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When Tony Met Oscar

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Best Lead Actress in a Musical nominee Donna Murphy in Wonderful Town.  

“You [tell your clients], these are the people who will decide,” explains one warhorse chaperone. “And this is where you have to go. ‘Be nice to this person as they stuff cheese in their face.’ ”

The entertainment media provide their own hard sell. Two weeks before the nominations were announced, weekly Variety gave the musical Wicked the sheen of inevitability by publishing an eighteen-page special tribute section to the show. Called “A Profile in Excellence,” it was the trade paper’s second annual Broadway-kingmaking homage—a new advertorial tradition motivated in part by a show’s Tony possibilities and in part by its marketing budget. “Last year, we did Hairspray because everybody knew it was waiting in the wings and was going to win,” says Dade Hayes, the managing editor of the special section. An adaptation of a movie, Hairspray also had a pragmatic Hollywood connection: New Line was onboard. Wicked (which was repped by the same ad agency as Hairspray) came equipped with a similarly golden California glow, since it was backed by Universal Pictures and produced by Marc Platt, executive producer of Legally Blonde. Choosing Wicked was “a win-win on both coasts,” says Hayes. The decision did ruffle some feathers, he admits. “We got a few calls from other nominees saying, ‘You know, this isn’t the only musical out there.’ But I think the nominations bore us out. And the box office, which is Variety’s métier, has been extremely strong.”

And then there are the behind-the-scenes campaigns. This year, the strategic question was whether Assassins—the Stephen Sondheim musical briefly produced Off Broadway in 1991—should be judged as a revival. Barry Weissler, a producer of the sagging Wonderful Town revival, called the members of the committee to lobby against the move, but he lost out to the interests of the new musicals. Political missteps can have major repercussions. Ned Beatty was denied a Best Actor nomination after he complained to the New York Times about his co-stars in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Ashley Judd and Jason Patric.

As with the Golden Globes, the series of awards that precede the Tonys act as a kind of early warning system, triggering the conventional wisdom. “People like to back a winner,” shrugs one publicist. This year, Wicked won the Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk, and the Drama League awards; Caroline, or Change grabbed the Lucille Lortel; and the New York Drama Critics Circle snootily preferred not to award anybody Best Musical. The classier reaches of print coverage can lend a winner’s glow to a show, as when Wonderful Town’s Donna Murphy, up for Best Actress in a Musical, got her Richard Avedon portrait in the May 24 New Yorker. Her producers also nudged Murphy onto this week’s Time Out cover about divas, which had featured only her competition in Wicked. (Caroline’s Tonya Pinkins was also elbowed in, whereas Avenue Q’s Stephanie D’Abruzzo was left in the cold.)

The press can sting as well: Murphy has been castigated by the Post’s Michael Riedel for the deadly sin of skipping too many performances: “If this were high school, Murphy would be held back a year because of poor attendance,” he wrote.

Avenue Q sent out a CD to Tony voters. Sample lyric: “Even if you don’t care/You can bet the candidates do.”

Like the Oscar fight for Best Picture, the Tonys have one central clash of the titans: the fight for Best Musical—the only award where there is real money at stake. A win not only helps sell tickets now, it builds momentum for success on the road. Of the thirteen Broadway musicals currently on tour, eight won the top award.

One of the biggest accusations against the Tonys is that they’re decided by the money people, often the out-of-town producers who make up 20 percent of the voters. This cabal is motivated not by which show is best but by which will make for the best touring company. “The Tony winner is likely to be a very popular show,” explains Nancy Coyne, a 30-year veteran advertising guru who runs Serino Coyne, one of two agencies used on Broadway (among her clients this year: Wicked, Caroline, and The Boy From Oz). “And a popular show is likely to tour.” It’s a tautology that maddens those rooting for the less-commercial outliers.

A nomination is almost, but not quite, as good as winning: Because it allows the musicals a showcase, the televised ceremony amounts to a coveted commercial, a precious opportunity to tout one’s show for a national audience. Backers for the goofy Andrew Lloyd Webber–produced musical Bombay Dreams were gnashing their teeth when their show lost its chance in favor of The Boy From Oz, starring Tonys host Hugh Jackman (himself a shoo-in for Best Actor in a Musical).

This year, the musical bout has centered on the slugfest between the edgy and parodic Avenue Q and the slightly less edgy and parodic (though still somewhat edgy and parodic) Wicked. Each show has touring plans, but because Wicked is incrementally less out-there, it is considered the favored choice to win the award—in large part because Wicked’s ugly-duckling saga will go over better in the heartland than Avenue Q’s more urban plot. “Wicked is aggressively spending and courting,” says one publicist, who admired the Variety advertorial.

In response, Avenue Q has done something no other show has done before: It attempted to get beyond the filter of media groupthink by creating its own outsider ad campaign (although the campaign was created by Spotco, one of the two insider ad agencies). After the nominations were announced, the show’s producers ringed their marquee in red-white-and-blue bunting in a tongue-in-cheek faux political campaign, running full-page ads in the Times (“Q ’04! Helping you find a purpose”), and sending out a CD to the voters with a song whose chorus was “Vote Your Heart.” (Sample lyric: “Even if you don’t care / You can bet the candidates do.”) They printed up buttons reading DON’T SUCK. VOTE Q.


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