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The Tonys bring Broadway to the masses

Broadcast gives the shows a chance to put their best voice forward.
/ Source: The Associated Press

What’s in a song?

Plenty, if you are a Tony Award nominee for best musical and get a little less than four minutes to put your best voice forward to sell your Broadway show before a national TV audience.

In an antiseptic conference room on the 44th floor of midtown Manhattan’s Flatotel, 14 people sit around two tables pushed awkwardly together to accommodate the crowd. They’re here to discuss what production number to put in the Tonys telecast.

The setting is nondescript, much like the anonymous art on the walls — a vague desert landscape and a pastel flower print.

At one end huddle folks associated with one of the nominated musicals, “Avenue Q.” At the other is a group headed by the TV show’s executive producers, Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss.

Call it nuts and bolts time — how to showcase “Avenue Q,” the cheeky little musical featuring puppets and eager twentysomethings out to find life and love and, at the same time, conquer Manhattan.

The scene is repeated with teams from the three other new shows — “The Boy From Oz,” “Caroline, or Change” and “Wicked,” and three of the nominated shows for best musical revival: “Wonderful Town,” “Assassins” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” (The fourth, “Big River,” is no longer running.)

All will be part of the CBS telecast June 6 from Radio City Music Hall.

Showcasing great songs and talent
Weiss and Kirshner reassure the shows that they want each of them to play to their strengths.

“We are really open,” says Weiss at the “Avenue Q” meeting. “This is not an ego trip. We want to present your show as best we can.”

Jason Moore, the musical’s director, takes the Tony people through the song they want to perform. He explains what actors will be on stage for the number — “It Sucks to Be Me” — as well as what parts of the song and bits of dialogue will be trimmed to fit the time constraints: three minutes and 30 seconds.

There’s talk of what the television set for “Avenue Q” will look like — rundown apartment buildings — and how it must be moved on and off stage during the time it takes for one commercial and an award presentation.

This year on the vast Radio City stage there will be a new Tony set scaled down to the size of a standard Broadway theater. It is from within this setting that the musical numbers from the nominated shows will be performed.

The “Avenue Q” song, according to producer Robyn Goodman, was chosen because it “introduces the vocabulary of our show. We think that to understand ‘Avenue Q,’ it’s better to introduce the characters, and the opening number does that for us.”

For “The Boy From Oz,” the musical about Australian entertainer Peter Allen, the question was how to best showcase its star, Tony nominee Hugh Jackman, who plays Allen.

“Hugh was keen to do something that is up tempo, kind of Peter Allenesque, rather than one of the more downbeat ballads,” Ben Gannon, one of the producers of “The Boy From Oz,” said.

The “Oz” number will feature Jackman and the band on stage with a couple of the female singers, warbling “Not the Boy Next Door,” which was Allen’s signature song.

“The song gives Hugh a chance to play around with the guys in the band and with the backup girls in the same way Peter used to do in his act and in the way Hugh does in the show,” Gannon explained.

Jackman also is host of the awards show.

Witches take to the stage“Wicked,” Broadway’s most lavish new musical, will demonstrate that lavishness with its eye-popping, first-act closer, “Defying Gravity,” said producer David Stone. The show is a $14 million look at the witches from “The Wizard of Oz,” before the arrival of Dorothy.

The “Wicked” song, by veteran composer Stephen Schwartz, will be preceded by a scene between the show’s two witches. It will give viewers a chance to see the show’s two leading ladies, Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, in action, before the “Defying Gravity” number, which features a soaring-to-the-skies Menzel.

“The people from the Tonys had seen our show twice and they said to us, ‘We want what sells your show. We want what’s good for your show. But we also want what makes for great television — and that number “Defying Gravity” can make for really good television because it will look unique. You haven’t seen anything quite like that on TV before.”’

“Caroline, or Change,” the story of a black maid working for a white family in 1960s Louisiana, has opted for a more intimate, but no less powerful moment. It will present Tonya Pinkins’ show-stopping lament, “Lot’s Wife,” in which the woman unleashes all her unhappiness about her life.

“The song has ample heart and a spectrum of emotions that will fill the television screen and the stage at Radio City,” Carole Shorenstein Hays, lead producer of “Caroline,” said.