61st annual Tony Awards



8-11 p.m., Sunday, June 10

Each year, the American Theatre Wing tries to honor Broadway theater while attracting a TV audience that, during the rest of the year, has almost no interest in the subject. It does this partly by giving us the old song and dance, literally; choreographed numbers are the tentpoles of this production.

The other big attraction is the presenters, nearly all of who appeared on Broadway either before or after making a name for themselves in other arenas, principally television. The combination of these two elements, combined with a few taped pieces and an enthusiastic audience at Radio City Music Hall in New York, carried the Tony telecast for three hours Sunday night.

And that's saying a lot considering the built-in speed bumps, the biggest of which is how little most people know about the plays and the musicals and the people who bring them to life.

With the exception of David Hyde Pierce, who won for best actor in a musical ("Curtains"), there probably wasn't a single instance of a winner with greater name recognition than the presenter.

Two other components also were drags on the telecast -- one inevitable and one avoidable.

The acceptance speeches, with rare exception (such as actress Christine Ebersole and producer Bill Haber), were invitations for potty breaks. Mostly, they proved that award winners, like nature itself, abhor a vacuum. Allot 45 seconds for acceptance, as they do at the Emmys, and it will be filled. Allot 90 seconds, as they did at the Tonys, and you'll still need to play people off. Granted, stage actors are less flustered when they come onstage, but they are every bit as loquacious.

The avoidable impediment is the presenter speeches, usually read as if they had never been seen before. Generally, presenters arrive at the podium in pairs. One reads from the teleprompter while the other stares off into space as if locked in place by a tractor beam. Then they switch places. Maybe it would feel awkward to simply launch into the list of award nominees, but these preliminary remarks, read in robot fashion, truly don't help.

Not that any of this is a great revelation to exec producers Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss. They smartly opened the show with music and dance from "A Chorus Line," the most widely recognized current Broadway production (thanks in large part to the film). They saved to the end a performance by "American Idol" winner Fantasia Barrino, probably betting she was more likely to hold viewer eyeballs than the final award for best musical.

Along the way, they squeezed in plugs for several dozen current Broadway offerings and even found a way, albeit a klutzy one, to enliven the compulsory segment in which the Theatre Wing gives its spiel about public service activities. A fake chandelier dropped on the lined and unfamiliar faces of the Theatre Wing chairmen, who were quickly replaced by "understudies" John Mahoney and Jane Krakowski.

Then there was the record CBS set last night for the number of times a network is able to cram (mostly the same) promo clips into an award show's commercial breaks. On 10 separate occasions (roughly once every 20 minutes for the entire three hours), it reminded viewers that "Viva Laughlin" was coming in the fall, thus turning the spots into the most memorable segments of the night.

Tony Award Prods.
Executive producers: Ricky Kirshner, Glenn Weiss
Managing producer: Elizabeth Ireland McCann
Coordinating producer: Joey Parnes
Director: Glenn Weiss
Writer: Dave Boone
Production designer: Steve Bass
Lighting designer: Bob Dickinson
Musical director: Elliot Lawrence
Announcer: Randy Thomas