Has America Whacked the Tonys?

The 61st annual Tony awards will be broadcast on CBS on June 10. Once again, it won't be much of a TV show -- too long, too inside, too many awards and dull speeches -- and once again, I will pay it far too much attention.

This year, according to Michael Riedel's theater-gossip column in the New York Post, the show's producers tried to insert a couple of extra musical numbers into the telecast, adding two splashy segments from other shows to the usual four from the Best Musical nominees. Since this broadcast is the single best advertisement that Broadway gets all year, a couple of producers whose shows were left out started howling. They claimed that it was "unfair" that they shouldn't be included, because that the show "represents all of Broadway" to America.

Of course, that's a laughable line of argument: They'd be perfectly happy with exclusion if they'd been on the other side of the decision. Moreover, their squabbling is incredibly shortsighted. God help them if CBS makes a hardheaded business decision and pulls the plug on the telecast one of these years, as it would no doubt like to. (Viewership peaked at 20 million in 1974; now it's around seven to eight million.)

Unfortunately, the whole of Broadway, not just the Tonys, has less and less to do with a broad audience these days. The national broadcast of the awards is a throwback to the time when the music of Broadway shows was also the music of radio airplay, when most record-buying Americans bought original cast albums. Though New York theater has more national reach than it used to--Broadway-musical audiences these days are far more skewed toward tourists than to New Yorkers--it has become, and will almost surely remain, a niche. The mid-century-orchestral-pop idiom of most Broadway scores is irrelevant to many, and unlistenable to a fair number. I say this as a person who likes showtunes, who goes to a lot of commercial theater because of my job, and who will happily go see Gypsy yet again when it's revived this summer. And I still cringe when I see some of the dusty old properties that are pulled out of the trunk. This year, the Roundabout Theater Company dug up a pair of shows fondly remembered by many Broadway theatergoers. The Apple Tree premiered in 1966; 110 in the Shade, in 1963. Both are pretty rusty entertainment machines. This time around, they starred singer-actors with huge voices and outsize stage personalities -- Kristin Chenoweth and Audra McDonald, respectively, both of whom are staggeringly talented, and both shows are nominated for Best Musical Revival. But they're not living parts of the arts landscape, like some revivals; they are charming museum exhibits, impeccably conserved and displayed. The majority of my smart cultured friends -- people with both the brains to appreciate theater and the income to go regularly -- are not just disinterested but actively repelled by a lot of what's up on the boards. "I sit there, and even if it's pretty good, after an hour I just want to start screaming," one of my colleagues said to me recently, explaining why he hates Broadway theater. (This from a man who works on culture coverage every week.)

No doubt the producers of each have lamented, like many people who care about Broadway theater, that their audience grows grayer with every year. Then they put on shows like this, which were probably pretty good entertainment 40 years ago, in a New York City that had five or six television channels, two radio bands, and a few new movies every weekend. By contrast, a current audience has a thousand channels on huge screens with great sound, access to DVDs of half the movies ever made, four centuries of music available on download, a billion Websites, elaborate video games up in the kids' rooms, and on and on. If someone is casting about for a bit of upper-middlebrow entertainment, he or she can very easily choose a year's worth of high-quality HBO instead of The Apple Tree for $100. Yes, seeing Kristin Chenoweth live is something very special, and I'm glad I get to do so regularly. But I wouldn't blame anyone else for staying home, because The Apple Tree itself is considerably less special than, say, The Sopranos.

If you want to see a neat encapsulation of this tug-of-war for the soul of Broadway, watch the voting for Best Musical this year. The two leading contenders are Grey Gardens: The Musical, based on the Mayles brothers' documentary about two mad mother-and-daughter aristocrats, and Spring Awakening, a coming-of-age story. Both are inventive shows that have, reassuringly enough, done well in the marketplace. But they do stand on either side of a philosophical divide. Grey Gardens is traditional, if not in form then in sound: It has a classic Broadway orchestral score, and a well-established Broadway star, the excellent Christine Ebersole, in the lead. (Ebersole is all but a lock to win Best Actress in a Musical, and she deserves to be.)

Spring Awakening has a rock score and a cast of 19-year-olds, and the critics were near unanimous in their opinion that it genuinely rocks out onstage. I cannot help wondering whether Tony voters -- who skew far older than Spring Awakening's audience, and are often concerned with a show's moneymaking tour potential --will vote for the establishment candidate or a show that, just maybe, signals a way out of the Broadway theater's burgeoning cultural irrelevance. The real awakening may come on June 10.