THE SUM OF US: The Wing, the League and the Tonys

Tony Awards   THE SUM OF US: The Wing, the League and the Tonys
From the Special Tony Playbill

From the Special Tony Playbill

When Oscar Hammerstein II wrote "The farmer and the cowman should be friends," in 1943, he summed up the key ingredient that 50 years later makes the annual Tony Awards one of the entertainment industry's most prestigious honors: the collaboration between the American Theatre Wing and the League of American Theatres and Producers. Like all long term partnerships, this one is unique, and while their goals may differ, ultimately both institutions are interested in the same thing: promoting a love of the theatre.

The Tonys were created by the Wing in 1947 in memory of Antoinette Perry, a Wing founder. Their purpose was - and still is -- to commemorate excellence in the theatre. Though most of us think that this year's ceremony at Radio City Music Hall is a departure from the Broadway houses that have played host to the Tony Awards for decades, those early ceremonies were held in hotel ballrooms. "The Tony Awards can be given anywhere," says Isabelle Stevenson, the Wing's president, "and it would continue to have the prestige it has."

In addition to maintaining the high standards that the Tony's long list of illustrious honorees are famous for, Stevenson who became president the year before the Tonys were first televised on network television has played an integral role in making the Tony Awards one of television's most highly-regarded annual events. But the Tony Awards are just one of the Wing's projects. Stevenson also oversees the Wing's grants and scholarship awards program, which awards funds to deserving theatre companies and students who have demonstrated exceptional talent in some area of theatre.

Most recently, a new scholarship in memory of Bernard B. Jacobs, president of the Shubert Organization until his death last year, was established. Limited to students of DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx (Jacobs's alma mater), the first recipient will be announced this year.

Stevenson is a familiar face to the millions of viewers who tune into the Tonys, but she's also known to fans of the Wing's cable TV show, "Working in the Theatre." Presented in a panel format, "Working in the Theatre" brings together stars like Gregory Hines, Kathleen Turner and notable directors, writers, designers and producers for a round table discussion about their respective paths to success in the theatre.

In addition, the Wing sponsors the Hospital Program, which reaches out to hospitals, AIDS centers and nursing home facilities; "Theatre In Schools," which sponsors inner city school workshops and lectures led by established actors, including Bill Irwin, Tony Goldwyn, Ann Hould-Ward and Joe Mantello. And the Wing's "Introduction to Broadway" program brings over 60,000 students to a shows like Victor/Victoria and Once Upon a Mattress. The ticket price? $2.50.

The League of American Theatres and Producers does its share to promote theatre, though its methods are different. One of the League's core goals is to attract a new generation of theatregoers. Hence Kids' Night on Broadway: free performances for children 6-18 when accompanied by a paying adult. Building on the success of Kids' Night on Broadway (in partnership with the Theatre Development Fund) is the new Broadway Kids' Club, which will sponsor year-round special events, offers and promotions specially targeted to the young theatre audience.

These new events come under the auspices of the League's new executive director, Jed Bernstein. Bernstein brings 15 years of expertise to his new job from a successful career in advertising where he worked on such accounts as American Express, IBM and Seagrams so it's no surprise that one of the first programs Bernstein inaugurated during his first 18 months at the League was marketing oriented. Since a good advertising campaign relies heavily on a well targeted market, Bernstein made a commitment, for the first time, to an ongoing, quarter-by-quarter audience research and tracking study to examine a full range of demographics and behavior of theatre audiences. "The research provides League members with an instant snapshot of today's Broadway audience," says Bernstein, "which enables all of us to better understand where we must focus new marketing and audience development."

Bernstein is also working towards marketing Broadway through corporate sponsorships, something never before done. For the first time, the League is offering year-round corporate associations with Broadway through this new sponsorship program. In fact, as part of a multi-million dollar deal, Continental has become the Official Airline of Broadway the Great White Way's first-ever corporate sponsor. Some of the programs that will benefit from Continental's sponsorship include the soon-to-be relaunched Broadway Line, a national information line with reservation facilities, and Broadway on Broadway, the season kick-off free concert held in Times Square.

Clearly, the Wing and the League are very different operations, which is what made it so exciting when, in 1967, the League joined forces with the American Theatre Wing to produce the first televised Tony Awards. At that time, it made sense to utilize the shows from that particular season in creating a TV program that would entertain the millions of viewers who'd never been to a Broadway show, and weren't rooting for particular nominees. After all, Broadway is the home of show business's top talent, and putting that talent on TV was a great way to generate ticket sales.

Of course, with the League's contribution to the Awards presentation came some clout in the decision making process, and, like all relationships, it took time for the League and the Wing to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Roy A. Somlyo, managing producer of the Tony Awards for the past 11 years, says that the secret behind the Wing and the League's ability to work together is simple: "As with any enduring relationship, so long as there is mutual respect, a common meeting ground can be found.

"Since both organizations are devoted to championing the theatre, that alone is sufficient to bring the parties together," explains Somlyo. "By way of example, when the League wishes the telecast to incorporate as many Broadway musical performances as possible, because that stimulates ticket sales, the Wing endorses the concept because that brings about additional theatre awareness."

"It's like a marriage, and like all marriages, you have to count your blessings," admits the ever-gracious Stevenson. "For example, it's the cooperation of the theatre producers that results in our being able to do the programs that we want year round."

Jed Bernstein agrees, though he points out that Antoinette Perry, in addition to her acclaimed directing career, was also a producer. "Each of us on either side of the equation realizes that recognition of the best in each category is a noble task unto itself," Bernstein says. "But the Tony Awards have become so prestigious, they carry commercial value."

Just as the League stands behind the Wing's commitment to excellence, so the Wing stands behind the League's need to sell tickets. "What unites us," Bernstein says, "is that the Tony Awards are central to what each of us is trying to do: promote the joy, value and excitement of theatre across the country. That's a worthy goal for each organization.

"Part of a good partnership is respecting each other's goals," says Bernstein, and Stevenson agrees. "The Wing and the League do not compete in any way," she says. "What we do is support each other. The League's goals may be different than ours, but if you go around the circle, it comes together at the end."

-- By Marvin J. Bevans

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