Tony Preview: Broadway Stars All Dressed Up, But Who Will Watch?

The ballots are in, the predictions are made, and the acting nominees will look unusually spiffy, thanks to a concerted fashion-world effort led by Anna Wintour. The 2015 Tony Awards are ready for their annual primetime closeup on CBS tonight — but some Broadway types are fretting that this year America might be more tempted than usual to tune out.

The Tony ceremony is never a ratings juggernaut, since it focuses on what is essentially a local industry based in midtown Manhattan. (Ratings last year held at about 7 million total viewers, steady in the prime 18-49 demo and down a bit in total viewership.) Plenty of Broadway shows go on to be seen around the country and internationally, but their recognition at the Tonys comes so early in their lifespan that a ceremony’s nominated shows don’t, in most cases, have much of a profile outside of the tri-state area.

Prior ceremonies had the chance to pique the interest of general audiences with big-name hosts (Hugh Jackman and Neil Patrick Harris in recent years) or with productions that have made an unusually large splash nationally (such as “The Book of Mormon” or “The Producers”). But none of this year’s nominated titles have quite managed the latter feat, and while everyone on Broadway loves this year’s co-hosts, Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming, they don’t have the Q score of Hugh or NPH.

One more thing causing consternation: The winner for the starriest awards category, lead actress in play, is said to be queued up as the first award of the night. Which could mean that, after Helen Mirren accepts her Tony (as everyone expects) early in the broadcast, a lot of TV viewers might see no reason not to switch over to “Game of Thrones” come 9 o’clock.

On the other hand, it’s not clear just how significantly ratings are influenced by a ceremony’s host. And while the Tonys have long attracted a TV audience mostly made up of theater aficionados, the ability to reach that relatively small but desirable demographic — which skews older and, importantly, affluent — seems valuable enough to CBS and its advertisers that the network has stuck with the Tonys for years now.

Big names — and powerhouse Broadway draws — Bradley Cooper (nominated for lead actor in a play) and Larry David are among the stars also set to appear during the Tony ceremony, while producer Harvey Weinstein has enlisted Jennifer Lopez (as well as Nick Jonas and electro-pop musician Kiesza) to introduce the performance segment from “Finding Neverland.” (Lopez, Jonas and Kiesza will appear on an upcoming album of “Finding Neverland” tunes covered by well-known pop musicians.)

Whatever the Tony ratings, Broadway producers still consider the awards telecast to be a hugely valuable opportunity for exposure to a national audience of theater fans — the kind of publicity that can help attract audiences to national tours down the line. Cheeky Renaissance comedy “Something Rotten!” will get pride of place among the night’s musical nominees, landing the performance segment that comes first during the ceremony. The show’s cast will perform the production’s showstopper, “A Musical.”

“Something Rotten!” is one of the musicals up for the top new musical trophy, but many in the industry consider the real horserace in that category to be between the romantic, dance-centric “An American in Paris” and the intimate, emotional “Fun Home.” “American in Paris” has opted to show itself off with a medley of a few numbers (including “‘S Wonderful” and “I Got Rhythm”), whereas “Fun Home” will spotlight one of its standout songs, the solo “Ring of Keys,” performed by young actress Sydney Lucas.

Numbers from nominated shows “The Visit,” “The King and I,” “On the Town” and “On the 20th Century” (starring Chenoweth) will get slots during the ceremony, as will this season’s “Gigi,” “It Shoulda Been You” and “Finding Neverland,” plus “Jersey Boys,” in celebration of that show’s tenth anniversary.

Broadway gamblers are betting that “American in Paris” takes a number of the night’s early design awards (which are handed out before the telecast begins), and most expect “Fun Home” to snag later trophies for score and book. But none of that can necessarily be taken as indicators of a sweep for either show: Most observers think the race for new musical is so tight that it’ll be a nailbiter right until the final envelope is opened.

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