This season's campaign by Broadway's producers to get the 763 Tony Award voters (producers who are members of the League of American Theatres and Producers, plus first night press, actors, et al) to, in the words of the opening moments of The Life, "check it out" is getting a varied response from those on the receiving end.
Ballots must be in the hands of Lutz and Carr (the accounting firm with official tabulating duties) by 4 PM Friday, May 30. The awards will be handed out June 1 in a ceremony at Radio City Music Hall in New York, which will be televised on PBS and CBS.
For the past two weeks, voters have received everything from compact discs with souvenir books, to postcard photo sets. Ads have been plastered in the show business trade Variety. The producers of the Annie revival faxed voters a series of cartoons -- one showing darling Little Orphan Annie and Sandy as underdogs against a boxing gloved Velma from the Chicago revival.
If all else fails, why not try, as some have, a pleading letter dripping with humility asking that voters please not dismiss a particular show.
Barry and Fran Weissler, the producers of the smash revival Chicago and no strangers to creative marketing, showed panache sending voters faux subpoenas from Cook County signed by none other than that slick jailhouse legal eagle Billy Flynn (played in the show by James Naughton). Richard Pechter and Dodger Endemol Theatricals spared no expense with perhaps the most entertaining ploy: busing the full cast of their multi million dollar Titanic to Manhattan's South Street Seaport maritime museum for a lunch-time mini-show for out-of-town members of the League aboard the historic clipper Peking.
The producers of the other two big nominated musicals, Steel Pier and The Life, with 11 and 12 nominations respectively, have been rather low key. Jeff Solis, an associate producer of The Life, said that show had only sent out a compact disc of the score, which is due in stores from Sony June 3, and -- to some voters -- a sampler video.
The other nominated musical, Juan Darien... has closed.
* Veteran press agent Shirley Herz, who was on her way to see Titantic when interviewed, said, "It's very nice to get all the CDs. I play them in my car on the way to and from work. And I love the cartoons and press kits. But they don't have a bit of influence on how I vote. I've been very good this season seeing all the plays and shows -- I still have The Young Man from Atlanta and The Life to catch before my ballot's due on Friday.
"If you're honest, you vote for the best in each category. And free CDs aren't going to change your mind."
* Daryl Roth, an Off-Broadway producer, said, "I'm not sure if this season's campaigning hasn't gotten a bit too much like the campaigning for Academy Awards. It seems to have gone a little out of control. There's certainly nothing wrong with marketing your show. It's a vital fact of business today. But the sort of thing going on is really just going for the votes."
Roth said that to bring attention to voters about plays or shows that have closed is one thing. "It's always important to have the play in mind. But to campaign for votes for shows still running and available to be seen by the voters seems strange.
"My shows are usually intimate dramas and sit beautifully in intimate Off-Broadway houses [Three Tall Women, Old Wicked Songs, How I Learned To Drive], but I love Broadway and I see everything before I vote. The prevailing attitude of producers should be to put the best production possible on stage and market to the public. When it comes to voting, I sometimes have a pretty good handle on what's going to be nominated and what I'm going to vote long before the nominations."
* Rick Hobard, a veteran producer and Tony voter with no show running this season, said, "Put yourself in the shoes of the producers of the shows, many of which have opened in a last-week-of-April marathon just before the deadline to qualify for Tony nominations. No single one got the attention they would get if they opened in a saner way. These producers strongly believe what they're doing will call attention to the shows. But most Tony voters are already set in their opinions and mind. And, like me, have already marked their ballots and sent them in."
Hobard and other producers were quick to point out that the Tonys are Broadway and not Hollywood, that the voting pool is much smaller and open to all as opposed to the Oscar voting which, in some cases, is limited to specialized guilds.
Arne Gundersen, eastern region vice president of the Actors Equity Council (a 76-member Tony voting block of actors), doesn't find producers's campaigns for votes or their methods to refresh voters's mind offensive.
"It's another marketing ploy to get your attention," Gunderson said. "Some of the things are funny and clever. Whatever I receive, it doesn't affect my vote. I have my own ideas based exclusively on what I see."
Gunderson, who has been a member of Equity since 1961, reported that the voting process is on an honor system. "My policy is that if, for whatever reason I haven't seen a particular show, I pass on voting in that category."
But, he said, "campaigning by producers is nothing new. For years we've been receiving score tapes and CDs, even videos."
With his Tony ballot due on Friday by 4 PM, Gundersen is still under the wire. He has one more play to see. "It's good that we're allowed to hand deliver our ballot to the offices of Lutz and Carr."
With so many shows opening in the week before the Tony nomination cut-off, several actors on the council noted they've literally been running to see shows non-stop for the last two weeks.
"It's not at all unusual in a season like this for your mind to get a little boggled," said Gundersen, laughing.
As a rule, members of the council get invited to see shows six to eight weeks after they open. In some rare instances, said Gundersen, in a hotly contested category, they get invited back to see a show between the nominations and voting deadline.
Keith Sherman, spokesman for The Tony Awards, said, "The campaigning for Tonys is vastly different from the other award shows and Oscars. Broadway producers tend to operate with more restraint when you compare them to their film counterparts. Some of the producers of this season's shows took some full page ads in the trades, but not the dozens and dozens of pages of lavish ads movie studios do for the Oscars. The theatrical community doesn't respond that way. I know CDs, scripts, and other material went out to voters. But rather than hype, they tend to let the quality of the work speak for itself."
Patricia O'Haire, a Tony-voting member of the first night press and theatre reporter for the New York Daily News, finds the campaign for votes "a lot of fun. So far I've gotten a sampler cd of the scores of Titantic and full CDs of Steel Pier and The Life. I haven't received any of the Annie cartoons that have been faxed to others. I only wish the producers would send videos of their shows, so I could enjoy them all over again." But, O'Haire pointed out, none of these ploys would affect her voting. Especially this season, since her ballot has long been mailed.
-- By Ellis Nassour