As the Tony Awards return Sunday for the first time in more than two years, CBS and White Cherry Entertainment’s Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss faced a challenging task: How to hand out awards, celebrate the best in recent theater and — perhaps most crucially — hammer home the fact that Broadway is back and open for business.
One result: Taking advantage of multiple platforms in the ViacomCBS universe by expanding the show to four hours (from its normal three hours on CBS) — but splitting time between Paramount Plus and CBS. Dubbed “The Tony Awards Present: Broadway’s Back,” the show has been divided into two: A live presentation of most of the 74th Annual Tony Awards for the first two hours, followed by a live concert event for the second two hours (along with the three key awards: best play, best revival and best musical).
All four hours will be streamed on Paramount Plus, with the final two hours also live on CBS.
“We sat down and creatively challenged ourselves to figure out how do we bring the full power of the new ViacomCBS to the Tony Awards,” said Jack Sussman, CBS Entertainment exec VP of specials, music, live events and alternative programming. “It’s kind of like the real time, contemporary version of what everybody’s calling ‘convergent media.’ That brought Paramount Plus and CBS together. For what used to be a three-hour broadcast telecast, we’re now embracing this new linear and streaming combined ecosystem.”
Audra McDonald is hosting the awards-heavy two hours, followed by Leslie Odom Jr. handling hosting duties for the concert event.
Among the performances throughout the evening: David Byrne and the cast of “American Utopia”; John Legend and the cast of “Ain’t Too Proud”; McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell performing a duet from “Ragtime”; Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth with music from “Wicked”; and a reunion of the cast members of “Hairspray,” including Marissa Jaret Winokur and Matthew Morrison. The telecast will close with the cast of “Freestyle Love Supreme,” including Lin-Manuel Miranda.
The primetime special will also feature performances from the three Tony-nominated best musical contenders, “Jagged Little Pill,” “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” and “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.”
Kirshner said the Paramount Plus portion will include between 20 to 25 awards. “We want to be really clear that it is a full-on awards show,” he said. “We have Jennifer Nettles doing a song from her Broadway album. We have Jennifer Holliday celebrating the 40th anniversary of ‘Dreamgirls.’ There’s a lot of misinformation out there. In the past, a lot of these awards have been in a pre-show where they got a 10 second blurb on the air. Now they get their full award on the air.”
As for the CBS broadcast, Weiss noted that it’s meant to celebrate Broadway and the Broadway songbook, not just the most recent 2019-2020 season (which was quickly shut down due to COVID-19).
“What we are trying to do here is celebrate theater being open,” he said. “We want people to get excited about going to theater again. The last season was great, but there were not as many shows that would normally be out there. We’re looking forward to theater opening up and we want people to just be in that mode. So this is much more of a concert presentation and not a formal award show, but a much more casual and entertaining show.”
Added Sussman: “The big part of the CBS telecast right now is celebrating the reopening of Broadway and getting people excited about coming to New York and going back to live theater after a year and a half of being locked in their friggin’ houses … unlike movies and television, these folks, this community have been starving for a year and a half. Anything we can do to help them get back on their feet and celebrate this art is what this event is about.”
Besides those mentioned above, guests also include Annaleigh Ashford, Titus Burgess, Darren Criss, Beanie Feldstein, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Andrew Garfield, Josh Groban, Jake Gyllenhaal, Christopher Jackson, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Ron Cephas Jones, Cyndi Lauper, John Lithgow, Ruthie Ann Miles, Bebe Neuwirth, Kelli O’Hara, Ben Platt, Jeremy Pope, Andrew Rannells, Anthony Rapp, Chita Rivera, Anika Noni Rose, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Lea Salonga, Courtney B. Vance, Andrew Lloyd Webber and BD Wong, among others.
“Everything that we have done during the pandemic, this show included, has been a really hard experience,” Weiss said of putting this year’s Tonys event together. “A lot of logistics and a lot of safety and protocol came into play. A lot of people that we wanted couldn’t make it in because of the pandemic. So there’s kind of a balance there. We’re really thrilled with the show we have, but it’s been such a tightrope walk, getting there.”
The producers decided to hold this year’s show at the Winter Garden, partly because it’s a smaller venue than the Tonys’ normal home at Radio City Music Hall, but also because they wanted to make sure the ceremony took place at an actual Broadway venue.
Strict COVID-19 protocols, including masks and vaccinations, will be required for anyone entering the venue. “Television has one set of guidelines and protocols, part of our return to work agreement; Broadway has different protocols,” Weiss said. “They’re parallel but they’re not exactly the same. So, we compiled all the protocols and made sure that we were covering things to the stronger of the two if they were ever different. In other words, we wanted to create a safe environment as we could, and if there were ever TV versus Broadway rules that were different, we go in with the one that’s more intense.
“And the other thing is this audience here during this live show will be like a Broadway audience,” he added. “Broadway audiences are open right now, if they’re vaxxed and if they’re wearing masks. So, just because it’s a TV show, we don’t want to make an exception as other TV shows may have. We want to present our audience being masked and vaxxed. It’s a reality and we want it to be welcoming. We want people to understand, when you come see a show, it’s a safe environment and this is the norm right now. Come and appreciate the art.”
Weiss and Kirshner have worked on several projects over the past 18 months, including the Democratic National Convention, the Inauguration and the Kennedy Center Honors. “But this is the first big audience show we’ve done under COVID,” Kirshner said. “But everyone follows protocols and everyone gets tested and everyone is vaccinated. We’re keeping people safe.”
The decision to expand the ceremony but split it in two, with the more audience-friendly concert in primetime, came out of this unusual year and the desire to add more entertainment elements to the CBS broadcast. But it could also serve as a template for how awards shows might be reimagined in the future. Sussman wasn’t ready to go that far, but said each event would be analyzed on an individual basis.
“We’re going to move forward on an individual basis, show by show event by event, what’s the best plan, and how do we do the best job possible to make sure that more people on whatever platform they choose to watch it on, watch the events that were partnered and invested in,” he said. “It becomes a win-win for everybody involved. In this case it’s a win for the Broadway League, it’s a win for the Theater Wing, it’s a win for CBS, it’s a win for Paramount Plus. And it’s a win for viewers everywhere who can tap into this event, however they choose to.”