Gerard & Roth On Fixing The Tony Awards, ‘The Wiz Live!’ And Broadway Vs. Technology

EXCLUSIVE: Deadline’s Jeremy Gerard and Jujamcyn Theatres majority owner and president Jordan Roth talk about the state of the industry, the only stipulation being no holds barred.

GERARD: I figure it’s never too early to start bitching about the Tony Awards and how they distort both the show and the business of Broadway, and two recent developments have me rising to a slow boil (maybe, like the frog in the slowly-heating sauce pan, I’ll just expire). First came the switcheroo: Because of an extension of Harvey Weinstein’s spring ballyhoo at Radio City Music Hall, the 2016 Tony Awards telecast has a) been moved back one week, to June 12 and b) sent uptown to the Beacon Theatre.

The Tonys are the apartheid of the American theater, making second-class artists of much of the fantastic work being done in New York and around the country while proclaiming that they celebrate the best of the best. The telecast, by CBS, while welcome, only makes the situation worse by shifting the awards deeper into the Siberia of off-season (the Tony Awards originated in 1947 – in April, with no TV). Despite the fact that no-one watches the show, it wins Emmy Awards and has producers convinced that they can’t survive without the exposure. The show has never learned how to present non-musicals effectively, making it essentially a commercial for the biggest musicals.

Red Mighty Morphin Power Ranger Balloon Takes Flight At The 89th Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day ParadeThat brings me to my second point, which is that the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (on rival network NBC) brings Broadway a huge audience for the product it cares most about, which is musicals. Last week’s telecast provided a big boost to several musicals, didn’t require producers to invest tens of thousands of dollars on a Tony production number and didn’t insult the rest of the American theater.

ROTH: Whoa, pace yourself. You’ve gotta make it all the way to June.

While we all love the majesty of Radio City Music Hall, the Tony Awards were magnificent at the Beacon a few years ago (when Radio City had a scheduling conflict because of their Cirque du Soleil show) and will be again this year. The date change was actually by choice in order to allow more time following nominations to prepare the show. As the telecast has become a celebration of the entire Broadway season and not just nominees, it has expanded to include more and more performances, which not surprisingly makes creating the show more complicated.

Notice I said a celebration of Broadway. The Tonys are about the best of Broadway. And while a regional theater and now a theater educator are honored during the evening, the scope of the Tony Awards is Broadway. There are other awards of great stature like the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, whose pool is all American theater. While I applaud your pull-quote alliteration, let’s not just throw around words like “apartheid.”

2015 Tony Awards - Press Room“No one watches the Tonys” is right up there with “Print is dead” as one of those sayings we like to throw around but not actually investigate. No one watches the Tonys — except the 6.5-7 million people who do. That may not be a giant number by TV standards (and amen to CBS for continuing to support the Tonys regardless), but that many people would fill an average Broadway theatre for about 13 years. So yeah, I’ll happily promote our shows to those people while we continue to try to expand that number, both in terms of people who watch the telecast live and people who engage with Tonys content online and on social media before and after.

And now for something we can agree on…NBC’s and Macy’s continued support of Broadway at the parade is fantastic. This year’s shows all gave especially thrilling performances and of course kicking off the whole day with On Your Feet‘s conga line was a coup for the show and for Broadway. I wonder though, given your Tony gripes, why you’re not upset that there wasn’t an off-Broadway balloon or a float of plays.

All that being said, there’s always opportunity for innovation, and ideas are better than complaints. So… If you ruled the Tonys, what would you do differently?

GERARD: A few things. Replace the Regional Theatre Tony with awards for Best New Play and New Musical produced at a LORT theater. The Broadway League comprises producers and presenters from all over; engage members by having them nominate shows during the year at our great resident theaters (where most of your product originates anyway). Demand of CBS and your writers enough time to show all the awards, so our own artists aren’t minimized and humiliated every year. Use new technology to make Broadway productions available to the 800-plus voters, whether via DVDs or streamed performances. Set up a committee with the Dramatists Guild to figure out how to present nonmusicals on the Tony broadcast. Try anything, and if it doesn’t work, then try something else.

chicagoWhich brings me to a new subject: Next week, producer Ken Davenport, who does shoot arrows in the air to see where they land, is offering a free live stream of his off-Broadway musical Daddy Long Legs (December 10, My guess is that if people like the show, the freebie will significantly increase its life at the box office – much as the film of Chicago only helped sustain the longest running revival in the history of Broadway. Is it time for producers and the unions to get with the program?

ROTH: For the most part, I think producers and the unions are with this program. Most people agree that for the right show at the right time — a new off-Broadway show trying to break through on a very limited ad budget, a long-running Broadway show trying to reinvigorate interest and expand its audience potential — some kind of broadcast could be a great idea, whether online (Daddy Long Legs, BroadwayHD), on TV (Legally Blonde on MTV), in movie theaters (NTLive) or a feature film (Chicago, Hairspray, Jersey Boys, etc). But how much that will cost to make, how much everyone gets paid, and who’s going to pay it make this a challenging program to get off the ground.

And resolving those questions rests on the bigger question: Is this purely a marketing tool for the in-theater show, or is it a potential money-maker itself? In the case of Daddy Long Legs, which is being streamed for free with no advertising or sponsorship, it is clearly the former. In other cases, it could be both, though with the exception of the feature films, broadcasts have not been big revenue sources so far. That may change as the market develops. Happily, Ken reports a lot of advance sign-ups for the live stream and a lot of press attention on the experiment. If it generates the level of views he hopes, and if that can translate into ticket sales in NY and/or greater interest from theatres around the country and world in mounting the show, expect more shows, especially off-Broadway, to follow.

And tonight, we’ll witness an even bigger Broadway broadcast… The Wiz Live! on NBC. A cavalcade of music, TV, film and theatere stars and creators giving new life to a favorite musical and sharing it with millions more than have ever experienced it on stage. And while all the broadcasts we’ve talked about have been presenting an existing stage show, this one innovates by reversing that model: The broadcast performance will become the stage show, aiming for Broadway next season. That’s a big first — and will be a big night for Broadway.

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