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The Rosie & Tony Show


Broadway, says Rosie O'Donnell, has had a "profound effect on me. It moves me in a way movies and TV never did. There's nothing like the feeling of sitting in a darkened theater with a waxy Playbill in your hands as the theater orchestra strikes the first note."

O'Donnell, who describes her 1994 Broadway debut in "Grease!" as the most "fullfilling thing" in her professional life, is the host of the 51st annual Tony Awards, airing Sunday on CBS.

The network is hoping O'Donnell will energize the usually dismally rated program honoring the best of Broadway, just as she has daytime TV with her popular "The Rosie O'Donnell Show," which celebrates its one-year anniversary on June 10, three weeks after O'Donnell won her first Daytime Emmy for best talk-show host.

Telecast for the first time from Radio City Music Hall, the awards will be presented in two parts. The first hour, "Broadway '97: Launching the Tonys," will air on PBS and will feature the presentation of 10 awards. The remaining 12 awards, including best musical and play, will air on the CBS broadcast.

Among the top nominees this year are the musicals "The Life," "Steel Pier," "Chicago," "Titanic" and "Juan Darin, a Carnival Mass."

O'Donnell has been busy promoting the Tonys on her weekday series and recently had the cast of one of her favorite new musicals, "Titanic," on the show to perform.

Question: Is hosting the Tony Awards a dream come true for you?

Answer: Without a doubt. I am very lucky I grew up on Long Island, so I had access to the Broadway community. From the time I was a little kid I went to see shows. I would steal money from my dad's wallet and go get standing-room [tickets] for "Pippin," "Dreamgirls" and "A Chorus Line." So I am really thrilled to be able to get to host the Tonys.

We watched the Tonys ever since I was a little kid. My mom was a very big fan of Broadway musicals and theaters, so I remember watching them as early as age 6. That's the reason I hope we can deliver a whole new Tony Awards program. I think there's an audience out there that needs to be reached to get to experience what the Broadway stage is like. I think through a really wonderfully executed Tony telecast we can create a generation of musical theater lovers.


Q: Why do think past Tony telecasts have done so poorly in the ratings?

A: They have never really been done well, I think. It's mean to say, but it's true. It's going to be produced in a much different style this year. We are going to streamline the presentation. There will only be 12 awards presented during the two-hour show, along with musical numbers of the nominated shows ... and there will be the opening number. That will be it. There will be single presenters, not double presenters. That will give [the winners] time for speeches, and they won't be rushed off. I think it will really show America that the people they love in movies and TV really had their origins on Broadway.


Q: Are you also hosting the PBS telecast?

A: Although I will be there for the 8 [p.m. show], my participation begins at 9 on CBS, and that's where we need to get the big ratings to ensure the Tony Awards continue to appear on network television for the next 20 years.


Q: Will you have an opening monologue?

A: There's an opening. I am going to do six Broadway musicals that are up and running but not in contention for a Tony this year because they've already been up [before]. I am going to perform with the cast of six shows, [including] "Rent," "Smokey Joe's Cafe," "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk," "Grease." It will be great for me and an exciting way to kick off the show.

I won't be doing any jokes in between. It's really a night of celebration of theater and it will be treated with great dignity.


Q: What was your first Broadway experience?

A: "Clams on the Half Shell" with Bette Midler in 1972. My mom loved Bette Midler. My mother took me every year to Radio City to see "The Nutcracker" in the third balcony, really bad tickets, and we ate lemon drops. I was thrilled and amazed at the whole spectacle of live performances. I truly think if I had not been exposed to Broadway I wouldn't have become a performer. I would see movie stars like Barbra Streisand and think to myself, "I'll never meet her." But when Jennifer Holliday signed my Playbill or Lucie Arnaz stopped and talked to me, they were real people. I had a real specific path of what I wanted to do because of my exposure to Broadway.


Q: Do you think the main reason you were asked to host the Tonys is because of your enormously successful show?

A: Without a doubt. That was 100% their motivation. I am more than happy to be used in that capacity. But I am a child of the theater. My love for the theater and the appreciation and respect for it is very genuine.

When they said to me, "Do you want to host?," I said I want to host if I have a hand in how the show is done. I am not so arrogant to think I know everything, but I know that I have a true and genuine love of theater and an understanding of TV programming. I know I can help make it better.

I said I will only do it if you go to Radio City. The biggest house [on Broadway] has 1,600 seats. Six-thousand people [at Radio City] makes it an event. It has to be a celebration of Broadway. It's deserving of this kind of attention. If I can achieve [that attention], it will be a good payback for all the times that I saw shows for $10 in the standing room.

"Broadway '97: Launching the Tonys" airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on PBS. "The 51st Annual Tony Awards" follows at 9 p.m. on CBS. "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" airs weekdays at 3 p.m. on KNBC-TV Channel 4.

For more on the Tony Awards, see Sunday Calendar.

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