New team attempts to revive show’s luster

Chitchat to be eliminated to make time for numbers

The Tonys telecast is under the gun.

“In the last few years, we have not come up with the best shows,” concedes managing producer Elizabeth I. McCann, new to her TV gig this year. “We are under a strong mandate from CBS to get our act together. We have to produce the best TV special on Broadway we can.”

Once upon a time, the Tonys were considered by far the best, most entertaining awards program on the small screen. The Nielsen numbers were never great, but compared with the increasingly overproduced Emmys and Oscars telecasts, the Tonys had class to spare with the best musical numbers anywhere west of the Hudson River.

How to keep the Tonys on TV and back on track?

“The big enemy is time,” says Gary Smith, who returns to the exec producer position after a four-year hiatus. This year’s two-hour network telecast, June 3, will feature no less than nine numbers.

Where to find the time for all that song and dance?

“We’re using individual presenters this year,” says Smith. “If you have two presenters, they have to say something to each other, which takes up time. An individual can walk right out and get right into the awards.”

This strategy solves another problem from the past: the Tony’s lame scripts.

“Whoever wrote it in the past was primarily responsible for the presenters’ chit chat,” says Smith. “This year, since all presenters will be individuals, there will be no chitchat.” Hence, no writer.

Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, who, Smith stressed, will have their own writers, are hosting the show. But in a novel twist, all presenters will be female.

“To be perfectly frank, I feel the Tonys recently haven’t had the glamour they’ve had in the past,” says Smith. “People watch award shows to look at beautiful women in beautiful gowns.”

The solution: “Let’s make all the presenters women.” Among the confirmed presenters so far: Sigourney Weaver, Glenn Close, Sarah Jessica Parker, Lily Tomlin, Joan Allen, Dame Edna, Edie Falco and Jane Krakowski, among others.

Smith and McCann are also at work with exec producer Jeff Folmsbee and series producer Mark Manucci of PBS, which airs “The First Ten Awards: Tonys 2001.”

“We used to be strange bedfellows,” Folmsbee says of CBS and PBS, which began televising its portion of the awards in 1997. “Now America gets the idea that it is a three-hour ceremony over two networks.”

To provide the necessary continuity from network to network, the two telecasts now employ the same hosts.

Unlike the CBS portion of the show, the PBS hour generally receives high marks, especially for its taped interviews with all the nonperformer nominees. Folmsbee and Manucci polish that format but don’t look to change much.

“A few years ago, David Shiner and Bill Irwin opened our show,” Folmsbee recalls. “We hoisted them in on a rope. It didn’t work as well as we wished.”

But who knows? “We might do that again,” says the exec producer. “I guess it could have been lit better.”