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Tonys put focus on entertainment, not thanks

From its opening moments, featuring a scene from Disney’s “The Lion King” to its final minutes, when the soon-to-close “Rent” sang out, entertainment took a larger chunk than usual.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Did the 2008 Tony Awards take a cue from the Grammys?

From its opening moments, featuring a scene from Disney’s “The Lion King” to its final minutes, when the soon-to-close “Rent” sang out, entertainment took a larger chunk than usual out of Sunday’s three-hour CBS telecast.

It was sort of like the Grammys, which gives out scores of prizes each year, but only a dozen or less make it to prime time — between musical performances — and, thankfully, with a minimum of thank yous from emotional winners clutching little sheets of paper containing the names of people they wanted to remember.

But the change didn’t seem to make much difference in the ratings. The Tonys were watched by an estimated 6.19 million viewers, according to a preliminary Nielsen Media Research estimate released Monday. If those numbers hold (final numbers arrive Tuesday), it will be the least-watched Tonys ever, by a narrow margin. Last year, the figure was 6.22 million.

CBS pointed out that the household estimate was up 5 percent over last year, meaning the awards were watched in more houses, but more people were watching alone. The network also noted that the awards were competing with the U.S. Open golf tournament and the NBA finals for portions of the telecast.

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For the record, “In the Heights,” a lively look at the Latino immigrant experience in New York’s Washington Heights, was named best musical, and “August: Osage County,” Tracy Letts’ blistering saga of family dysfunction, was picked as best play. Yet it was a lavish revival of “South Pacific,” the venerable Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, that took the most Tonys — seven.

None of the awards was unexpected. Still, the entertainment factor couldn’t have been higher, particularly with Whoopi Goldberg as a game, personable host who flew, roller-skated and even dressed up as a crab from “The Little Mermaid” — all the while keeping a sense of humor. And she wasn’t bad either, introducing the four nominated plays, which usually get little attention during a show tailor-made for musical numbers.

“I thought the show was a complete success — celebrating the season along with some long-running hits,” said “Hairspray” producer Margo Lion. “But we didn’t lose the excitement and the degree of suspense that goes along with the awards.”

The surprise factor happened even though 11 of the 26 competitive awards were given off-camera. They were celebrated in the hour preceding the telecast but available on the Tony Awards Web site. They included all the design prizes plus awards for play-revival (“Boeing-Boeing”), choreography (Andy Blankenbuehler, “In the Heights”) and book of a musical (Stew, “Passing Strange”).

And, in a Tony first, the nationally televised program included scenes — very brief, to be sure — of several new musicals that were not blessed with best-musical nominations but just might be known to audiences who have never been to Broadway. We’re talking Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” and Disney’s “Little Mermaid” — two titles that transcend New York theater.

But one hopes viewers came away with an awareness that there were new, exciting voices on Broadway, too, most prominently Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer of “In the Heights,” and Stew, the composer of “Passing Strange.”