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Theater Fans Are Lamenting Sunday's Grease Sing-Along

Why swapping out the canceled Tony Awards for the 1978 movie misses the point of what the awards mean to so many people.
  • A promotional image for Sunday Night's Grease Sing-Along. (CBS/Paramount)
    A promotional image for Sunday Night's Grease Sing-Along. (CBS/Paramount)

    When CBS announced they would be airing a sing-along version of the 1978 movie Grease in the time slot originally planned for the 2020 Tony Awards, it may have seemed on the surface to be a logical choice. CBS has already begun establishing Sunday nights as their big movie nights during quarantine -- having already aired films like Forrest Gump and Titanic, Grease seemed to perfectly thread the needle between movie night and Broadway's biggest event of the year. But for many in the theater community and for those with a love for theater across the country, airing Grease in the Tonys' void ends up cutting the heart out of what for many is a much-anticipated, almost sacred night on the calendar.

    To understand this, you have to understand where the Tonys differ from other awards shows like the Oscars, Emmys, and Grammys. All those shows certainly exist in part to show off the highlights of each particular medium, with the Oscars in particular leading to a tangible bump in box-office for the nominated and winning films. But Broadway shows depend heavily on out-of-town tourist dollars to stay open, and the Tony Awards are by far the industry's best advertisement for what's open now. (One study found that success at the Tonys can triple a show's chances of staying open.) They also serve to introduce the public to new shows that might soon be touring.

    Obviously, at the moment, no shows on Broadway are open. New York's stay-at-home order came just as Tonys season was kicking off in March, when the year's most anticipated productions would normally open and vie for voters' attention. Canceling the 2020 awards was pretty much the only thing that could happen, but with the Broadway community ailing and theaters not set to re-open until September at the earliest, no Tony Awards has meant a blow to not only the economics of live theater but the psyche of the Broadway community, artists, and fans alike.

    So, while Grease may indeed be a musical movie based on a Broadway production, and while televised musical sing-alongs have indeed scratched a particular itch for live musical performance lately, a movie where John Travolta and his buddies sing and dance about their love for a car just isn't cutting it. And social media has been full of Broadway partisans hoping in vain to convince CBS to run something on Tonys night that better reflects the live theater experience, including 2019 Tony nominee Gideon Glick:

    This goes far beyond economics, reaching to the soul of the American theatergoer. For anyone who grew up outside of the New York City area, the Tony Awards have always been the one time a year when the apex of theater — musical theater especially — was available to everyone, no matter where they lived. For many of these people who may have grown up sheltered or closeted or passionate about something that wasn't easily enthused over at school, the Tonys were an oasis. Losing that, even for just a year, is a blow to the psyche at a time when our poor psyches could use a break. Grease may indeed be the word, it's not going to be a word with the kind of eye-opening impact that Tonys viewers have come to anticipate year after year.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: CBS, The Tony Awards, Award Shows, Coronavirus