FROM THE SPECIAL TONY PLAYBILL
Many of those tuning in to this year’s Tony Award telecast look forward to the first Sunday in June all year long: they know they’re going to see a great show starring their favorite celebrities, with musical highlights from Broadway’s brightest hits.
But there are others tuning in for the first time who might not know much about Broadway-a housewife in Dubuque, a senior citizen in Boca Raton, a teenager in San Jose. No matter; the consistently top quality of the Tony Awards will make repeat viewers of them in years to come.
Why? Is it simply a case of “award-itis,” the thrill of watching a winner— any winner—cross a finish line? Or is there something special about the Tonys that sets them above every other award in the entertainment field? “Other award shows get higher ratings,” admits distinguished producer Robert Whitehead, Tony-Award winning producer of A Man for All Seasons and Master Class, “but the network continues to broadcast the Tonys year after year because of a quality that they simply can’t get anywhere else.”
Whitehead is more qualified than most to speak about the Tonys’ enduring appeal: he attended the first awards ceremony on April 6, 1947. There was no TV broadcast—just a midnight supper at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where awards were doled out to such luminaries as Helen Hayes, Ingrid Bergman and Jose Ferrer for excellence in the theatre. That evening in June, 1947—like this one in June, 1997—was in honor of Antoinette Perry, chairman of the board and secretary of the American Theatre Wing during World War II, who had died in 1946. (At that time the honors were sponsored by the American Theatre Wing; they are now co-presented by the Wing and the League of American Theatres and Producers).
It didn’t take long for the award bearing her name to take-on her nickname, “Tony.” And from the beginning, the Tony Awards have stood for quality, as did their namesake: Perry’s long list of directing credits includes the Pulitzer-Prize winning Harvey.
But if achieving excellence is never easy, neither is honoring it. A true man of the theatre, Whitehead has been actively involved with the Tony process for over a decade, sitting on the two committees responsible for Tony “quality control, the Tony Management Committee and the Tony Awards Administration Committee.
The Management Committee, comprised of five Wing and five League members (with an equal number of alternates), meets once a month to oversee the overall aspects of the awards, particularly the televised broadcast.
The Administration Committee is also made up of equal parts Wing and League members—ten and ten—along with four members of the craft organizations and numerous alternates. They name the Nominating Committee, designate special awards, determine the eligibility of each element, and perform an annual review of the rules and regulations governing the awards for the purpose of recommending changes or modifications.
These two engines drive a complex network of machinery that works behind the scenes all year long to make that first Sunday in June magical and fair. And what goes on behind closed doors?
Says Whitehead, “There is a pre-eminent feeling among everybody in those meetings: Let’s not get away from the best of what the theatre has to offer.”
Whitehead describes the Administration Committee’s attempts to balance the ongoing changes in the theatre without abandoning great theatrical—and Tony—traditions. “I think we’ve kept up with the times pretty well,” he says proudly, and this year, there are good examples to back him up: the first addition of a new category since 1976 (when the award honoring a regional theatre was added), significant changes in what constitutes eligibility for Tony consideration, and the expansion of the Nominating Committee.
The new category is Best Orchestrations, bringing the total number of categories to 22. (That number fluctuates each year depending on whether or not the committee divides the Best Revival category into two: one for Best Musical and one for Best Play). And while few can argue that orchestrations are not a crucial part of a musical’s success, the addition of it to the Tony roster was a big decision, prompted by a petition from the president of the musicians’ union a few years ago. After meetings with union members and others, the Committee voted to add the category, secure that the community would want to single out a profession that contributed so much to the pleasure of musical theatregoers.
Another change is eligibility, which became a practical matter last season when a production of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child marked the Broadway debut of the Pulitzer-prize-winning playwright. By previous rules, the show would have been ineligible for Tony consideration as a new play because it had previously been produced Off-Broadway in 1981.
That is, unless the argument could have been made convincingly that the play had been substantially rewritten enough to render it a new work. Indeed, the show’s director Gary Sinise argued just that before the Administration Committee, bringing in scripts for them to compare and tallying up new lines. It worked: Buried Child was nominated for Best Play.
“That would not be necessary now,” says Roy A. Somlyo, who has served the Tonys since 1967, initially as an associate producer, then as a co-producer. For the past 11 years, Somlyo has acted as the managing producer.
He cites the new eligibility rules, which find a show eligible for Tony consideration as best play even if it has been produced at a New York venue other than Broadway (provided it complied with all other rules and regulations of the Nominating Committee). “The point is not to circumvent the rules, it’s to make sure the rules serve the process of honoring the best of the season. But it takes a lot of careful deliberation to do that.”
The expansion of the Nominating Committee was this year’s most complicated and publicized change, resulting in a Nominating Committee of 30 people, up from 17. This increase in people means an increase in points of view, a clear reflection of the Administration Committee’s commitment to diversity and new voices.
“The effort is constantly being made to take current thinking into account,” Somlyo says. “It’s a question of fairness, of opening up the process as much as possible without damaging the integrity of the awards.”
It all culminates on the day the nominations are announced at a press conference at Sardi’s, but getting there can be a long and arduous process for the Nominating Committee.
Part of the Nominating Committee’s task is to see every Broadway show of the season, the spate of which usually occurs in the months leading up to the Tony deadline (which this year fell on April 30). Following that day, the committee meets to make their selections, using a computerized list of eligible shows, performances and other categories prepared for them by the Administration Committee.
“I think the move to get a greater diversity of response and opinion is a terrific idea. The more the merrier!” says Jay Harnick, artistic director of Theaterworks/USA and Nominating Committee member for the past five years. Harnick likens it to jury deliberations. “Anybody who has ever served on jury duty will know that once you retire to the jury room, a whole diversity of opinions get aired,” he says. “But that’s healthy. Healthy for the judicial system and healthy for the Nominating Committee.”
Unlike jury duty, the Administration Committee—under a new rule this year—keeps the Nominating Committee focused by limiting discussion time to two hours, thus avoiding heavy lobbying on the part of some members for shows of their choice.
It can’t be easy remembering every performance from a season’s worth of shows, but for Peter Neufeld, a former Broadway general manager who is new to the Nominating Committee it’s no problem. “It’s an honor and responsibility, a tough assignment in that you have to be knowledgeable and experienced, yet not have very strong rooting interests,” he explains. “I try to be as receptive as I can when I go to the theatre. I make a point of taking a nap so that I’m not tired when I attend.”
That kind of enthusiasm spills over from the nominating room to the telecast, which is why the Tony Awards telecast helps attract so many television viewers to Broadway. And according to Robert Whitehead, the return on that exposure is much bigger than just box-office receipts. “People look at the promotion that the telecast provides Broadway,” he says, “but I think in the best sense, it encourages people in the theatre to go on doing what they do best which—if they had any sense—they’d probably have gotten out of a long time ago. I know I would have.” The two-time Tony winner laughs, then adds, “But I believe that what we do matters. The theatre, at its best, is one of the most important elements in a civilized world. The Tonys are a celebration of that.”
Here’s a who’s who on the various 1997 Tony decision-making bodies:
1997 Tony Management Committee
Marvin A. Krauss
Elizabeth I. McCann
Alan Jaffe, Esq.
Roy A. Somlyo
1997 Tony Administration Committee
James Nederlander, Sr.
Jo Sullivan Loesser
James L. Nederlander
1997 Tony Nominating Committee
Mary Schmidt Campbell
Betty L. Corwin
Ming Cho Lee
Franklin R. Weissberg
-- By Patrick Pacheco