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The importance of winning Tony: The brand-name factor

June 08, 2003|Patrick Pacheco | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — At the beginning of the 1950 film classic "All About Eve," drama critic Addison DeWitt describes the Sarah Siddons Award for Distinguished Achievement. The theater's highest honor, he explains, is perhaps unknown to the general public, because "it has been spared the sensational and commercial publicity that attends such questionable 'honors' as the Pulitzer Prize -- and those awards presented annually by that film society."

The Sarah Siddons is a fictional stand-in, of course, for the Tony Award, the statuette that will be handed out tonight at Radio City Music Hall in a three-hour telecast on CBS.

And as for the derided honor given by "that film society"?

Well, what could that be but the Oscar, which has long been looked upon with envy -- and occasional condescension -- by the theater community? Talk to theater producers, actors and others about what distinguishes their highest award from the others, and the words that come up most often are "class," "prestige" and "peer recognition."

"There's something elitist about our little award, something terribly special," says Chita Rivera, 70, who has previously been nominated seven times, won twice ("The Rink," "Kiss of the Spider Woman") and is up again tonight as a featured actress in the musical "Nine." "I see some of these crappy award shows that are constantly on and some 22-year-old gets up there who isn't old enough to know what the award is all about."

"The Tony gives you more credibility in the theater, but the Oscar, well, the Oscar is all about the Oscar," says producer Martin Richards, who recently carried back to Manhattan an Academy Award for "Chicago" -- the film adaptation of the 1975 Broadway musical that he also produced. The Bob Fosse musical garnered 11 Tony nominations, only to be shut out that year by "A Chorus Line."

Richards' Oscar now sits in his library opposite a shelf full of Tonys he won for the musicals "Sweeney Todd," "The Will Rogers Follies" and "La Cage aux Folles." "The thing about the Tony is that it does help your show run, and everything in the theater is about making the show go on."

Conventional wisdom says there are really only two Tony Awards that really matter: best play and best musical. Winning the best musical Tony can further validate a big hit -- like "Hairspray," which is considered the likely winner tonight -- or help a struggling one find its feet, as with last year's winner, "Thoroughly Modern Millie."

The rule of thumb is that winning either of the top awards could add a year to the run of the show. But that value has been called into question recently as productions that have won those awards, such as Stephen Sondheim's "Passion" or Edward Albee's "The Goat," have closed without enough of post-win bump to recoup initial investments.

So as the Tony celebrates its 57th year, what is the value of the Tony: merely prestige? Or can it be translated into heftier, if less quantifiable, economic terms?

Courting the upscale audience

"The award really is about excellence, and the television show is about marketing," says Peter Schneider, who co-produced with Thomas Schumacher "The Lion King" (2000 best musical winner) and "Aida" for Disney. "For the individual theater artists, the award is personal recognition for the tremendous effort that goes into making these shows. But the Tony is also a brand name, the most valuable brand name that the theater has."

In some ways, adds Schneider, the award is as "prestigious as ever." But the changing dynamics of marketing on Broadway has altered just how producers can exploit their Tony Awards.

Indeed, CBS has recognized that brand name in spite of declining ratings. (Last year's Tonys averaged just under 8 million viewers, far fewer than the estimated 20 million tuned to the Emmys or Golden Globes, and less than a fifth of the audience for the 2002 Academy Awards.) The producers of the telecast -- a joint effort between the American Theatre Wing and the League of American Theatres and Producers -- are hoping to reverse that trend with tonight's host, Hugh Jackman, the "X-Men" star who began in theater in his native Australia and who will star in "The Boy From Oz" this fall on Broadway.

In addition, the telecast will feature other crossover personalities, such as 'N Sync's Joey Fatone, who appeared in "Rent"; Billy Joel, whose "Movin' Out" is up for 10 Tonys, including best musical; and Melanie Griffith, who will be appearing this summer in "Chicago" and whose husband, Antonio Banderas ("Nine"), is locked in a tight race with Harvey Fierstein ("Hairspray") for the lead actor in a musical.

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