Reporting on Broadway and the Tony Awards

From an Inside the Times story by Mathew Brownstein headlined “The Tony Awards, and a Reporter, Go Off Script”:

This Sunday, the 76th Tony Awards, an annual ceremony that celebrates Broadway’s best plays and musicals, will take place at the United Palace in Manhattan.

Viewers can expect some familiar features, such as live musical performances and the return of the Broadway actress Ariana DeBose as host. But this year’s Tonys will look (and sound) a little different from many ceremonies past.

Scripted commentary at the show, such as the opening number that Lin-Manuel Miranda planned to write, is traditionally written by members of the Writers Guild of America, who are on strike. Since the Tonys will be televised by CBS and streamed by Paramount+ — two companies the writers are striking against — the W.G.A. is barring its members from writing for the awards show. (Miranda, who is not a member of the W.G.A., has gone on strike in solidarity with the union.)

This won’t be the first time the Tonys will be held amid a writers’ strike. In 1988, the awards show featured unscripted commentary from the presenters and the host, Angela Lansbury. “It was an evening of few surprises,” The Times wrote in its review of the show.

Michael Paulson, who has reported on theater for The Times since 2015, will be covering this year’s Tonys. In an interview, he discussed how he approaches the event and how the effects of the strike may shake out onstage.

When do you start preparing for the Tony Awards?

It’s a year-round preoccupation that’s on the back burner for months. Part of my preparation is simply seeing all the shows that might be nominated. I see every new show on Broadway; that’s a year-round practice.

We start preparing in earnest about two months before the awards. Every year, a ton of shows open in April; to be eligible for that year’s Tony Awards, a show must open by the end of April. Many shows open at the last minute, hoping that being fresh in the minds of voters will boost their chances. At the start of May, we hear the Tony nominations, and we’re rolling.

How often are you at the theater?

I see theater between three and five times a week. Broadway is only a part of that; I see a lot of shows beyond Broadway. There are probably about 38 Tony-eligible shows every year, so I see those, but I also see shows that are in development, out of town and having workshops.

How does the Writers Guild of America strike affect this year’s Tonys?

This is a very unusual year. The Tonys almost didn’t happen because screenwriters are striking against television networks as well as streaming services, and the Tonys are broadcast on CBS. But the writers reached an agreement not to picket the awards show; in exchange, the people who put the Tonys together agreed that there would be no scripted remarks.

I think this year is going to be heavier on songs and singing because there’s going to be less speaking. I expect that the spoken remarks are going to be fairly cut and dried; people are being encouraged to say the minimum they need to in order to get to the next element of the broadcast. Broadway is a very unionized industry, and I think you can expect winners to demonstrate their solidarity with the writers.

You’ve reported on Broadway’s slow return from the coronavirus pandemic and wrote that attendance last season was around 17 percent lower than what it was during the last full season before the pandemic. How important are the Tonys in boosting ticket sales?

It’s a subject of much debate. Producers believe the Tonys are really important in marketing shows and introducing people around the world to theater. For many viewers, this will be the first time they have heard of some of the shows that are now running on Broadway. Obviously, Broadway is located in New York, so if you’re watching from somewhere else in the country, this may be your first chance to get a sense of what the musical “Kimberly Akimbo” is about. Every year, producers say their sales go up not only if they win awards but also if people like the production numbers that are performed at the Tonys.

Where will you be covering the event?

Everyone thinks I’m at the event, but I work from the office because our deadlines are extremely tight, and it’s easier for me to be at my computer. Other Times reporters will be at the ceremony. The Times has a live-blog for the event. We’ll cover the red carpet and preshow and then the show itself. A bunch of my colleagues will be providing news, commentary and photos throughout the night. I’ll be writing an article, contributing to the blog and then, if I have any steam left, swinging by an after-party or two.

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