Arizona viewing party aims to stir national interest in the awards

Every June, legit aficionados don their black-tie finery and head out to watch the Tony ceremony. But this year, some of them will be doing it in Tempe, Ariz.

A new Tony-viewing party at ASU Gammage, the arts presenter on the Tempe campus of Arizona State U., serves as a pilot program for what the producers and administrators of the Tonys hope will become an annual multicity event in regional markets around the country.

It’s all part of an effort to bump up the national profile of the big daddy of legit awards.

“One of the prime motives for it is to expand the reach of Broadway and the Tony Awards beyond Manhattan and into the rest of the country,” says Alan Wasser, general manager of the Tony Awards.

Creating a national awareness of the kudos — generally considered the Main Stem’s biggest national marketing opportunity — has often been a problem: Witness the chronically low ratings of the CBS telecast.

Part of the problem, of course, is that the awards focus on an industry concentrated almost entirely within a handful of blocks in midtown Manhattan. Add to that the stage’s decades-long slide out of mainstream pop culture, and it’s tough to drum up viewership beyond the dressed-up Gothamites in Radio City Music Hall.

Last year’s rise in telecast ratings — up 19% to 7.45 million viewers, the most in three years and the second-highest tally since 2003 — came as Tony co-presenters the American Theater Wing and the Broadway League had begun making concerted efforts to pull in national auds.

Hosted by Neil Patrick Harris, a name not just on the Rialto but also in Hollywood, the ceremony included performance segs not only from the season’s nominated shows but also from the road companies of tuners that, given their longevity, have had the time to build up a significant national brand, such as “Mamma Mia!” and “Jersey Boys.”

Programming decisions for the 2010 ceremony have not yet been made, but the push to include some of Broadway’s most recognizable fare seems likely to continue. And the Tempe event reps another attempt to hook the interest of out-of-town auds.

Though perhaps a perplexing choice to New Yorkers, ASU Gammage is considered a stalwart outpost for Broadway.

“We are one of the No. 1 road markets,” says ASU Gammage exec director Colleen Jennings-Roggensack. “We’ve proved time and time again that Broadway is important to the road, and the road is important to Broadway.”

Per Jennings-Roggensack, the area populace’s legit interests stem, to a degree, from the region’s numerous transplants from cities including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, where residents are accustomed to an active theater scene. The presenting org also makes significant efforts to raise the profile of legit entertainment among students and other segments of the community at large.

The Tony viewing party — where dress will be a looser, “Arizona version” of black tie, in deference to the desert heat — will be held in Gammage’s 3,000-seat auditorium. In conjunction with the local CBS affiliate, the ceremony will air in live simulcast rather than wait for the delayed version generally seen in time zones west of the Mississippi.

Tickets are $20 or $35 (far cheaper than a pricey seat at Radio City Music Hall), while a $150 ducat includes a post-show dinner. Jennings-Roggensack expects a crowd that combines subscribers (of which Gammage has about 14,000), donors and single-ticket buyers.

If the viewing is popular, the producers envision the program expanding to a number regional venues.

“Other markets will be watching us,” Jennings-Roggensack says.

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