B’way readies for its big night

Cheeky 'Avenue Q' campaign strikes new note

NEW YORK — “Avenue Q” has, in its endearingly irreverent way, changed the landscape of the Tonys this season with its shameless, tongue-in-cheek campaign to win itself the big brass ring, a best musical Tony.

The show is pulling out all the stops in its attempt to become a “Shakespeare in Love”-style come-from-behind victor; “Wicked” generally is seen as the front runner for the top prize.

“Q’s” campaign, from ad rep SpotCo, plays on the 2004 political campaign season with full-page print ads in the New York Times and radio ad parodying political campaign commercials, which ran 93 times in four weeks on classical music station WQXR.

Buttons with lines like “Don’t Suck Vote Q” have been distributed at the theater and on the TKTS line. Producers also sent an original CD single written by the tuner’s writers, called “Rod’s Dilemma,” to voters and the press. Characters from the show sing to their fellow puppet Rod to “vote your heart” on his ballot for Rotary Club president.

The hard sell is new to Broadway, which doesn’t see the kind of active (and expensive) campaigning that’s a regular feature of Oscar season.

Campaigns usually are limited to discreet mailings ballyhooing a show’s reviews and the occasional cast-album CDs — but that’s about it.

Goodman said her team wanted to “stop tip-toeing around and pretending we weren’t campaigning to win the Tony.”

In the same way the show’s tone is alternately earnest and tongue-in-cheek, the campaign is both an actual Tony campaign and a satire of campaigning.

“Perhaps it might influence people,” she said, but “we did it more for the humor element than the idea that it would change who people voted for.”

(“Wicked” producer David Stone would not comment on “Avenue Q’s” campaign.)

Of course, if “Avenue Q” does emerge triumphant on June 6, get set for more heavy-duty campaigning — tongue-in-cheek or otherwise — in future years.

‘River’ nixed

Elsewhere, as the legit industry prepares for its annual moment in the spotlight, a few thorns are appearing among the bouquets of roses being tossed about.

The big bad news for the show’s producers: The decision by HBO to postpone the last episode of “The Sopranos” until June 6, Tony night.

But the Tony team dished out some of its own bad news last week with its decision not to allow nominated revival “Big River” to strut its stuff on the Tony telecast.

It initially appeared CBS was the culprit, citing a recent rule that shows that have closed are not allowed a Tony showcase moment (last year, the long-gone “Amour” was repped only by clips).

Not so, says the Tony telecast’s managing producer, Elizabeth I. McCann. She calls it a “joint creative decision” made by the producers, the network, the American Theater Wing and the League of American Theaters & Producers.

Time constraints are always a worry. Although the telecast has returned to a full three hours on the Eye web, after a few years of just two, producers are anxious to keep the show, never a ratings smash, clocking in on time.

But, as some observed, the telecast this year has made time for participation from Tony Bennett and Mary J. Blige — hardly Broadway legends.

And, with the innovative production of “Big River,” featuring both hearing and deaf actors, about to start its national tour, it seemed an inauspicious time to lay down the law on this new rule.

In a letter, McCann later said, “There have been creative decisions made in consultation with the producers of ‘Big River’ that will faithfully represent the show in the telecast.”

But McCann concedes the ever-changing Tony rules might change again someday.

“What might be right today might be wrong tomorrow,” she says.

There’s also the potential chilling effect the move could have on Tony nominations: If closed shows are perceived as yesterday’s news, it might be harder for good work to be recognized.

Times a-changin’

Readers of tea leaves also were discussing the New York Times’ pre-Tonys Arts & Leisure section.

In the wake of the recent jeremiad against the Tonys by Daniel Okrent (see story, page 39), the new public editor at the Times, the unusually sour tone of the paper’s coverage in the annual “Tony issue” was remarked upon.

Of the three major pieces, one was a sweeping dismissal of the season by the paper’s chief critic, Ben Brantley, who saved his highest praise for two Off Broadway plays, “Bug” and “Well.”

Another, by theater columnist Jason Zinoman, took a skeptical view of the B.O. impact of the Tony Awards. The third was a more straightforward piece discussing the hot race for the actress-in-a-musical Tony.

The overall impact: a definite case of tough love, with the love part in question.

But the Times wasn’t the only outlet raising eyebrows with its theater coverage. That other TONY, Time Out New York, last week shot a quartet of Broadway actresses for the cover of its theater issue: Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, Donna Murphy and Tonya Pinkins.

Who’s missing from this picture?

Well, you could say Stephanie D’Abruzzo, of “Avenue Q.” She’s the fifth Tony nominee for actress in a musical, and she wasn’t invited to the shoot.

“The concept is an affectionate study of divadom,” says David Cote, the magazine’s theater editor.

Apparently, D’Abruzzo was deemed part of an ensemble and therefore not diva enough. (“Stephanie is a diva!” counters “Avenue Q” producer Robyn Goodman.)

“The story has been in the works since before the nominations were announced,” Cote added.