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Musicals sing for their supper at Tony Awards

Winning best musical is nice, but an effective musical number on the telecast can prove just as lucrative at the box office.

June 08, 2011|By Patrick Pacheco, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Norbert Leo Butz in "Catch Me If You Can."
Norbert Leo Butz in "Catch Me If You Can." (Joan Marcus )

Reporting from New York — — In 1994, Stephen Sondheim's "Passion" beat Disney's Broadway musical version of "Beauty and the Beast," its closest competitor, in the race for the best musical Tony Award. "Beauty and the Beast" collected only one trophy — for best costumes.

But in the days after the award telecast, Disney's Broadway musical brought in a record-breaking $1.6 million in sales while "Passion" managed a fraction of that and closed six months later. "It just goes to show you what a best costume Tony can do for you," one insider quipped.

Of all the Tonys that will be presented Sunday night on CBS, only one — best musical — usually spikes the box office. This year, "The Book of Mormon," the mega-hit from the creators of "South Park," is heavily favored to win. But an effective musical number on the telecast can make a sizable difference to a show's receipts and prospects — as "Be Our Guest" from "Beauty and the Beast" potently demonstrated.

Such recent musicals as "Wicked," "Next to Normal," "The Secret Garden," "Smokey Joe's Café" and "The 25th Annual Putnam Valley Spelling Bee" are all examples of shows that lost the best musical Tony but received a significant — and in some cases lifesaving — commercial boost from the telecast.

"You can't minimize the potential impact, not with 8 million people watching," says veteran producer Barry Weissler, whose "The Scottsboro Boys" will be competing against "Mormon" along with "Sister Act, the Musical" and "Catch Me if You Can."

Technically, only the producers of the nominated musicals are given the privilege to spend, on average, $200,000 of their own money for a four-minute segment on the telecast. That includes the best musical revival nominees, which this year are "Anything Goes" and "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." But given the perennial uphill battle for ratings, executive producers Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss found it impossible to turn down Bono and the Edge's offer to do a number from "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," which has been in previews since November. According to reports in the New York Post, they will perform "Rise Above" on the show with actor Reeve Carney, two days before the musical's much-postponed premiere June 14.

While the television audience can accept Bono and the Edge performing on the Tonys somewhat independent of "Spider-Man" — as rocker Billie Joe Armstrong did last year with "American Idiot" and Billy Joel in the year of "Movin' Out" — most nominated numbers must establish a clear context if they are to have any emotional impact, a tall order given the time constraints.

"You have to capture the essence [of the show], and yet the storytelling still has to have a beginning, middle and end, and it has to build," says Kathleen Marshall, the nominated director-choreographer of "Anything Goes." "You have to let go of your favorite parts, write bridging material, go at a slightly faster pace, and deal with a cast that is pumped up and nervous."

The creative team of each musical works in consultation with the telecast's producers to create a "scratch tape," a rough approximation of what they'd like to perform in their allotted slot. The producers then map out camera angles and make additional suggestions to refine the numbers. "You sort of feel that you're auditioning for them for the best placement on the show," says Marshall.

Marshall says that splashy production numbers, such as Tony nominee Sutton Foster's rendition of the title song of "Anything Goes," often work better than a medley. However, she notes that, in 2006, when she chose to feature Harry Connick Jr. in "Hernando's Hideaway" from her lauded revival of "The Pajama Game," she also included a minute of the song "There Once Was a Man" for star Kelli O'Hara, who was not included in the big dance number. "You play to your strengths," she says.

That can mean spectacle, as in the "Defying Gravity" number from "Wicked," or comedy, as demonstrated by "Spelling Bee," which featured a surprise appearance by Al Sharpton as a contestant. Star power, of course, also helps. Among this season's musical nominees, "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" boasts both Daniel Radcliffe and John Larroquette. While the former was snubbed by the nominators, Tony nominee Larroquette will be featured along with his famous costar in "The Brotherhood of Man," one of the strongest ensemble numbers from the show.

"We may not win the Tony, but I think with Harry Potter singing and dancing his heart out we have the better shot at winning the telecast," says one of the producers of the revival, who wished to remain anonymous because of an edict by the telecast's producers against discussing the musical numbers.

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