If viewers of this year’s Tony Awards get to see a performance from “Spring Awakening,” they’ll have fans to thank for footing the bill. Deaf West Theater’s nominated revival has turned to crowdfunding to raise $200,000 to pay for the costs of staging a song on Broadway’s biggest night.
So far, the troupe’s Kickstarter campaign is about half-way there (at $90,000), with a deadline set for the day before the June 12 ceremony. Deaf West artistic director DJ Kurs is optimistic about the results. “I am confident that the money needed to bring the company back to New York to perform on the broadcast will be raised in time,” Kurs told Variety.
But the efforts have raised some eyebrows. Is Deaf West — a scrappy, L.A.-based not-for-profit that integrates deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals into all aspects of its theater productions — trying to buy their way onto the telecast? Don’t decisions about the Tony performances need to be finalized long before the eve of the broadcast? And why on earth do you need hundreds of thousands of dollars to put on a three-and-a-half-minute musical number?
All these questions have answers that make the backstory far less shady than it might seem at first.
For one thing, producers don’t pay for an invitation to perform on the Tony Awards. Most years, only shows that have been nominated in major production categories — i.e., best new musical and best revival of a musical — get a coveted spot on the telecast. (There are exceptions here and there, like when a long-running, iconic show celebrates a big anniversary.)
The Tony Awards don’t confirm or deny the slate of Tony performances until the days just prior to the ceremony, but it’s a safe bet that “Spring Awakening,” as a nominee in the musical revival category, got the invite. Like all invited productions, the company would have received a small stipend from the Tony Awards.
But few people outside of the theater industry know that there are whole host of costs inherent in producing a musical number on the Tonycast. That $200,000 is about on par with what most producers shell out for a moment in the spotlight.
It can cost producers as much as a quarter of a million dollars to do a number on the telecast. Duplicate elements have to be constructed, since a production’s set usually isn’t terribly mobile (and besides, it’s in use for the show’s day-to-day performances). There are also labor and transportation costs for the actors, who in most cases spend the morning of the Tonys at the telecast dress rehearsal, go off to do a regularly scheduled Sunday matinee in the afternoon, and then return to the awards venue to perform on the broadcast in the evening.
But Deaf West faces different hurdles because it’s producing a number from a show that closed in January. That $200,000 will go toward reassembling the cast, which has dispersed across the country since “Spring Awakening” shuttered. As the show’s cast and creative team explain in the Kickstarter video, set and costume elements also will have to be brought out of storage, and rehearsal space rented.
For shows that are still running, the high cost of a Tony number seems to be worth it. The CBS broadcast of the Tony Awards is still the biggest commercial for Broadway out there, and for most new musicals, it’s a chance to reach a national audience in a way that’s usually impossibly for the typically limited resources of a Broadway advertising budget.
For shows that aren’t running, like “Spring Awakening,” the benefits of performing on the Tonys are less obvious. A post-closing Tony performance can, for instance, serve as a plug for an imminent national tour. In the case of Deaf West, the Tonys represents an opportunity for the company to drum up some national interest in its work — and maybe inspire some new donors who could help sustain the ongoing, inclusive mission of a troupe that’s been around since 1991.
The company has had success on Kickstarter before, when a 2014 campaign raised $30,000 (topping a goal of $25,000) for the original L.A. staging of “Spring Awakening.” Whether Deaf West will have the same success raising eight times as much money as that 2014 goal remains to be seen — but you can bet that preparations are well underway, with flights being bought and rehearsal rooms booked, all on credit.
Should it succeed, the Deaf West campaign would be, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, the first crowdfunded performance in Tony history. And in a Tonycast poised to celebrated the unprecedented diversity of the 2015-16 Broadway season, it seems likely that a deep-pocketed producer or two might be willing to help out should Deaf West fall short in its crowdfunding.
Deaf West wouldn’t comment on whether it definitely had a slot on the Tonys. Nor would the producers of the Tony Awards, who’ll officially announce the telecast performances in the days immediately before the show, set for June 12 at the Beacon Theater.