An Ensemble Effort: Should There Be a Tony Award for "Best Ensemble"?

An Ensemble Effort: Should There Be a Tony Award for "Best Ensemble"? The History Boys. August: Osage County. God of Carnage. Next Fall. What do these plays all have in common?
Next Fall stars Sean Dugan with Patrick Breen, Maddie Corman with Connie Ray and Patrick Heusinger with Cotter Smith
Next Fall stars Sean Dugan with Patrick Breen, Maddie Corman with Connie Ray and Patrick Heusinger with Cotter Smith Photo by Carol Rosegg

Yes, they were all nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play. (The first three won the prize; the fate of the last one, still on Broadway, will be decided on June 13, when this season's awards are given out.) But another thing they share is that observers agree, if there were such a thing as a Best Ensemble Tony Award, the casts of those four shows would have been top candidates.

Campaigns for new categories of Tony Award crop up from time to time. A trophy for Best Sound Design was added in 2008, ending decades during which sound designers' contributions were ignored by the Tonys. The category Special Theatrical Event was created in 2001 to honor those productions that didn't fit into the Play or Musical slots; it was then discontinued following the 2009 awards. Musical directors are a forgotten lot in Tony Awards, even though one of them conducts the orchestra at the Tony ceremony every year. One other idea that is brought up from time to time is Best Ensemble — an award that would honor the entire cast of a production.

The thought is not a new one. While the Tonys have yet to latch onto the idea, other award organizations have been handing out group awards for some time. The Drama Desk signifies a cast for overall excellence of performance almost every season; this year, they honored the actors of The Orphans' Home Cycle, Circle Mirror Transformation and The Temperamentals. And the Village Voice's Obies occasionally embrace entire ensembles, as they did this season by giving every performer in Circle Mirror Transformation a trophy.

A Best Ensemble Tony has its advocates. Not surprisingly, one of them is Sheryl Kaller, the director of Next Fall. Nearly every review of Geoffrey Nauffts' play pointed out the high level of ensemble acting. "From a personal standpoint, it would have been really cool to have an ensemble acting award this year because of my play," said Kaller. "With Next Fall, we worked really hard on that ensemble and it's an ensemble play." But Kaller thinks such a category would be beneficial beyond what it could do for her production. "I think what it would do is it would encourage more ensemble-oriented plays on Broadway. I don't think you can separate art and commerce on Broadway. From a producer's point of view, you have to produce a play that has some star turns in it, so you accumulate your award nominations, because it's about business. We all know what awards do for business."

God of Carnage original stars Marcia Gay Harden, James Gandolfini, Hope Davis and Jeff Daniels
photo by Joan Marcus

Barbara Freitag, one of the producers of August: Osage County, which was hailed for its seamless ensemble, thinks "it's not a bad idea. I've seen a couple plays this year where the ensemble was so melded together and so good, like in Fences. August would have absolutely been the most perfect show for it." However, the idea also raised several red flags for her. One issue would be whether actors who were honored as part of an ensemble would also be eligible for individual acting awards. "If you think about it, the Tony Award means so much to the people who win it, they'd probably rather win it individually than as an ensemble." Time Out New York drama critic Adam Feldman likes the concept in theory, but admits to having "complicated feelings about it."

"I think often [honoring the ensemble] is more representative of the play and the theatre," he said. For example, "there's a cast like Next Fall this year, where all of them are very good, but none of them have the kinds of roles that get you Tony nominations. It would be a nice way to recognize there's a level of excellence there."

"On the other hand," he continued, "the Tonys already have too many awards. And it would sort of risk diluting the Tony brand a little bit if everyone who's won an ensemble award can say 'I've won a Tony.' I'm sure it would be used in that way, given what we know about publicity."

Feldman said he was considering proposing that the New York Drama Critics' Circle, an organization of which he is the president, institute such an award. "I think there's a reason why the Screen Actors Guild does it and not the Oscars," he said. "I think a different orgnaniztion might be better positioned to do it, like ours."

Tony leadership declined to comment about the idea of an ensemble award. Everyone interviewed for this article seemed to agree on two things: One, a Best Ensemble Tony Award is a good idea; but, Two, working out the exact way such an award would be conferred could prove difficult, if not impossible. "I'm in favor of it," said veteran producer Emanuel Azenberg, "but I don't know how you would judge it, vis a vis competition. Every once in while we do see something like The History Boys, which was brilliantly done, and was an ensemble effort." Azenberg said he would prefer such an award be given out, as opposed to being a competitive category. "It is conceivable to come up with a set of rules that gives an ensemble recognition," he added. "But it would have to be thought through. I think in principle, inclusion is good. Recogniation is good. But we're burdened with competition."

And then, if it is decided the award should be given out, there's the matter of deciding who gets it. Who would judge? Who's to say what's a great ensemble and what isn't? "How would you discern it," asked Azenberg rhetorically. "How would you know it, really? It's like pornography. I can't describe it, but I know it when I see it."

(Robert Simonson's Week in Review appears on Fridays on Playbill.com. Write him at rsimonson@playbill.com.)

The cast of <i>August: Osage County</i>.
The cast of August: Osage County. Photo by Michael Brosilow
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