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TV raises the profile for Broadway's Tony Awards

Robert Trussell
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

You gotta feel for the Tonys.

Compared to the glitz of the Oscars, the Emmys or the Grammys, the trophies that honor the best of Broadway always seem a little musty. They're just so antique. Tuning in to the annual broadcast is a little like watching an awards ceremony for natural history exhibits of stuffed bison and bald eagles.

Still, the annual show remains one of the few acknowledgments on network television that something called theater even exists. And the organizers have done a lot in recent years to drag the event into the 21st century.

A slick Web site offers facts, figures, video clips of performances, interviews with nominees and a chance for people to see red-carpet footage before the actual broadcast (scheduled to start at 8 p.m. EDT Sunday on CBS stations). A few years ago the ceremony was moved to Radio City Music Hall, which seats about 6,000, and organizers began inviting movie, TV and music stars with at least a tenuous connection to Broadway to be presenters. (This year that list includes Harry Connick Jr., Neil Patrick Harris, Felicity Huffman, Eddie Izzard, Usher, Vanessa Williams and John Turturro, as well as nominees Audra McDonald, David Hyde Pierce and Liev Schreiber.)

Last year these efforts paid off in terms of TV ratings. The broadcast attracted 7.8 million viewers, up from 6.6 million the year before.

So what, exactly, are the Tony Awards? Here are some basics that might help you sort things out when you tune in.

The Tonys, named for actress/producer/director Antoinette Perry, were founded in 1947. Ceremonies were held at a dinner in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria.

The first national broadcast of the awards was in 1967. CBS has carried the Tonys since 1978.

"Broadway," for the purposes of the awards, applies to shows presented in any of almost 40 theaters in midtown Manhattan, including Lincoln Center.

Awards for individual shows fall into four main categories: best play, best musical, best revival of a play and best revival of a musical.

The awards are presented jointly by the American Theatre Wing, formed in 1939, and the League of American Theatres and Producers, a trade organization founded in 1930.

The Wing was an outgrowth of the Stage Women's War Relief, established during World War I to provide food and clothing to collection centers and to operate canteens for servicemen. The League is a trade organization whose membership includes more than 600 New York and regional producers, theater owners and presenters. Starlight Theatre and Theater League are members.

John Kander is back on Broadway with a show he worked on for years with his longtime lyricist, the late Fred Ebb. The show is a hit, a crowd-pleaser for all the right reasons.

But some critics saw "Curtains" as old-school, and it got pushed aside by the youth-oriented "Spring Awakening," which took the top honor at the recent Drama Desk Awards.

Let's keep our fingers crossed for Kander. He and Ebb have made unfortunate theater history twice, by coming away empty-handed when two of their shows, "Steel Pier" and the original production of "Chicago," each received a record number of nominations.

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TONY AWARDS ON TV

The 61st Annual Tony Awards will be broadcast at 8 p.m. EDT June 10 on CBS.

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