ASK PLAYBILL.COM: Those Tony-Nominated Lyrics, Music and Scores

Ask Playbill.com   ASK PLAYBILL.COM: Those Tony-Nominated Lyrics, Music and Scores A look at the history of the Tony Award category for Best Original Score.
Jeanine Tesori has received three Tony nominations for original scores: for Twelfth Night, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Caroline, or Change.
Jeanine Tesori has received three Tony nominations for original scores: for Twelfth Night, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Caroline, or Change.

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Ask Playbill.com is a weekly Playbill.com column that answers questions about theatre, generated by readers and Playbill.com staff, every Thursday. To ask a question, email AskPlaybill@Playbill.com. Please specify how you would like your name displayed and please include the city in which you live.

This week's series of questions comes from Dan Akiyama of Honolulu, HI.

Question: Though it didn't receive a nomination, Adrian Sutton's musical score to Coram Boy was deemed eligible for the Tony Award. Has the score of a non-musical play ever been nominated, or even won, this award?

Answer: Yes. One example is Jeanine Tesori's score for Lincoln Center Theater's production of Twelfth Night, which was nominated in 1999. More recently, Nora Ephron's play Imaginary Friends, which had some songs with music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Craig Carnelia, shared Coram Boy's distinction of being eligible but not nominated.

Question: While we're at it: Given that the criteria are "music and/or lyrics," has any show received an Original Score nomination solely for its lyrics? (For instance, a show with new words written to pre-existing melodies, or a "rap" musical?)

Answer: After a look through the list of nominations, the answer appears to be no. The closest you get is perhaps a case like Happy End, which was nominated for Original Score in 1977. The nomination technically went to the composer, Kurt Weil, the lyricist, Bertolt Brecht, and the adapter of the lyrics, Michael Feingold, even though the music and the original lyrics pre-existed the production, as Feingold was the only one of the three alive at the time.

Question: And finally: Why, in 1971, did the Tony Nominating Committee choose to give out separate awards for Music and Lyrics? And why did the committee eliminate this distinction in 1972, and never return to it?

Answer: This question was a tough one to answer. Playbill.com called Howard Sherman, the executive director of the American Theatre Wing, a co-presenter of the awards along with the League of American Theatres and Producers. He looked at the minutes from the meetings of the Administration Committee in 1971 and 1972 in which these decisions were made, but found that the minutes only specified that the decisions were made, and not the reasons why. Playbill.com also called Irving Cheskin, who was at that time the director of what was then called the League of New York Theatres and Producers (now the League of American Theatres and Producers) and was present at those meetings. He could not recall why the decisions were made. Finally, Playbill.com called Harold Prince, who directed and produced Company — for which Stephen Sondheim won both the Music award and the Lyrics award that year — and he also did not remember.

Finally, we called Roy A. Somlyo — who at the time was the associate producer of the Awards under Alexander Cohen, the Tony Awards' long-time producer — and he had an answer: "A lot of this had to do with the telecast," he says. Early on in Tony history, the awards for the score went through some changes, but for a while things settled and from 1963 to 1968, a single award was given for "Composer and Lyricist." But 1967 was Cohen's first year producing the Tonys and the first year that the Tonys aired on a network, Somlyo says, and Cohen felt pressure from the network to keep the awards short. "We were trying to get through Tonys in an hour show," he says. "We'd say [to the Administration Committee], 'Look can we cut that award?' or something and there'd be a lot of discussion, and a lot of times they would accede to our demands."

Somlyo suspects that that's why the Composer and Lyricist awards weren't given in 1969 and 1970. The writers weren't left out of the Tonys completely — before 1971, the writers and producers would share the Tony for Best Musical, even in the years when the writers got a separate award.

In 1971, everything changed. First, the Administration Committee decided that the Best Musical award would go only to the producers (and it has been that way ever since). In addition, the committee decided that Best Music and Best Lyrics would each be separate categories. Why did all this happen? "There were a lot of heavyweights in there to overcome our undue influence," he says, referring to top Broadway power brokers. "It got put in the way the industry really wanted it."

In 1972, the pendulum swung the other way, in favor of Cohen and the telecast, and the administration agreed to shave off a category by combining them into "Original Score," which is what the category has been ever since.

After Cohen's last Tony Awards in 1986, Somlyo would become managing producer of the Awards, and, later, president of the American Theatre Wing.

Sherman noted that the decisions to split and then combine the categories occurred within two months of each other. The decision to split the categories was made in early March, the Tonys occurred on March 28 and the decision to combine the two awards again was made April 28.

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