The Art of Picking the Perfect Musical Number for the Tonys

Hotly debated, vitally important and surprisingly pricey: A performance segment on the Tony Awards brings with it a rats’ nest of considerations now confronting the producers of this season’s nominated musicals.

Is it better to do a self-contained number, or a medley that showcases the range of the score? How can a segment best highlight a show’s nominated performers during a 3½-minute sequence that plays well on national TV?

There’s a lot riding on the answer. Even with the growing segmentation of television audiences and the Tonys’ general ratings erosion, the Tony Awards telecast still represents Broadway’s highest-profile annual opportunity to get new theater product in front of a national television audience.

That kind of publicity doesn’t come cheap. A performance on the Tony Awards can cost producers as much as a quarter of a million dollars, in part because set elements need to be specially constructed for the ceremony. (The originals are being used in the musicals themselves.)

Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find a producer who doesn’t think the costs aren’t worth it. “Television is one of the most expensive things to be on, but it’s still extremely valuable to tell the world about a Broadway show that only happens in one location,” says Kevin McCollum, the lead producer of nominated new musical “Something Rotten!”

Many observers think “Rotten!” has it easiest, in terms of making its Tony selection. Its signature number, a gleeful spoof of musical theater conventions called “A Musical,” seems a perfect fit for the Tony crowd. Or there’s the catchy opener “Welcome to the Renaissance,” which works as a self-contained introduction to the world and the tone of the show.

On the other hand, “A Musical” is 8½ minutes long, and “Renaissance” doesn’t spotlight the show’s leads, three of whom are nominated.
Facing an even tougher task are the producers of two intimately scaled musicals dealing with challenging subjects that range from the quietly emotional “Fun Home” to the downright dark “The Visit.”

“For us, the hard part is figuring out the thing that shows audiences what we truly are,” says Barbara Whitman of “Fun Home,” the tuner based on the coming-of-age graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel.

Adds fellow producer Kristin Caskey, “We want to give people a sense of the emotional experience of the show.”

But emotion can be hard to achieve on that giant Radio City stage, and it’s near impossible to find a single number in the musical that shows off all of the production’s five nominated cast members.

Meanwhile, Stuart Oken of “An American in Paris” has worked hard with his team of producers and creatives to map out one short sequence that conveys the show’s romance, its variety of dance styles and its nominated performers — all while looking great on TV.

“Ultimately you do your own internal compromising,” Oken says, “and come up with something that checks as many boxes as you can.”

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