One of the advantages to hosting the Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall is its size: three times bigger than the largest Broadway theatre. This affords an opportunity for more people -- in or out of the industry -- to witness firsthand as the past year's brightest and best earn a place in theatrical history by becoming Tony winners, the highest honor a theatre artist can receive. Still, with last season's total Broadway attendance topping 10 million, even Radio City's expanded seating capacity clearly isn't enough to accommodate an ever increasing audience of eager theatregoers.
That's where TV comes in. For 21 years, CBS has been broadcasting the Tonys to viewers nationwide, establishing a yearly tradition of excellence appropriate to awards of the Tonys' stature. Last year, in an exciting and unprecedented collaboration, PBS came on board, airing the first hour of the Tonys, followed by two more hours on CBS. The results of this expanded coverage? Rave reviews, sky-high ratings, and most importantly, three hours of premium entertainment that brought the inimitable joy of Broadway to television audiences from Anchorage to Miami, Maine to the Mexican border.
For Jac Venza, director of Culture and Arts for PBS and co-executive producer of the PBS portion of the Tony telecast, this partnership with CBS is a lot like coming home. "I got my start at CBS in the early '50s," he says, "and that experience helps me now because I know the network's language and understand their concerns. They need to ensure a sizable audience that may not be as interested in the craft of theatre as in the excitement of performance. Now, working together, PBS and CBS can create a telecast that shows the best of both worlds."
This extraordinary evening begins with "Broadway '98: Launching the Tonys, PBS's way of honoring the work of those who made Broadway sing -- not to mention dance and act -- during the 1997-98 season. Directors, choreographers, designers and orchestrators will be among those stepping center stage to introduce themselves to a national audience that might be more familiar with movie and TV stars. Produced by Thirteen/WNET, the flagship PBS station, "Launching the Tonys" will look at the past year's highlight through interviews with the talent that makes Broadway happen nightly at 8 PM.
Of course, "Launching the Tonys" won't forget for a moment that this is Tony night, and neither will the TV viewers: Tonys will be presented in the categories of Best Direction, Score and Book of a Musical, Choreography, Lighting, Scenery, Orchestrations and Costumes during the PBS segment. The excitement of watching the winners claim their Tonys will be interspersed throughout the hour, and the context that the documentary portion of the program will provide is sure to make each announcement of a Tony winner more meaningful to the millions watching from home.
"Last year was the first time those people behind-the-scenes were pushed up front," Venza says, "and it was wonderful. It meant that the people in those categories were not just names, because by the time the camera showed their faces in the crowd as they awaited the 'And the Tony goes to...,' you knew who they were and cared about what they did."
This feat will again be achieved with the journalistic approach and attention to detail PBS is known for. Says Venza, "The reason we were able to swing into action on this idea last year was we had been working with that technique to great success on "City Arts" [another Thirteen/WNET program about the New York City arts scene]. That's the kind of knowledge PBS can bring to the Tony broadcast."
Judging from the thunderous applause after the interviews were shown at the 1997 Tonys, it's fun for Broadway to see itself on the big screen every now and then. "No matter where you are in the strata tonight -- whether you are an actor or a costumer, powerhouse or up-and-comer -- tonight you will see yourselves represented in a way that's completely new and fun," Venza says. The depth that has long since become PBS' trademark will unquestionably
add to the Tony television experience (as it did in spades last year), but let's not forget about good, old-fashioned awards show fun: glitz and pizazz. After all, the lights of Broadway are synonymous with glamour, and since the Tony Awards honor the best of Broadway, they must be glamorous. That's where CBS steps in. At 9 pm, an hour into the show, viewers across America will reach for their remotes and switch over to CBS, where the stage is set for entertainment.
While PBS took viewers backstage, CBS has saved them a much-coveted seat in the front row, right next to next to Tony veteran Walter Miller. Having coproduced the show for the last nine years and directed it eleven times, Miller is ready for a new role: executive producer. "I'm just sliding into another seat, really," says Miller, with characteristic humility. "We're all a team. I always say that anyone who has a suggestion is okay with me." If he is nervous, Miller will never show it -- nor will he reveal secrets about any new Tony firsts to top those of last year's critically acclaimed telecast. Turning coy, he says, "You'll have to see."
When it comes to tonight's hostess, Miller abandons coy and simply gushes. "I really enjoy working with Rosie O'Donnell," says Miller, pointing out that the PBS/CBS joint venture leaves more time for the bits that the legion of devoted fans of O'Donnell's talk show have come to expect from Broadway's biggest champion. "More space in the CBS broadcast means more time for Rosie," he says.
Not to mention more time for top quality entertainment. Another reason last year's Tonys was such a crowd-pleaser was the time the audience was given to savor performances by Broadway's best. Viewers can expect more production numbers this year as well, including favorite numbers from each this season's nominated musicals (new shows and revivals), and other special offerings. These performances will be punctuated by moments of true suspense, when the acting awards are presented, along with Best Play, Best Musical and Best Revivals.
As an awards show veteran, Miller appreciates the additional time the PBS/CBS approach affords, especially when the winners can properly thank their colleagues and loved ones without worrying about the orchestra interrupting them with a maniacal rendition of "Give My Regards to Broadway." In addition to the Tonys, Miller has produced and directed both the Emmy and Grammy Awards. And he is an award winner himself, taking home Emmys for his work on the 1991 and 1992 Tonys.
In his many years at PBS, Venza has witnessed an evolution in the network's focus. "The first group of people who worked at PBS only had experience in public affairs," he recalls. "I, on the other hand, did my apprenticeship working in variety shows. So I guess that's why I headed off in that direction." Indeed, Venza's brainchild, the acclaimed series "Great Performances," brought theatre into the homes of people far from the footlights of Broadway. After 25 years, the show continues to inspire new generations of prospective Tony winners to follow their dreams.
Thanks to the combined efforts of PBS and CBS, people across America will be staying up late tonight, children hoping to spot Simba or adults ready to laugh with Rosie. "The show is produced to entertain and whet the appetites of all ages," says Walter Miller. "The Tonys bring everyone, young and old, to Broadway for one night."
-- By Kevin O'Leary