2015 Tonys: Don’t Sell Your TV Audience Short

Welcome to our newest contributor, veteran Broadway performer, Daniel Marcus!


First…Anybody else notice that the schtick that Larry David obviously wrote for himself was the only genuinely clever, smart, slightly daring and actually (I laughed) funny material of the night?

For me the high point was easily “Ring of Keys” – the low point-maybe cutting off the applause for “Ring of Keys” to do an E.T. gag that was there to patronize a tv audience who let’s face it-know what they’re turning on. The Tonys are always (and always have been) the lowest rated of the big 5 tv award shows (Oscars/Emmys/Golden Globes/Grammys) and the networks keep the show because that small 7,000,000 number of watchers belong to the most desirable upscale educated demographic-the hardest group to get to on commercial network television. And so they remain on network tv. So why dumb-down? I mean-of course I understand this biz. I’ve been here for 35 years and I get it. But you’re not really going to get a lot of people by doing promos screaming Josh Groban’s name (which has nothing to do with his talent – which is terrific) that weren’t going to watch without it. And those people are certainly not going to make it into the third hour of something they don’t dig.


So-I DO know it’s a business. I know we’re doing numbers as commercials-it’s no secret-it’s ok. And it’s a GAS to be a part of (1998/2002).

But as long as we understand the realities of the demographics then why not aim really high and try to expand the television audience out from that base group of watchers (who as I say-the networks want – CBS doesn’t air the show as a philanthropic gesture) who are going to bring in the most bucks anyway rather than sacrificing the uniqueness of Broadway theatre to a damp grab at an audience that’s not really into it.

And anyway-I’ve always been uncomfortable with the hard-sell because in a very real way they’re lying to this tv audience. OUR producers are trying to get the audiences into our theatres and so they want to present the best possible commercial as well they should. Of course. Duh. But by cutting to something peppy at the end of a musical sequence that isn’t how it started makes the numbers seem the same when their uniqueness is the very essence of a great Broadway experience. A vocabulary that is all it’s own from the moment the lights come up-with every step/line/pause/stitch and scene serving one unified evening.

How magical it would have been to have kept that American in Paris ballet throughout the number. That tells the audience something special is happening that isn’t what they see every day.


What a shame to cut out of the dance between Chita Rivera and her younger self when that is the one beating heart moment in a show that takes time for it because the rest is a very deliberately chilly evening. It should be. It is. That moment of the obviously old, not aging, character and Broadway legend sensually giving and taking with herself across 70 years (think of it!) is magic. It’s sexy and sad and strange and wondrous and disturbing. It’s unique. It plays with the non-literal truth to get to the real truth in the way that is what live theatre can do better than any other form. Theatre is the only art that plays in real time and can play with transcending time in the same moment.

And then they tagged into the little vaudeville number to end with something a little peppy. Not only do they confuse the audience as to what they were watching (‘just kidding folks-trust us-it doesn’t really get into anything that needs you to work’) it’s actually a disservice to the little vaudeville number because of course that’s not what the number really is within the show. So you risk selling the show dishonestly.

Audience comes in waiting for the happy peppy number and…..it’s not there.

Again-I don’t blame the producers. Not for one second. It Is a business. I just think we should stop being ashamed that we’re selling beautiful unique handcrafted work.

What’s the point of pretending that you’re not marketing a Steinway when you are? You can pretend it’s a penny-whistle all you want but you’re still selling at Steinway prices. We’re asking an audience to spend hundreds of dollars for two tickets and telling them that it’ll be ok-it’ll be just like what you see on the People’s Choice.


Why not drop the towel and stand there naked and proud and own this magic box we create and show them that for their hundreds of dollars they will get a lacery, a fine embroidered work of beauty that exists only this one moment in time and just for them.

I truly believe that’s the only way to go. We’re not going to bring in people who don’t want to come in by letting them know they’ll get exactly what they expect only they get to pay ten times as much for it.

We expand our audience by allowing them the time and breath to realize there’s something different going on here that isn’t the same old.

And that’s why “Ring of Keys” was the genuine great Tony moment of the night. Greater than many entire Tony nights have had. Because the noise stopped. The producers had balls of steel to do what they did-and they had peppy material to use or cut to. But they went with what made them unique rather than what would make the tv audience feel it was familiar.

And this is what they quietly and trustingly showed us at home-and btw-I haven’t seen the show yet so I am genuinely describing what anyone watching on tv saw-I have no more information than they would:


A quiet man sits at a table with his newspaper watching his daughter making some kind of discovery and feeling a connection or maybe not a connection but he’s compelled by her. This means something to him. What? That’s what the tv audience sees. And the space and the absence of pep lets the tv audience actually pay attention. Actually hear.

A grown woman sits at a drafting table. We know she’s the creator of the scene and that she’s the girl in it because we were told in the intro. But she’s studying this girl like a hawk. And the watching woman has a short almost spiky Rachel Maddowish do. Why? And what’s she watching for in the girl? What’s the important thing she’s watching for? And between the two of them is this girl finding out for the first time that there is a string that harmonizes with the odd one in her that seems out of place. Seems she’s saying that. We saw that-right on tv. And because the producers trusted us at home to pay attention we see things that are not just a talented kid singing her song in her Broadway show. “I feel…………” (she feels what? what’s going on here) I feel……….” For the only time all night we saw the suggestion of what theatre can be at it’s peak (plays/musicals-when you’re playing with real bullets it’s all the same) – because the tv audience is used to being told what the person singing feels. But a great theatre moment (and that to me sure looked like it is one) demands the audience pay attention – and then the watcher at home can’t help but fill those silences with questions-what are the words she’s looking for? And…..

VOILA! Even the television audience is swept into the process of discovery without even knowing they are and in that moment something alive and real is happening in the air suspended between both the performer and the viewer. Because now the magic happens-and it’s on tv and it happens. It doesn’t matter if the audience knows it’s happening. It’s happening. It doesn’t matter if they know they’re experiencing it. They’re experiencing it.

A father-his daughter-herself 25 years away are all sharing this exchange that is happening across time and yet in real time (these three minutes of airtime right now) and when she says “I feel…………….” and allows the audiences thoughts to enter into that compression of three different lifetimes in one real time three minute episode; that’s theatre. And it’s been communicated right through the tv and into the mind of the woman or man or boy or girl watching.

But only because the producers decided to trust the audience to hear the gentle cry of a harp making its first glissando if only you gave them the chance.

And her discovery that the world may in fact have a place for her in it is frankly EXACTLY what every single person reading this felt the first time we encountered that play or musical or song or piece of music or dance that said to us-THIS KNOWS ME. I KNOW THIS.

That’s the one common thread that brought every last one of us into the business. That moment of realizing there were people out there who HEARD THE SAME MUSIC AS WE DID. And until that moment we never knew.

And so you see-here we are-sharing that common bond. I’m not much for the dogma of god as presented within a prefab description; but I have faith utterly in that voice that said THIS KNOWS ME. I KNOW THIS.

It is why you and I came here.
It is why we stayed.

Back to the plot:

The network isn’t trying to sell tickets to Broadway shows. The network’s job is to get people to watch THEIR show to sell products. Fair enough. There’s no evil in it. It pays those Law and Order residuals.

The producers object is trying to sell tickets to their shows. If the network needs to bring Jennifer Lopez onstage in hopes of getting a larger audience to watch and buy more products so they can charge more for the airtime-let ’em.

But Jennifer Lopez isn’t going to be in the number from American in Paris or The Visit so it seems to me just as good a bet to go the route “Fun Home” went allow your sequence from your show to breathe freely and really be the thing it is.

01-19-04  Director John Rando with the mike at the Curtain call at the closing night of "Urinetown" at the Henry Miller Theatre on West 44th St. Sunday nigt 01-18-04

01-19-04 Director John Rando with the mike at the Curtain call at the closing night of “Urinetown” at the Henry Miller Theatre on West 44th St. Sunday nigt 01-18-04

In 2002 Hal Prince presented the Tony for director of a musical but before he did he said he wanted to say a word to the producers. And he told them that audiences are ready for and wanting to be challenged – you just have to have the courage to do it. “Don’t sell your audience short” he said.

Then he opened the envelope and handed John Rando his Tony for Urinetown and Jeff McCarthy and I started crying in our green room

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One Response to 2015 Tonys: Don’t Sell Your TV Audience Short

  1. Agree with your headline and article theme. And I had forgotten that Urinetown won the Tony—loved that show!

    One of the annoying things about this broadcast was the intrusion of CBS into this night celebrating theater. Chenoweth obviously had been paid to say the name CBS before every commercial break, and then they lingeringly showed Les Moonves, the head of CBS, sitting in a great seat in the audience like it was his own private show. With all the Hollywood celebrities taking the stage instead of real theater people, not sure that broadcast TV and NY theater are a good match. But I guess that’s price for a night spent celebrating all that sophisticated live talent, and perhaps we should be glad CBS still broadcasts it. Can’t wait to see if Stephen Colbert continues the celebration all year long on his new show…