“It’s not fair!” Glenn Close cried, a look of panic dashing the joy from her face as she struggled to finish her Tony acceptance speech before the orchestra at the Minskoff Theater drowned her out. No other image so perfectly exemplified the humiliating exercise that is the annual Tony Awards telecast.
At least Close got to say something on camera, which was better treatment than Terrence McNally got. McNally’s “Love! Valour! Compassion!” was named best play (complete list of winners, page 56). But the telecast came to an abrupt end before McNally got his chance to speak, and while the playwright was delivering his thank-you speech to the live audience, the TV folks had the tact to begin striking the Tony set behind him.
So here, in its entirety, is the acceptance speech McNally made on the occasion of winning his Tony:
“I want to thank the Manhattan Theater Club for giving me what every playwright needs but so few have: a home where the doors are always open. I couldn’t have written ‘Love! Valour! Compassion!’ without that for the last 10 years. And I know I wouldn’t be standing here without Joe Mantello and our extraordinary cast and design team. The play is dedicated to my Muse, Nathan Lane. But it couldn’t have been written without the love and joy and sense of life’s wonder that Gary Bonasorte brings to our lives every moment every day.
“And, finally, I want to thank the Broadway Alliance for making all the negative talk about doing new American plays on Broadway a lie. We have the talent. We always did. We just needed some new and imaginative ways of doing things. Thank you, Broadway Alliance, for getting a head start on the 21st century. Anyway.”
Many people, including Gary Smith, the executive producer of the telecast, expressed surprise that McNally didn’t deliver his speech ahead of “L! V! C!” producers Barry Grove and Lynne Meadow. Grove, Meadow and McNally say they agreed beforehand that McNally would be given the honor of having the last word, and that they never knew the broadcast was running out of time. Smith insists he warned recipients during the pre-show announcements that only one producer was to speak and they had to keep it brief, and that as soon as the dreaded music began coming up on Grove they should have turned the mike over to McNally. In the end, Smith said, the telecast used up all but three seconds of its allotted time.
Adding injury to insult, Dramatists Guild president Peter Stone fired off a letter to the Tony Administration Committee threatening to pull Guild members from participation in future ceremonies unless writers are guaranteed better treatment – and accusing Grove and Meadow of hogging what should have been McNally’s time. McNally says Stone owes Meadow and Grove an apology, reserving his anger for the broadcast producers.
The playwright wasn’t the only one feeling robbed of his moment in the spotlight. The producers of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” agreed to Smith’s suggestion that their four-minute allotment be split between the opening number, featuring the men from the cast singing “On Broadway” as they entered the Minskoff from the street, and a later number, “I’m a Woman,” featuring the show’s three Tony-nominated women, Brenda Braxton, B.J . Crosby and DeLee Lively, along with Pattie Darcy Jones. But the latter number was cut, and the women were sent back to their seats in a state of shock.
Smith says the show was about 2 1/2 minutes long going into the Lifetime Achievement award presented by Jerry Herman to Carol Channing. That bit was slated for 2 pre-taped minutes, but instead was live and ate up about 4 1/2 minutes, sending the show into a tailspin from which it never recovered. Smith cut the “Smokey Joe” femmes, along with clips from the best play nominees.
The “Smokey Joe” producers were furious. Rocco Landesman, Richard Frankel and Tom Viertel say that while Smith insisted to the very end that cutting the number was only a very slight possibility, cue scripts for the telecast indicate otherwise: Days before the telecast, it was virtually a goner. “Smokey Joe” ended up with half the time the other musicals got.
“It’s time we called these people to account for what happens,” Landesman said. “There’s a strong constituency for improving the management of the Tony Awards.”
To be sure, the telecast had its moments, including that opening, the best in memory, and gracious acceptance speeches from John Glover, Cherry Jones, 20-time Tony winner Hal Prince and Gretha Boston. Most of the other winners, however, were intimidated by the clock.
Nathan Lane, who co-hosted with Glenn Close and Gregory Hines, was responsible for most of the evening’s comic high points, including an appearance in his “L! V! C!” apron. CBS also drew a laugh from at least some viewers when it managed to identify Andrew Lloyd Webber – is any behind-the-scenes theater face better known? – as his Really Useful Company lieutenant, Edgar Dobie.
The Tonys won’t improve until Broadway’s powers finally acknowledge that the vaunted promotional value of the telecast is a myth. The shows that most need the Tony push don’t get it – “Love! Valour! Compassion!” wrapped all of $32,000 the day after the broadcast – and viewership was tied with last year’s rating, near an all-time low. The show ranked 43rd in the week’s Nielsen rankings. And guess how much of the two-hour program was actually the Tonys, as opposed to commercials and network promotions? 1 hour, 29 minutes and 30 seconds.
Broadway would be much better off taking the show to someplace more congenial. I asked Smith why he hadn’t just let the show run a few seconds over, making McNally a happy winner and becoming an instant hero in the bargain. “I’d have been a hero for one hour,” the producer replied, “but not next season, when CBS canceled the show.” Ultimately, that fear poisons every aspect of the whole sorry Tony process, from the nominations to the post-Tony ball.
“I was wearing a brand new Donna Karan tuxedo,” McNally said, “and no one got to see it.”
It’s not fair!