It happens every year: people ask me what I thought of the Tonys. And basically every year I think the same things. So I’m not going to spend much time on this. And maybe, in upcoming years, I’ll just point people in the direction of this post.
1. What you see on your screen is, of course, a deliberate misrepresentation of what actually occurs in Broadway shows. Tons of people who haven’t seen the shows in the theatre like to believe they’ve seen something like what happens on stage. This is specious for a host of reasons. Let’s quickly switch to a movie analogy. Have you ever sat through a trailer for an upcoming flick and thought “Gee, that looks great. I’m definitely going to see that.” Then, when you do, it’s horribly disappointing, not at all what you eagerly anticipated. Well, it’s no wonder why this is true. The people who cut together those ads cleverly find clips intricately engineered to pique an audience’s interest; they’re promotional people. The artists who make movies strive to tell a story that will stay interesting for two hours. That’s a completely different skill. The song on the Tony telecast is filmed by someone who isn’t the stage director with an eye towards selling tickets. An actual stage piece plays to a crowd who’s already bought their tickets. Those thousand viewers go on a journey together, a shared experience of discovering what this story’s about.
2. The TV viewer is staring at a fairly small box. The camera moves in for the close-up, or pulls back for the wide-shot; actors don’t turn their backs. The guy in a Broadway theatre has a fairly large area to look at. Now, the director may attempt to narrow his focus to something specific, but it’s really up to the audience member to choose what to look at. Most Broadway houses are proscenium auditoriums. My home base is a theatre-in-the-round, so, currently, the audience is surrounding a family’s living room. How is that remotely like television?
In what I’m certain is most people’s favorite number from this year’s telecast, a phenomenal child actress named Sydney Lucas sings about a woman she’s just seen and feels an attraction to. Her father sits not far as she sings her internal thoughts. Behind her, at a writing table, is the adult woman she will grow up to be. As the pubescent girl makes all these discoveries, staring at an unseen lesbian, she turns around to check in with her forty-year-old self. This face-to-face connection conveys a lot, as if she’s asking whether it’s all right to feel this way, whether she’ll turn out to be emotionally fit. The moment is so much more than a girl’s sexual awakening. But enough about Ring of Keys from Fun Home: Consider how the television camera interferes with our understanding. Seen alone on your TV screen, you can’t tell whether the girl is looking at the unseen lesbian or her grown-up self. Seen on your screen, it’s not clear that Beth Malone is giving reassuring looks to her younger self, rather than taking in the woman being sung about. In the theatre, you can glance at the father to try to figure out what he’s thinking, but on the telecast the director rarely chose to show Michael Cerveris, who won the Tony.
3. Here’s one minute and forty-two seconds CBS couldn’t find time to broadcast:
Jeanine Tesori, Fun Home composer, accepting the Tony, pointed out that when she was growing up she had no idea females could have a career in music. “You have to see it to be it.” and yet the vagaries of commercial television are such that little girls watching at home who might write great musicals forty years from now couldn’t see it, so there’s less chance they’ll be it. But, over three hours on the air, the show could find time for numbers from shows that hadn’t garnered a single nomination, and could find time for a number from a Tony-winning hit from several seasons ago, and could find time for a section in which dead people’s names were put on a hard-to-see screen while some guy who’s never been on Broadway sang an old standard. Now, I don’t wish to take an unfair swipe of wholly overlooked musicals. They may have their merits, but this clip
tries to send a message: that stars that you recognize from hit television shows sometimes appear on Broadway. Which is more valuable to publicize, the acceptance speech by the writers of this year’s Best Musical, or an incomprehensible and unentertaining number, twice as long, with stars in it?
4. There’s an assumption that viewers will only tune in to the show if they hear their favorite celebrities are appearing. This presents a problem, because Broadway obviously venerates those who continually do great work on Broadway and a broadcast network has no use for most of them. Screen time is instead given to people who’ve already made many appearances on what is charitably called the idiot box. So, at one point, on came a woman I’d never seen before, who’s never been on stage in New York, and she’s introducing a number from a show whose star is making her Broadway debut. Why was she there? Because a number of years ago the star and the introducer had both been in a TV movie together. Now that I think of it, there was no earthly reason the show should have had a clip from the show, since it wasn’t a nominee for the top awards.
Still, the Tony telecast is substantially better than other televised award shows. And given the fact that musical theatre is so difficult to capture on camera, this year’s edition did a pretty good job. And it’s not like I missed CBS’ regularly-scheduled Sunday night program. You know, the one with Tony host Alan Cumming and Tony winner Michael Cerveris. Win-win!