The Real Worth of the Tonys

10:21 PM PST 06/08/2011 by David Rooney
Danielle Levitt

Analyzing who'll win and lose on awards night after Broadway's economy-defying record season.

Do the Tony Awards matter? That question gets asked periodically around Broadway, and the answers vary wildly. But in a year when grosses and attendances have hit record numbers, the New York theater community's leading honors arguably matter less, particularly because the 2011 race appears to have a preordained winner.

That would be The Book of Mormon, which threatens to make the June 12 Tony ceremony at the Beacon Theatre in New York one of the least suspenseful major awards shows since Titanic sank the competition at the 1998 Oscars. The only real question is how big a sweep Mormon will pull off.

The show's success comes at the end of a season that crossed the $1 billion threshold for a second consecutive year. Season grosses for 2010-11 were $1.08 billion, up from $1.02 billion the previous year. Total attendance climbed from 11.89 million in 2009-10 to 12.53 million for the season just ended.

The Tonys traditionally have been more about back-patting than shaping commercial destinies, though a performance spot on the CBS telecast is considered a valuable marketing tool, providing nationwide visibility that can generate summer tourist traffic. The only award perceived as having a major impact at the box office is the prize for best new musical.

With a whopping 14 nominations, Mormon needs the boost less than any other show. Created by South Park's Trey Parker and Matt Stone, with Avenue Q composer-lyricist Robert Lopez, the sweetly sacrilegious buddy musical about two mismatched missionaries has been playing to packed houses and regularly grossing north of $1 million per week since it opened March 24.

While it's running in a smaller theater, and consequently has posted smaller grosses, the production has been an instant monster hit.

Other shows that arguably might benefit more from a win, such as Sister Act or Priscilla Queen of the Desert, which was passed over for a best musical nomination, have shown the kind of early traction that suggests they might have a commercial foothold even if they go home empty-handed on Tony night.

The high profile of Mormon at the Tonys caps a banner season for lead producer Scott Rudin, a producing fixture on Broadway since the mid-'90s. After his strong presence at this year's Oscars with The Social Network and True Grit, Rudin notched a remarkable 27 Tony nominations: in addition to the 14 for Mormon, six for The Motherf**ker With the Hat, one for The House of Blue Leaves, plus six more for Jerusalem.

Although Mormon is the clear favorite, it is not without competition. The Tony nominating committee bucked the tradition of forgetting shows that closed early in the season by bestowing 12 noms on The Scottsboro Boys. One of the final collaborations of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, the controversial musical opened in the fall to mostly positive reviews but failed to find an audience, closing after only six weeks. However, it's possible voters might feel a final acknowledgment is due to the legendary composing duo.

In the best-play stakes, many pundits have long predicted a backlash against British supremacy. In four of the past five years, works by English playwrights, or productions that originated in London, have taken the top drama prize. This year's field is split among two Brits (War Horse and Jerusalem) and two Americans (Motherf**ker and Good People).

Given the perennially poor ratings for Broadway's big night, CBS would be wise to invite a performance by Broadway's most notorious new tenant, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, to entice viewers, even though the show was ineligible for this year's awards. Word has been circulating that Tony producers are hoping composers Bono and the Edge of U2 will agree to perform a Spider-Man number on the telecast.

Failing an official Spider-Man presence, maybe host Neil Patrick Harris should don the red-and-blue Lycra suit and swing down to the podium from the ceiling. He just needs to make sure the harness is attached.               

TOP 10 HIGHEST GROSSING BROADWAY SHOWS OF 2011

  1. Wicked
    Gross: $36,992,536 | Seats sold: 327,752
  2. The Lion King
    Gross: $34,909,899 | Seats sold: 291,611
  3. Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark
    Gross: $27,188,129 | Seats sold: 274,417
  4. Jersey Boys
    Gross: $23,510,645 | Seats sold: 211,829
  5. Billy Elliot
    Gross: $20,923,378 | Seats sold: 243,000
  6. Mary Poppins
    Gross: $20,400,539 | Seats sold: 266,403
  7. The Phantom of the Opera
    Gross: $19,535,586 | Seats sold: 249,125
  8. Memphis
    Gross: $18,246,662 | Seats sold: 231,295
  9. Mamma Mia!
    Gross: $17,901,478 | Seats sold: 218,215
  10. The Addams Family
    Gross: $17,784,954 | Seats sold: 207,541

Through June 5. Source: BroadwayWorld.com

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