ASK PLAYBILL.COM: Special Tony Awards

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Marian Seldes and Alan Ayckbourn are receiving Special Tony Awards this year. How are special-recognition Tonys chosen?
David Hyde Pierce and Marian Seldes
David Hyde Pierce and Marian Seldes Photo by Joan Marcus; Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

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Question: Who decides who gets the Special Tony Awards? Who recommends candidates and what committee votes?

Answer: The Special Recognition Tony Awards, as they are formally called — which include the Tony Honors, Lifetime Achievement and Isabelle Stevenson Awards, as well as occasional stand-alone Special Awards — are all chosen by the Tony Award Administration Committee. (The Regional Theater Award, given out every year, is recommended to the American Theatre Wing by the American Theatre Critics Association.) The committee, including alternates, has 38 members, including Broadway League executive director Charlotte St. Martin and American Theatre Wing executive director Howard Sherman, of which only 24 voting members are present at any given meeting.

"Tony Honors take recommendations from any Tony voter," said Sherman. "Lifetime Achievement and the Isabelle Stevenson Award have to be specifically proposed by a member of the committee." This year, because more than 70 recommendations for Tony Honors were submitted, the Tonys enlisted the help of a subcommittee, which vetted the submissions, deciding which met the proper criteria. This smaller pool of recommendations was submitted to the Administration Committee. (Comparatively fewer recommendations are made for the Lifetime and Stevenson awards.) In order to pass, each Special Tony "requires an affirmative vote of at least two thirds of the committee," said Sherman. "A significant portion of the committee must agree that these people are worth receiving these honors."

This year's recipients of Special Tonys include: playwright Alan Ayckbourn and actress Marian Seldes, who will get Lifetime Achievement Awards; David Hyde Pierce, who will get the Stevenson Award, which recognizes an individual from the theatre community "who has made a substantial contribution of volunteered time and effort on behalf of one or more humanitarian, social service or charitable organizations"; Midtown North and South New York City Police Precincts, The Alliance of Resident Theatres New York, B.H. Barry and BC/EFA executive director Tom Viola (all will get Tony Honors for Excellence in Theatre). Most recipients express complete surprise at being named. Viola told Playbill.com he had no idea he was going to receive a Tony, and did not know how the honor came about. Seldes also said she had no inkling a Tony was in her future. She was called before the special Tony honorees were announced and was asked not to tell anyone until the information was made public. Barry, a longtime fight director with many Broadway credits, was less surprised. "Somebody who knew me told me just before I went into the Tony luncheon that my name had been up there for six or seven years," he said, "and that he finally decided to push for it. All you need, apparently, is for two or three people to really get behind you."

As times passes, the campaign machinations behind certain special Tonys are revealed. For 30 years, Merle Debuskey was the press agent for the nonprofit Circle in the Square. Debuskey said that a personal appeal to then-Tonys producer Alexander H. Cohen — who was nursing a tumbler of Absolut vodka at the time — resulted in Circle being give a special Tony in 1976 for "25 continuous years of quality productions."

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