved with the American Film Institute, inaugural galas, the last four Democratic conventions, and the two most recent Emmy Awards. As the Tony producer, Gary Smith tries "to get as much good stuff as possible on the show." His biggest challenge with "The Tony Awards" remains not getting the show on, but getting it off on time.

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As another season starts, one show heading to Broadway is the delightful Avenue Q ("Her name is Alberta, She lives in Vancouver. . . "). Others include Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, Never Gonna Dance, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Fiddler on the Roof. Hugh Jackman makes his bow in The Boy from Oz, and another Boy (George) offers a Taboo musical, produced by Rosie O'Donnell (a David Merrick-in-the-making). Wicked brings back Kristin Chenoweth and the most welcome return of Robert Morse—if ever, oh ever, a Wiz there was!

Elwood P. Dowd heads back to the Main Stem, along with friend Harvey. Antoinette Perry directed the original production, starring Frank Fay. This time around, Charles Nelson Reilly directs, Dick Van Patten stars, and—in tribute to another Harvey (Fierstein)—the title character will play Act Two in drag.

Hope springs eternal. As always, we want to enjoy exciting performances, as we experienced this past season with John Selya, Elizabeth Parkinson, Jayne Atkinson, Brian Bedford, Stanley Tucci, Edie Falco, Daniel Sunjata and numerous others. We look forward to many things during the new season, especially Tony night 2004.

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END QUIZ: Who were co-hosts of the second national Tony telecast (NBC, April 21, 1968): a) Angela Lansbury and Peter Ustinov; b) Diahann Carroll and Alan King; c) Julie Andrews and Walter Matthau? (Answer: Next column, July 6)

The May 11 question was: Who played the Spencer Tracy role in the 1961-62 TV series of "Father of the Bride": a) Stuart Erwin; b) Robert Young; c) Leon Ames? The answer is c).

—Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com and The Sondheim Review (and is pleased to have an article in the souvenir Tony Awards Playbill).