After 2 'catastrophic' years for Broadway, have the Tonys become too big to fail?

Ashley Lee, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

For a few days earlier this month, Broadway producers panicked at the possibility that the Tony Awards would not air on television. Canceled and revived within the space of about 72 hours, the June 11 live ceremony was caught in the crossfire of the ongoing writers' strike: Its broadcast home, CBS, is part of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the group with which the Writers Guild of America has been at an impasse since May 2.

"The Tony Awards was established to recognize excellence in the craft of theatermaking and all the different categories of people who work extremely hard to put on shows all year, but we just happen to celebrate on TV every year so that we can reach as many people as possible," said Scott Sanders, theater producer and member of the Tony Awards Management Committee, the group that negotiated with the guild to avoid a Tony-night picket line.

"In our conversations with the WGA, we said, 'We're in complete support of your mission to get a fair and equitable contract,'" Sanders continued. "'This year in particular, when the theater is just coming out of a two-year catastrophic window from COVID, is there any way that you can allow our show to continue?'"

Though it ultimately secured a compromise that will allow the ceremony to proceed, albeit in an altered form, the Tony Award Management Committee's position — and the underlying fear of a Tonys-free year — exposed just how dependent the American theater industry has become on the annual celebration.

Founded in 1947 and televised since 1967, the Tonys' acceptance speeches and musical numbers are not a major force in the ratings; last year's ceremony drew 3.9 million viewers, its second-lowest viewership ever recorded. But for an art form buffeted by a halting post-pandemic recovery, rising ticket prices and competition with countless other entertainment offerings, the awards telecast remains perhaps the most important night of the year.

"It's just a fact that Broadway shows don't have the type of marketing budgets and general exposure that sporting events and movies do," said "& Juliet" producer Eva Price. "And the number of people we can reach on any given night are finite because we're confined to the four walls of our theater — not to every movie theater in the country, not to a 20,000-person stadium.


"But for so many people like me, who grew up in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, and did not see my first Broadway show until I was 15, the Tony Awards is a way into Broadway that feels real and accessible," she continued. "It's a beautiful sales tool that actually has a very real ripple effect on the box office."

The "Tonys bump" is particularly influential among tourists, many of whom plan their visits to New York City around the shows they plan to watch. "We see who wins, and then we immediately buy our tickets for our trip in the winter, six months in advance," said Taylor Wyatt, a stay-at-home mom from just outside Orlando, Fla., who has traveled to New York with her mother annually for 18 years. "Because we know, once the Tonys air, everybody's thinking the same thing: 'This is the hit show this season, I have to see it.'"

Though plays, unlike musicals, are only featured during the ceremony through brief, pretaped clips of the productions, victory can secure ticket sales from patrons faced with a plethora of options.

"There are people out there who are programmed to choose what they're going to see based on what wins at the Tonys," said John Johnson, who produced "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window" and "Ain't No Mo'" this season. "If they've been hearing about Jessica Chastain and Jodie Comer, sure, any person would like to see all of them, but between the resources of money and time, they're not going to go see everything. And so when a show wins or a performer wins, it cuts through the conversation of what someone should see in a way that bumps you up to the top of people's lists."


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