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Why Theater and the Tonys Still Matter

People in showbiz love to hand out awards, and love even more to mock them. Of all the biggies (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony), the Antoinette Perry Awards receive the most ribbing, with people rolling their eyes that the contenders are unknown to the public and that theater-going is an elitist, esoteric habit.

But do they matter? Yes.

For one thing, the Tonys are a recognizable brand for the business, which is always good. And a key award can buoy box office on Broadway and on the road.

But the value goes beyond that. At a time when the U.S. is slashing arts funding, the show reminds millions of viewers about the benefits of arts education and support for creative arts.

In addition, Tonys are a three-hour advertisement for theater — not just Broadway, but non-profits, regional theater, and all other legit forms.

So the inevitable question is really: Does theater matter? In an age of 24/7 entertainment from countless delivery systems, is there a future for an art form that’s high-priced, has a limited number of scheduled performances, and has physical/technical restrictions that don’t hamper other media?

In truth, theater is more important than you may realize.

Here are some statistics:
› Broadway ticket sales bring in $1 billion annually.
› Broadway is the No. 1 New York attraction for tourists, including a growing number (23%) of international visitors.
› The Broadway League estimates that the ripple effect on the city’s economy is $11 billion.
› In a single year, Broadway shows will sell more tickets than all the area’s sporting events combined (Knicks, Mets, Rangers, Yankees, etc.)
› The road tours bring in an additional $800 million-plus annually, according to the Broadway League.
› The legit “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Lion King” have each grossed more than $5 billion, just on ticket sales.

That’s more than “Avatar” and “Titanic” combined, and more than the six “Star Wars” films combined.
OK, so clearly this is big business. And while these stats are Broadway-centric, also boosting the local economies are such non-profits as New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club and regional theaters (La Jolla Playhouse, Williamstown, et al).
And these places are proof that theater’s greatest value is something that cannot be put into numbers.

Theater has been the breeding ground for generations of artists. There is a long list of stage veterans who helped define film (Georges Melies, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Sergei Eisenstein, Orson Welles) and TV (Lucille Ball, Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Ernie Kovacs, Carl Reiner). Entertainment would look very different if it weren’t for theater.

And it is not just a training ground. Theater offers a chance to stretch creatively, which explains why this season alone, Playbills include such names as Denzel Washington, Neil Patrick Harris, Marisa Tomei, Bryan Cranston, Daniel Craig, Paula Wagner, Scott Rudin and Harvey Weinstein.

The Tonys are a major contributor to the bottom line of the American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League, which produce the show with CBS. And over the years, those orgs have given hefty sums to help fund creative arts.
Heather Hitchens, American Theatre Wing exec director, points out that the Tonys are the most powerful arts-advocacy tool in this country. “Theater is not elitist. We are part of the mainstream.”

So, with all this, are you readers stage-struck yet? Are you sitting in breathless anticipation for the Tonys? OK, even hardcore theater mavens admit there is sometimes too much in-crowd self-love on the show, and nobody has figured out how to effectively present snippets from some nominees: Musicals are easy, but best-play and best-revival contenders, not so much.

And, yes, the awards seem remote because they occur at the start of a show’s life cycle. By the time that Oscars and Grammys are handed out, the general public is at least aware of the nominees. Many Emmy contenders are in the middle of a multi-year run. For Tonys, “It’s just the beginning of our conversation with people around the country,” says Charlotte St. Martin of Broadway League, which reps owners and managers of theaters. In other words, the majority of the world will not have seen the work by the June 8 ceremony. But 10 years from now, some of these contenders will be household names.

The Tonys are an easy target for cynics because theater is for geeks and the world is run by jocks. But for various reasons, theater is growing. Tonys are aiming for 10 million viewers by 2017, say the show’s honchos, who are constantly working to keep the kudofest entertaining, and to remind viewers that theater is part of their lives, whether they know it or not.
In his book “Talking Theatre,” Richard Eyre quotes Vanessa Redgrave as saying theater is the only place left in the world where performers and audiences can “sit together communally and listen and reflect and think and share.”

Despite all of our digital delivery systems, there will always be a need for audiences and performers to connect in the same space. That instinct is as old as mankind, and it will never go away.

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