Monday, June 12, 2017

The Tony Awards -- rehearsals

Almost better than attending the Tony’s is attending the Tony’s rehearsal. This week I got to watch two of them. I kept hoping that actually being in Radio City the committee might say, “Oh hell, he wrote a couple of funny plays, let’s just give him one,” but alas they felt not throwing me out onto the street was tribute enough.

Still, just sitting quietly and observing on Friday, and again on Sunday for the dress rehearsal was a super thrill. My thanks to Randy Thomas, who for the last 19 years has been the “voice of the Tony’s” for getting me in to watch.  (They requested no pictures be taken of the rehearsal so you’ll have to make do with shots around the periphery.)

What struck me was how many moving parts are involved to make this live nationally broadcast extravaganza. Talk about Murphy’s Law. And yet, director Glenn Weiss and crew make it look easy although in truth, it’s a herculean task. And that’s without a Bette Midler production number.

To me the Tony’s are the best of the award shows simply because they feature the most true entertainment and they have never asked Seth MacFarlane to host. It’s unfortunate that 99.999% of America hasn’t seen any of these shows so there’s less rooting interest. Not a lot of betting pools in Kansas I’m guessing.

There were eight or nine full production numbers from Broadway shows, and that doesn’t count host Kevin Spacey’s big opening number (not a highlight but he redeemed himself with the line of the night calling out Bette Midler for not getting off the fucking stage). Each of those shows had their own casts, backdrops, musicians, costumes, and props. That poor stage manager. Besides the host, and all the presenters, he had to wrangle close to a thousand performers. It’s the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony but with Josh Groban.

Who knows how many weeks or months of pre-planning went into last week’s final few days of rehearsal. Coordinating all the segments, preparing the numbers, doing the camera blocking (they used twelve cameras including a few flying jibs that swooped around the auditorium like buzzards) – the mind reels. Large broadcast trucks lined 51st Street and starting mid-week, the production crew took over Radio City (which is like taking over Moldavia but larger).  What a nightmare for the sound crew who had to mic and mix this uber show. 

When the Comet dancers had to put on their Russian boots they needed to put their sneakers somewhere
Each nominated musical came in and rehearsed their number. Some were incredibly elaborate. THE GREAT COMET required a gazillion dancers, and a chorus of probably a hundred that ascended the stage in two humongous elevators. And Josh Groban. The number extended into the audience with dancers in the aisles, interacting with guests, playing instruments. And Josh Groban (maybe the best singer in the whole room... and that's saying something). Miraculously, the whole piece was choreographed, mic'ed, and camera blocked in a few hours. It should have taken six years.

They rehearsed the number from GROUNDHOG DAY three times and I said to Randy, "Jesus, are they doing the entire show?"

Since these were all numbers from current Broadway hits, the rehearsal had to stop in the evening and resume after eleven once the shows closed. And they couldn’t rehearse on Saturday because there are matinee and evening performances of each show. I’d be popping Xanex like Tic Tacs.

Randy in her booth
Randy’s makeshift booth was on the fourth floor. There are four or five floors of dressing rooms, rehearsal halls, who knows what? It’s such a labyrinth I bet Rockettes get lost. With absolutely zero margin for error, Randy must read all these tongue-twisting names and of course announce those walk-up factoids. “This is Ken Levine’s first Tony win even though he has never been nominated.” And those she has to do on the fly. It’s a unique skill that combines talent, experience, and Hurt Locker nerves.

One cool thing:  Up on the fourth floor a tiny space is set up for the individual conductors of the shows.   There's a camera set up with a monitor in front of the orchestra, so each can conduct his own show.  Just picture Leonard Bernstein conducting in a shower. 

On Sunday morning I was invited to attend the dress rehearsal at 9:00 AM. There was a small invited audience – well, small by Radio City standards. You could fit the Woodstock festival in its balcony.

I was lucky enough to be assigned to the orchestra. As a bonus, I got my 10,000 steps in for the day just walking to my seat. They run through the entire show and the pre-show special awards categories that are edited for playback during the real show. An editor sits up on the fourth floor with an iMac and edits these things on the fly. I could just watch him for three hours.

Randy should never leave the booth
Kevin Spacey was there along with some of the presenters. Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mark Hamill, Sally Field, Sarah Paulson, Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick, Sutton Foster, Glenn Close, and a few others were there. Stand-ins took the place of presenters who were not. Those same stand-ins also came up from the audience and made acceptance speeches. Some of them were funnier than the actual winners. Most of the speeches were just a string of cliché’s and you realize, that’s what 80% of the real speeches are like.

All in all, it was an extraordinary experience. And I tip my hat to the hundreds, maybe thousands of technicians and crew members who put on this dazzlingly complex show and pulled it off with grace and style. You’re the ones who deserve the awards.

Congrats to all the winners including Ben Platt who I knew as a real little kid, and thanks again to Randy Thomas.   And can I just end with GOODBYE, Dolly!


Pat Reeder said...

I'm one of the handful of straight guys in mid-America who actually watch the Tony Awards. I enjoy seeing the excerpts of musicals to see what might be worth catching in a touring company. But this year's crop mostly left me cold. Can nobody write a tune anymore? Most of those shows were like the Honest Trailer parody of "Les Miserables," with people just singing dialogue set to apparently random notes. I can't imagine how the poor actors possibly memorize the nonexistent tunes. At one point, I turned to my wife and just started singing my comments to her to a melody I was making up off the top of my head, and it sounded exactly like what was on screen:

"I'm getting really sick of this crap. I think I'm gonna go take a nap..."

VP81955 said...

Of course, Ken, in the eyes of many at the Tonys, you're one of the guys who tried to make their beloved Kristin Chenoweth a sitcom star. (And the lovable little giant just held her annual Broadway Boot Camp for kids, inspiring future stage stars.)

tavm said...

I still remember years ago when, after Kristen Chenoweth had performed as Sally in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, her category was up and when she was announced as the winner, she had very quickly changed to this beautiful woman in an evening gown and mentioned how quick she had to change! Most memorable Tonys moment ever!

Terrence Moss said...

I am glad that Bette Midler kept talking. I hate when winners are played off. It is their moment and they should have it for more than 30 seconds. I understand timing and pace, but that doesn't stop them from unnecessary bits and banters that generally fall flat.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

THAT was fascinating! I'd loved to have seen it. With so much activity (and room for error), I'd like to know what contingencies they have for disasters. With such an awesome number of elements, the whole show is a miracle of coordination.

Tiny note: Folks who see the shots of you and Randy might notice that the room lacks elaborate sound proofing of most recording studios, something I installed so much of, mine looks like the office of the Sta-Puft marshmallow man. But by using what looks to me like the very narrow-patterned Sennheiser MKH-416 shotgun mic, all that stuff ain't necessary. She's a wonderful pro and congrats to Randy for such fine work!

Mark said...

I seldom feel an impulse to defend Kansas, but I think it would be a mistake to assume NO Tony pools in the state, as is implied here. In fairness, Kansas doesn't have a lot of even those few things it DOES have. I guess what rankles is the use of "Kansas" as a synonym for "Bumfuck, Egypt."

KJ said...

To Pat Reeder... BANDSTAND has tunes! Check out their number from the show.

Buttermilk Sky said...

I thought the opening number was incoherent -- if you knew the shows you got the jokes, like the cast on Spacey's arm, and if not, not. Agree the current crop of musicals is disappointing. The only part I really enjoyed was David Hyde Pierce and the "new" song from "Hello, Dolly." I turned it off before the end; they kept promising Lin-Manuel Miranda like he was he second coming of Ethel Merman. I assume he eventually materialized.

MikeN said...

“This is Ken Levine’s first Tony win even though he has never been nominated.”

These aren't prerecorded for each nominee?

Pat Reeder said...

To KJ: "Bandstand" was the one new musical that looked like something I'd like (i.e., a show where the songs have actual melodies.) I also have hopes for "Groundhog Day," but that song didn't do much to boost them. I've heard that it was probably the worst number they could have picked to represent the show.

Johnny Walker said...

Just finished parts 1 and 2 of the Kevin Smith extravaganza. Looking forward to part 3. He's thoroughly enjoyable to listen to as an interview subject. Very self deprecating with lots of interesting points of views to share, but I wish he'd let you get a word from time to time. Engaging and interesting, but he does labour his points.

Roll on next episode!

Misimpression said...

Will somebody please tell Kevin Spacey his Johnny Carson, Bill Clinton, etc., sound more like Kevin Spacey than anyone else?

Daniel said...

Very Superb Article.

JoeyH said...

Is there a backup mic in Randy's booth that we don't see? I would hope so.

Andy Rose said...

@JoeyH: A backup mic probably isn't really necessary. A hard-wired Sennheiser 416 is about as reliable and durable a mic as you can get. That's why that little stick costs a thousand bucks. I'm a little surprised that they put it on a worn-out stand with no shock mounting, but Randy obviously has the experience to avoid causing extraneous noise.

VioletStella said...

Thanks for the behind the scenes look at the technical aspects of the show.

Cliff said...

It's a very interesting set of tasks that Randy has. I have one thought that puzzled me when I watched the show.
When she announces the 'Accepting the award is..." How does she know who exactly is actually in the audience and ready? Sure there are names prepared in case this nominee wins, but does she have a set of pictures to compare with who gets up to actually go on stage? DO nominees sign in at the door and the list goes up to her little corner?

Antoinette Perry said...

Cliff -- can't answer your question directly, but the camera guys doing the close-ups of the nominees had cards with each nominee's name and photo... they went around a few minutes before each category went on the air and asked each one to confirm.