When was the last time someone genuinely funny hosted the Tony Awards? Nathan Lane only had one solo year in 1996 to prove himself before being rudely replaced. Before that you'd have to go back to 1961. That's the year Phil Silvers handed out the annual prizes to Broadway's best in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, while the audience laughed and drank. Why wouldn't that simple formula work today? The ater people have far more experience and skill at drinking and carousing than movie folk; if the Tonys were passed out in a Golden Globes style setting, with champagne flowing and stars mingling and Hugh Jackman watching from home, people might actually tune in. But the stodgy broadcast, set to emanate yet again from Radio City Music Hall this year, seems only to get worse.
The notion of the Tony Awards on television works fine, of course; we'd all happily watch a show with free highlights from Broadway shows most of us don't have the money (or, when it involves Andrew Lloyd Webber, the inclination) to attend in person. And it's always entertaining to see otherwise high-toned artists compete for the chance to thank their parents, agents, and God for all their help, on national television. But the Tonys have maintained a tradition of dullness that has lasted so long, I suspect it might be contractual. It almost makes you long for the days when Angela Lansbury ran the show with regal consistency, if not flair. The last decade has devolved into a miasma of weak humor, flat performances, and car commercials.
When you go back through the Tony ceremonies of the past, it's intriguing to note just how many shows dwelled on themes; during the 1970s, the Tonys focused one year on superstition, another on failure and a third on shows that ran at the Winter Garden. Of course, it didn't hurt that those days represented a groundbreaking period of change and growth in the American theater - musicals like "A Chorus Line" and "Cabaret" changed the way we looked at the form, and it wasn't hard to coax television viewers to catch even a glorified highlights reel. But when chances are you'll be seeing the hit number from "Tarzan" this June 11th, it doesn't bode well for a Sunday-night show that's competing for an audience against episodes of "Desperate Housewives" and "The Sopranos."
What can be done? I'd recommend a radical solution: returning the show to its original home at the Waldorf. I haven't seen the invite list, but I'm guessing the American Theatre Wing and CBS pack Radio City Music Hall to the rafters every year with interlopers and contest winners and the like; why not shift the show back to a hotel ballroom, and limit the guests to nominees and theater celebrities? Back before the Golden Globes had become television's campiest awards show, the Tonys co-owned the idea (along with the Academy Awards) of tipsy actors gathered around ballroom tables and schmoozing, and it would have made for great television. Restoring that formula would give viewers that enjoyable voyeuristic feeling lost in a massive, multi-tiered hall like Radio City. It would also be far cheaper to produce, giving CBS a greater chance at turning big profits on the enterprise.
The network hasn't yet announced its plans for this year's host; is it too late to beg for someone other than Hugh Jackman? The Oscars recognized early in its history that establishing a consistent comic voice - first Bob Hope, then Johnny Carson, and most recently Billy Crystal - works to draw viewers year after year. Audiences want the comfort of knowing what to expect; the American Theater Wing needs to cast its with a regular and make it stick. In the environment of a hotel ballroom, I'd vote for the shtick of Nathan Lane. He remains the funniest off-the-cuff theater performer of this era and has probably generated more Broadway ticket sales than any single actor in the last 20 years. Give him Billy Crystal's berth and budget, and let loose Mr. Lane on Broadway's foibles - he'll deliver a show more worth watching than any Tony broadcast in years, even the one he hosted from the hopelessly huge Radio City stage. He's not only the right choice; he's also the only choice that makes sense.
But CBS isn't about to take any chances with the Tonys, and that's too bad. Instead of finding new audiences for Broadway (and, for that matter, awards shows), the Tonys seem hell-bent on boring us. In a way, it's not fair to blame CBS - especially when Broadway is presenting shows like "Lestat" and "Lennon" these days. Not by coincidence, the Pulitzer Prize jury hasn't given an award for drama twice in the last 10 years; the great new plays just don't turn up with the regularity they once did. But wouldn't that just give the theater community more to laugh about? Make the Tonys fun for a change, and maybe it'll turn out to be the best new stage comedy of 2006.