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Posted at 04:45 PM ET, 06/10/2011

The Tony Awards: Why they need star power


A shot of the Tony Awards stage during the 2009 ceremony. (SETH WENIG - AP)

When the Tony Awards air Sunday night on CBS, the celebration of New York theater naturally will feature some faces closely associated with Hollywood. But has the annual Broadway event become too celebrity-focused?

While the Tonys have long honored performers with a mix of credits on their resumes, last year’s ceremony skewed noticeably toward the movie business side of the spectrum. Three out of the four lead acting winners — Denzel Washington, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Viola Davis — are best known for their Academy Award-nominated film work, while everyone who was nominated as best leading actor in a play has starred in at least one blockbuster. (To be fair, all of them — Washington, Jude Law, Alfred Molina, Liev Schreiber and Christopher Walken — also have significant stage experience, as does Viola Davis.)

Still, it’s easy to understand why this trend caused alarm among the talents who have toiled quietly and doggedly for years on Broadway, where bold-faced names are increasingly cast in major shows to make sure all those pricey tickets get sold. Sometimes, it’s shockingly easy to imagine a Times Square billboard that declares, “Kim and Khloe Kardashian star in the ‘Anything Goes’ sequel, ‘Anything Really Goes!’ ”

Related link: Photos of Tony Award nominees

Thankfully, we’re not there yet. And if the tone of the typical Tony Awards broadcast is any indication, I don’t think we’re even close. Still, the unavoidable reality is this: The Tonys need celebrities more than ever.

The Tonys are Broadway’s best annual hope to convince Americans who live far from New York, in the suburbs of Kansas or among the cacti in Phoenix, that they simply must trek all the way to Manhattan to see “The Book of Mormon” and “Arcadia.” In challenging economic times, it’s vital to Broadway’s livelihood to be able to persuasively make that argument. But it can’t be made if no one watches the Tonys. And the best way to get people to watch the show is by booking a star-studded line-up.

In an overcrowded national-awards-show marketplace, where a celebrity seems to walk a red carpet every 2.5 seconds, the Tonys broadcast has to up the glam quotient without selling its soul. It has to “razzle dazzle ’em,” as Billy Flynn sang in “Chicago,” without forgetting the sound of the lullaby of Broadway. Given the more balanced slate of nominees this year, however, it seems that sound has not been forgotten.

Perhaps as a reaction to last year’s Hollywood-heavy field, the mix of Tony contenders in 2011 seems a bit more appropriate. Some well-known major actors — Al Pacino, Vanessa Redgrave, Frances McDormand — were nominated, but so were many lesser-known stage vets. Perhaps the most high-profile guy on Broadway — Daniel Radcliffe, currently headlining a revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” — didn’t earn a nod. And he’s Harry Potter, for heaven’s sake.

Radcliffe will appear during this year’s awards, along with host Neil Patrick Harris, Robin Williams, Alec Baldwin and “Mad Men’s” Christina Hendricks, among others -- all of whom possess a certain “razzle-dazzle” appeal. That’s as it should be. Because inside each one of them, a “theater person” lurks.

And for now, at least, the Tonys will remain a Kardashian-free zone. But in a few years, if one of them delivers a staggering performance in a production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”...

By  |  04:45 PM ET, 06/10/2011

 
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