Previews of Coming Attractions: Tony Awards Favor Future Musicals Over Present Ones

Surprised by seeing Sting on the Tony Awards? How about Jennifer Hudson? Playbill.com talks with members of the theatre community about the musical numbers that were broadcast on the Tony Awards and how the choices were made. 

Andy Karl
Andy Karl (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

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The Tony Awards broadcast is often charged by its critics as being nothing more than a three-hour-long advertisement for the shows that played on Broadway that season. The 2014 telecast, however, shed itself of that reputation. Instead, it is being criticized as an advertisement for shows that are going to be on Broadway next season.

Many theatre professionals and observers were confused — and some were irate — when precious airtime during the June 8 broadcast was devoted to upcoming musicals. Sting performed a number from his musical The Last Ship, which will premiere at the Neil Simon Theatre in October. And Jennifer Hudson sang a song from Finding Neverland, a Harvey Weinstein-backed show about the creator of "Peter Pan," which is expected on Broadway spring 2015.

Meanwhile, a couple shows that did play on Broadway during the 2013-14 seasons got short shrift. Rocky, the musical adaptation of the popular Sylvester Stallone boxing movie, which ended up winning a Tony for Best Scenic Design, performed a scene during the show, but one that did not feature the score. However, it fared better than The Bridges of Madison County, which, despite being nominated for a few Tonys, got no airtime at all.

Ironically, Jason Robert Brown’s unheard score and orchestrations both won Tony Awards. Upon mounting the stage, while accompanied by a snippet of his score, he quipped, "Glad you got to hear that music from Bridges of Madison County, 'cause that's all you'll hear tonight.” (Brown declined to comment further for this article.) On social media, some of his colleagues agreed with his grievance. “Instead of having a song from a show YET to be on Brdwy- they should have had a song from Bridges of Madison County,” tweeted actress Debra Messing.

LL Cool J
Photo by CBS

Adding insult to injury, the Tony producers also found time to squeeze in a number featuring LL Cool J and T.I. rapping sections of The Music Man. “I'm just so relieved they squeezed in some time for LL cool J,” said Bridges star Steve Pasquale in a tweet that was retweeted nearly 200 times.

Who gets to perform on the Tony Awards broadcast, what they get to perform, and for how long, have long been politically charged questions in the Broadway theatre community, and producers are aware of that. But they accept the situation, since they also know that, just as much as actually  winning a Tony, a performance that lands well with the viewing public can translate into big box-office sales. Even though some of the expenses of producing the number on the Tonys broadcast come out of the producers’ pockets, it’s still considered to be well worth the cost.

“If you show well and win a Tony, you’re going to spike” at the box office, said Robyn Goodman, who had backed such recent musicals as In the Heights, American Idiot and Cinderella. “And if you don’t win, but your number comes off well, you’ll still see a spike.”

So, naturally, every musical that is still running on Broadway wants a slot. (Plays, less kinetic on television than musicals, have long been relegated to the sidelines, much to the chagrin of playwrights and their producers.) When you have a dozen or so musicals vying for position, and limited television minutes, someone’s always going to walk away unhappy.

CBS decides how much time each show gets on the program, and when each segment will fall. Producers get little or no say in such matters, but “You always argue with them,” joked Goodman. “Let’s call it begging.” Sometimes, such petitions work. “On Cinderella, we got a little bit more time,” she noted.

Jennifer Hudson
Photo by CBS

Under normal circumstances, Rocky and Bridges would have little to complain about. Though they both garnered Tony nominations, neither were nominated for the big prize, Best Musical — the only nomination that guarantees you a spot on the telecast. But in this year’s case, time that could have been given to Rocky and Bridges was instead handed over to Neverland and The Last Ship — segments that amounted to previews of coming attractions.

The Neverland plug had already been raked over by the press prior to the telecast, with critics accusing Weinstein of using his clout to muscle his way onto the broadcast. (Weinstein denied the charges.) Neverland, which opened in Leicester in 2012, is set to go to the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA this summer in a reworked rendition.

In the past, the Tonys have presented numbers from shows that were on tour, or had been on Broadway for a while, and even one show that was on a cruise ship. But still-to-come shows is a new phenomenon.

“I’ve never seen previews,” remarked Goodman. She noted, however, that the numbers weren’t exactly previews, since Jennifer Hudson is not going to be in the cast of Neverland and Sting will not star in his own show. “You’re not really seeing the show they going to do, so are you representing the show well?” she asked, rhetorically.

Following the broadcast, some commentators questioned the move. “The choice to include the numbers amid the more standard songs of musical nominees elicited some eye rolls at the Tony after-parties,” wrote the Los Angeles Times, “with some wondering whether the show had taken a step too far in the direction of telecasts such as the MTV Movie Awards, which heavily promote upcoming movies.”

However, Ricky Kirshner, one of the Tonys' two producers, defended the inclusion of the yet-to-come shows. "They're both really good numbers and have big stars singing them," he told The Times before the telecast. "And if we can get someone who's a huge Sting fan or a huge Jennifer Hudson fan to watch the Tonys and say, 'That ' Gentleman's Guide' is kind of cool, maybe I should buy a ticket,' that's a win-win for everyone."