Ever since the first national TV broadcast in 1967 of the Tony Awards, then its 21st year, a delicate dance has been tapped out between the handing out of trophies for artistic theatrical worthiness and the entertainment of the ever-fickle folks at home.
People in the theater business — rarely shrinking wallflowers — like to see their excellence recognized, and their producers pay millions for (in part) a few shining seconds before the cameras. But network executives, eyeing declining ratings, know full well that nothing turns off viewers faster than acceptance speeches for technical awards. Forget the rambling kudos for lighting some drama, they argue, and bring on the celebrity names and splashy entertainment.
Over the years, the TV network view has become more dominant, with the long-standing rule that only Tony-nominated shows should get air time increasingly relaxed. Broadway producers have come to terms with the notion that the Tonys are not so much an award show as a commercial for the entire Broadway business — which grossed $1.14 billion during the so-so, just-completed season (and that was in New York alone).
Total attendance was 11.4 million, but for hard-luck shows like "Scandalous," "Chaplin" and "Hands on a Hardbody" (a show about losers that, perhaps unfairly, turned into a big-time loser itself), whatever share that was not going to the perennial blockbusters like "Wicked" and "The Lion King" was hardly enough.
So what is the epicenter of this long-standing battle on Sunday night's Tony broadcast? The head-to-head battle between "Matilda" and "Kinky Boots"? Nope, "Motown."
The critically maligned jukebox musical celebrating the life and times of Berry Gordy and his legendary studios was mostly snubbed by the Tony nominators, although, if there is justice, designer Peter Hylenski will walk away with the best sound design of a musical Tony for a show that sounded better than any other musical this season.
But the public had a different view of "Motown the Musical," packing the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre and pushing weekly grosses into the sweet, seven-figure club. Announced earlier this week, the national tour will kick off at Chicago's Oriental Theatre on April 22, 2014. So will "Motown" be the toast of the Tonys? Not possible. But will it be featured prominently on your TV screen? Signed, sealed and delivered.
And predictions for awards? Read on.
Best musical: Conventional wisdom suggests that, widespread affection for "Kinky Boots" notwithstanding, "Matilda the Musical" will win the top award — as it should — with Peter Darling's extraordinary choreography (no show has better encapsulated the movement of children) also enjoying just deserts.
Best director: "Matilda" director Matthew Warchus, regarded as a little less than cuddly (which also could be said of this nonetheless extraordinarily artful, girl-power show) appears destined to lose to Diane Paulus, whose glorious, circus-encrusted revival of "Pippin" is, whatever else one might think of this show, simply the consummate "Pippin," now and forever, amen. Its flaws are merely that of its material.
Not only is this production remarkably life-affirming — especially when Andrea Martin takes to the trapeze, suggesting we all have magic to do, if only we worked out more — but it captures that very tricky intersection between parody and heart. "Pippin" is doing well at the box office, but not as well as "Motown."
Best original score: Cyndi Lauper has an excellent shot at the Tony for her idiosyncratic but generally terrific, dance-fueled song suite for "Kinky Boots." She deserves the nod. There's no question that had producers gone with a traditional, run-of-the-mill composer, this show would have been underwhelming. Lauper elevates its fabulousness, partly because of her skill at landing a melodic hook, but mostly because she has written songs that are so immediately recognizable as potent Lauper songs.
Best leading actor in a musical: Stark Sands, one of the stars of "Kinky Boots," is likely to lose to Bertie Carvel of "Matilda," the just favorite in the category. But Sands should be well pleased with the nomination; after a rough start in Chicago, he turned things around in spectacular fashion. Even if Billy Porter, Sands' co-star and fellow nominee in the category, wins the Tony, this will still be a very good year for men in drag.
Best leading actress in a musical: Patina Miller of "Pippin" looks like a good bet, although she has her detractors and there are those who prefer Laura Osnes, a bright spot in rags in the otherwise gloomy "Cinderella."
Best play: The 2012-13 season was not a banner year for new plays, which likely will allow "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," by the very Tony-worthy Christopher Durang, to win. Great sentiment in favor of the late Nora Ephron likely will not be enough to lift "Lucky Guy" to the winner's spot.
Best leading actor in a play: But it should be enough to lift up Tom Hanks for best actor in a play. Not that this fine, generous actor needs the help. Hanks' popularity likely will scupper Tracy Letts' chances (although don't count him out) for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
Best revival of a play: "Virginia Woolf" as originally produced by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, has a very good shot at winning best revival over "Golden Boy," as well it should.
Even if Letts loses to Hanks, he's having a banner year that might well end with his "August: Osage County" movie emerging as an Oscar favorite. The ideal night for Steppenwolf would see Laurie Metcalf, its spiritual mother, walking away with a Tony for her remarkable work in "The Other Place."
Of course, those are just predictions. The one certainty of Sunday night is that CBS is hoping you'll not be dancing in the streets, but on your couch.
The American Theatre Wing's 2013 Tony Awards will be televised at 7 p.m. Central time Sunday on CBS; tonyawards.com.