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Behind the Scenes at the Tony Awards
For executive producer Gary Smith, timing is everything. He makes the performers, the crew, the lighting, the sound and the graphics all come together—sometimes, at the last moment.
By Eric Sloss
Gary Smith at work

Saturday, June 7
2 p.m.
The day before the 57th Annual Tony Awards, the clouds move in above Radio City Music Hall on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. Metal barriers and box trucks full of production and video equipment line 51st Street near the hall's side entrance. Electricians install the last "S" on the block-long marquee before the rain starts pouring down, and crews rush to cover the electrical equipment. On this dreary afternoon it's hard to imagine that stars of screen and stage will grace the red carpet leading into the hall the next day. In a second-floor dance studio inside, executive producer Gary Smith (A'56) is preparing the show's opening segment.

Smith stands in front of a grand piano swaying to the music, his hand on his chin, as he listens to the song "New York State of Mind."

"Billy, that's great," he tells the player, who is the Piano Man himself, Billy Joel.

Although few in the public might recognize Smith's name, in the entertainment industry, he is known as an innovator. His smile and kind heart make him a legend.

5:30 p.m.
Actor Frank Langella arrives at the theater and greets Smith with a hug. The actor, a two-time Tony Award winner, has come in early to do some voice-over work in a video production booth.

Tony Awards Smith is working through the scheduled meal break. On his way to his makeshift office on the second floor, he stops to say hello to the 4-year-old daughter of one of the crew members, who clings shyly to her mother, then returns his smile. Smith's title is executive producer, but his job is not easy to define. It is fluid and broad, encompassing an impossible range of talents and responsibilities. What he has to do, he says, is to take what an artist is about, what the theme of the show is about, and what the intended purpose is, and create a television production that allows these elements to come together. A large production like the Tony Awards requires attention to every detail. But, says Smith, "the biggest concern is always time." Sometimes people ask him whether he worries that something unexpected might happen during a live show. "You want the production to be spontaneous," he tells them. "Sometimes you can set that up."

Being in the elegant hall reminds Smith of another production, a show celebrating the Depression-era building's anniversary. One of the guests was Gregory Peck, who had once been an usher at the theater. "We took a camera way back on a huge long lens so there was a head-to-toe shot of Gregory Peck," Smith tells some members of the production crew. "We had him come up...and the camera started to widen and widen, and he did the same thing that he did when he was an usher." Smith swings his arm around and yells out, "Right this way is Radio City Music Hall!"

6:15 p.m.
A piece of paper with Smith's name typed on it, stuck to a mirror, defines his office space, which is clearly no more than a dressing room. A laptop computer, a phone and paperwork fill the small counter in front of a makeup mirror, bordered with glowing white light bulbs.

Smith's assistant reaches over her boss's shoulder to answer the phone. On the line is the assistant to Hugh Jackman, "The X-Men" film star who will host this year's awards, conveying the star's request for a healthy dinner that includes bagels. "Aussies eat bagels, too," Smith marvels.

He reflects on all the things he needs to accomplish that weekend. "The best ideas always start here." He points to his heart. "If it doesn't start there, then you have nothing."

Bob Dickinson, the show's lighting designer and an adjunct instructor in Carnegie Mellon's School of Drama, chimes in, "This has always been his trademark! Gary will drive us crazy. He will come into the truck and say, 'If we only did it this way.' This is after we rehearsed it. He'll say, 'But we've got to do it!' Sure enough, we'll make his changes and the production will snap to life."

One such inspiration came to Smith as he was walking in New York and passed a street performer—a guy playing plastic cans. Thinking it would be a great idea to have the drummer create the rhythm music for the opening segment of the show, Smith asked him if he would like to be on TV. The drummer was so nervous during the shoot that Smith stepped forward to wipe the sweat from the man's forehead. Hours later, Smith's son Zach, who works with his father's Los Angeles-based production company, was editing the performance.

8 p.m.
Smith makes his way a few blocks through Manhattan in the rain to Times Square for another rehearsal of the opening song, which will be performed live at the square. It's familiar turf for Smith, who was there round the clock when he served as executive producer of ABC's 24-hour celebration of the new millennium. This time there is a stand-in for the Piano Man, a casting crew employee who is a big Billy Joel fan and can play all of the composer's music on the piano. He even resembles Joel, and the "fans" that surround him realize only after the fifth take of "New York State of Mind" that he's not the real star.

Afterwards, Smith gets onstage to offer tips to the young Def Poetry Jam performers, all of whom are in high spirits. The rain creates a glistening environment, reflecting the lights that surround Times Square.

8:50 p.m.
Finally, near the end of the rehearsal, Smith yawns. Lighting designers, camera-men and stage crew start making their way off the set.

The producer of the 57th Annual Tony Awards has rehearsed in many adverse situations. He's produced numerous awards ceremonies and other major events, among them a number of Democratic National Conventions, Emmy Awards and People's Choice Awards. He and his long-time collaborator, Dwight Hemion, have won 24 Emmy Awards for their work and have produced numerous television specials, including Elvis Presley's last performance and Bette Midler's first.

Sunday, June 8
Sunday's schedule calls for rehearsal at 8 a.m., with a lunch break at noon and dinner break at 5 p.m. The doors open for the show at 7 p.m., and the CBS broadcast begins at 8.

"In rehearsal you need to get used to where everybody is. It really just starts to fly, even the logistics of the performance. The graphics are mind-boggling, the graphic package, play package, the way the winner walks up—it all comes together at the last second," Smith says.

9:30 a.m.
The hall is bustling. Lights bounce high off the walls of the stage, showering gold tones, changing from blue to red as the lighting designers work their cues. The Art Deco-style stage is huge, filling the width of the hall. A satellite stage 10 feet in diameter juts out to make the audience feel closer to the event.

Among the sets lined up backstage is the world's largest hairspray bottle, which will unload Harvey Fierstein for the "Hairspray" number.

A driver brings in actors who care to rehearse. Danny Glover appears in a baseball cap and sweatpants and John Lithgow in jeans.

11 a.m.
The way staff members run around between rows of seats, communicating on walkie-talkies, seems like a choreographed performance in itself. Cardboard placards with head shots of the stars occupy the aisle seats in the first 10 rows, identifying where nominees and presenters will sit. Visitors of the staff, including a number of children, get a kick out of sitting among the placeholders for the stars.

Smith is in front of a few monitors 14 rows back, stage left, flanked by his assistant and son Zach. Behind him sits Roy A. Somlyo, president of the American Theatre Wing. The American Theatre Wing and the League of American Theatres and Producers are the two organizations that present the awards.

"Gary has a total vision for the show," Somlyo says. "He picks up on every single detail." On top of that, "he gets along with people so well. The key is to get your way but make sure people don't feel abused."

One of the presenters rehearsing onstage, television interviewer Barbara -Walters, is dissatisfied with both her entrance and her script. Smith goes onstage to console her. He places his hand on her shoulder, and a couple of smiles and laughs later, she finalizes her run-through.

"If you watched today, Barbara Walters did not want to do the material he gave her, and she substituted her own," Somlyo says. "Gary convinced her to try it our way." When she did, "she found out in front of the rehearsal audience that it was better, which we all knew." Walters agreed to use the script Smith had provided. "That's one of the classic examples of [Smith] dealing with people," Somlyo says.

Smith's roots in the theater, along with his experience in television and set design, make him a logical choice to produce the Tonys, Somlyo says. "He has a New York point of view to things, regardless if he's based in California. He brings the California goods to the show, but doesn't let it get in the way of what's important to us—that our audience is seeing Broadway. That's why he's the best."

1 p.m.
Stars shuffle in one by one for the rehearsal. Some celebrities are replaced by substitutes who present the award for them. "For this rehearsal only," the presenters say before revealing a name that is not the actual winner. Those names are still secret. That night, Smith will discover the identities of the winners just one minute before they're announced so he can cue the cameramen to capture a live reaction. If the stand-ins miss a beat, Smith yells out to the production staff for a redo.

Smith instructs performers doing selections from the Broadway plays "Gypsy," "La Boheme" and "Hairspray" to ensure they will execute the numbers on time.

Some people come to the rehearsal to catch a few stars in sweatpants, see how the show is pulled together and discover how Smith smooths out the rough edges. Most of them sit in the second tier of the theater while those with the right credentials are admitted to floor seating.

CBS agreed to broadcast the entire three hours of this year's awards ceremony, and that created an opportunity for Smith to do some creative programming. "I interviewed everyone who's nominated: Brian Stokes [Mitchell], Bernadette [Peters], so you hear directly from them. So Brian Stokes says what it's like to play Don Quixote. They will do an interview that the audience will see. Then we will transition into the numbers."

Carnegie Mellon interns Noah Mitz, a junior in drama, and Evan Purcell, a senior, walk across the stage with lighting designer Dickinson. Somlyo, who's been in the business even longer than Smith, remembers kids fresh out of the Carnegie Institute of Technology coming to Broadway decades ago.

"You would get the kids backstage and let them see the electricians and equipment and lighting," he says. "What is this?" they'd ask when they saw the old-fashioned piano boards. "They would say 'This is all the lighting you have! How do you light a show with these limited facilities?' They were so spoiled by the technology they were getting in college. They had to make the adjustment. By the time they made the adjustment, the new crew [of students] came in and said, 'Where are your computers?' Carnegie Tech was the place to go."

Other Carnegie Mellon alumni besides Smith have a stake in the outcome of the Tony Awards. Brad Dean (A'93) plays Anselmo in "Man of La Mancha." The production was nominated for best revival of a musical. Dagmara Dominczyk (A'98) plays Lady Caroline in "Enchanted April," which was nominated for best play, and Frank Gorshin (A'55*) plays George Burns in "Say Goodnight, Gracie," also nominated for best play.

Carnegie Mellon alumni in the entertainment industry have a sense of camaraderie and connection, even if they aren't in the same class, Smith says. "I think we've all come away with a feeling of [having had] a wonderful theater education."

6 p.m.
Devoted Broadway fans position themselves behind the metal barricades on 51st Street. The red carpet rolls out, and in walk the stars. The media is corralled behind a barricade, which restricts their cameras and microphones from intruding too far. Smith stands on the steps of the production truck until his wife and mother arrive in a large black limo. He accompanies them up the carpet, through the media-laden bedlam.

Cameras flash and the crowd screams as each star hits the carpet. Two policemen, there to make sure that the media does not get out of hand, wave to Billy Joel and give him a thumbs up. Joel waves back. Philip Seymour -Hoffman, Laurence Fishburne, Chita Rivera, Edie Falco and Mary Stuart Masterson and many other stars all cross the red carpet into Radio City Music Hall.

7 p.m.
All of the activity in the green room backstage makes it hard to follow what's happening onstage. Around every corner you can find a star rehearsing lines. Members of the production crew, dressed in black and equipped with walkie-talkies and headsets, come in and out of the room. Two monitors keep everyone on cue, with the crew motioning, signaling or grabbing the stars when needed.

In a makeshift living room area behind a large-screen TV, Bebe Neuwirth and Ann Reinking sit on an ottoman, sipping wine. They occasionally get up and practice the choreographed number they will do as they walk out onstage to present the award for best choreography.

After the first hour, Smith goes out to warm up the crowd, making them laugh, as he commonly does with his production crew. He instructs the crowd not to stand in front of the large-screen TV that scrolls the scripts for the award presenters.

9 p.m.
Backstage, sales representatives stationed at two tables in the green room are trying to market high-priced jewelry, computer products, handbags and clothing to any actor who will listen. Another skirted table holds cookies, bottled water, sushi and vegetables. An adjacent stand offers espresso to juice up stars before they are in the spotlight.

Matthew Broderick comes backstage with his wife, Sarah Jessica Parker, on his arm. A television screen catches his eye, and he pauses to watch Langella onstage while Sarah moves on to get the trade-show sales pitch.

Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith are whisked backstage by an entourage of folks dressed in black and headsets. Melanie stands a touch taller than Antonio. She's wearing a Versace dress soon to be made famous by the paparazzi. On her arm is a black-heart tattoo with the name Antonio branded inside.

10:15 p.m.
Smith sits patiently behind the proscenium wall whispering into the headset, controlling the chaos. At one point his voice can be heard over the loudspeaker throughout the hall, saying things need to move more quickly.

During commercial breaks, everyone stretches or chats. Smith is heard over the speaker, saying the production is running behind.

11 p.m.
The Tony Awards end on deadline.

"Among the most attractive things about someone in our profession, especially those who've been at it a long time, is their commitment, dedication and passion," actor Langella says. "Gary is a success because he still loves what he does and loves it as though it were the first time he was doing it."

Eric Sloss is the associate director of media relations for Carnegie Mellon's College of Fine Arts.

Interns learn about lighting and trust at the Tony Awards

Carnegie Mellon School of Drama students, Noah Mitz, a junior, and Evan Purcell, a senior, interned at the 57th Annual Tony Awards. They worked under the show's lighting designer, Bob Dickinson, an instructor of lighting design at the School of Drama. Excerpts from interviews with the two students are below.

What is the difference between the conservatory theater training you receive at Carnegie Mellon and the training for television you received at the Tony Awards?

Mitz: "Bobby [Dickinson] explained many times that in television award shows, you are lighting for the thousands or millions at home watching on TV rather than the hundreds in the audience. And because the cameras that capture the images for the masses react differently to light than the human eye, you must in the end light for the camera."

Purcell: "What might take a few weeks or months at school is done in a matter of days for live television events. Rather than rehearsing a particular song for hours on end, we'd get an hour with the cast to write cues and rehearse. The next time we'd see them would be either the dress rehearsal, or, in some cases, the show itself. There was no time to go back and fix a mistake. You had to be sure that you were on the right track from the beginning.

"Things that might be wonderful in live theatre don't always work for television because of the limitations of the camera. The lighting designer's job is to make sure the people onstage look good and are lit flatteringly. The art comes when you can create a picture that is colorful, dynamic and interesting while keeping the needs of the camera and the talent in mind."

What were some of your favorite experiences?

Mitz: "Dress rehearsal and the day of the show in the production truck. Even in rehearsal, the electricity in the air is indescribable. I can't forget watching Bernadette [Peters, nominee for her performance as leading actress in the musical 'Gypsy']. Things were not going well. She stayed one hour past her scheduled time to run the number again. Watching someone of her stature behave so professionally was definitely inspiring.

"It was also amazing to observe the progress of the show.Being inside the video truck and watching it come alive, seeing the little tricks Bobby would do, was great. After I returned home, I sat down with my dad to watch it on tape. We had a great time as I showed him all the cues and fun trivia I picked up, and I delighted in showing him how these people are masters of beating the clock."

Purcell: "My favorite part was watching the collaboration between Jules Fisher [A'60] and Bob. Jules was the lighting designer for 'Gypsy,' [along with his partner, Peggy Eisenhauer (A'83),] and came to the theater to talk with Bob about lighting the upcoming 'Gypsy' number. Jules obviously approached the original design for the song from a completely theatrical point of view, and the translation of the design from one medium to another was fascinating to watch."

What will you take away from the experience?

Mitz: "I've gained a strong interest in a field that I had little previous contact with. I got a sneak peek into a world that I was always intrigued by. I am excited about this new interest and plan on learning more about it."

Purcell: "I have a much better sense of the lighting designer's role on very large productions.... Bob stressed the importance of surrounding yourself with people you like and trust. There is too much work and too much stress to worry about whether the job you gave to one of your assistants is going to happen. By keeping only good people around you, the experience is more enjoyable and productive for everyone involved."

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