League and American Theatre Wing at Odds Over Tonys

News   League and American Theatre Wing at Odds Over Tonys
 
The marriage behind the Tony Awards may be breaking up. The League of American Theatres and Producers, which for more than 30 years has contracted with the American Theatre Wing (ATW) to present the Tony Awards, has sent a letter saying it would not renew its agreement with the Wing, as first reported in Variety and confirmed by Wing President Roy Somlyo.

The marriage behind the Tony Awards may be breaking up. The League of American Theatres and Producers, which for more than 30 years has contracted with the American Theatre Wing (ATW) to present the Tony Awards, has sent a letter saying it would not renew its agreement with the Wing, as first reported in Variety and confirmed by Wing President Roy Somlyo.

For now, Somlyo said, there are no plans for mediation. "They've terminated the contract," he said. "I take no for an answer." ATW will go forward with the awards presentation, he said. The show's contract with CBS-TV to broadcast the annual ceremony extends through 2004, though the network holds an annual option to renew.

League President Jed Bernstein, meanwhile, expressed more hope for the future of the partnership. "We fully expect that all of this will be ironed out and for things to go on happily ever after," he told Playbill On-Line.

The current conflict stems from an ongoing clash concerning the Wing and League's differing designs on the Tonys. "The wing is a charity," Somlyo told Playbill On-Line. "It's not-for-profit. The League's purpose is the marketing of its product. I understand that, but it doesn't give them the right to commercialize the Tonys."

Somlyo said the League had prepared a revised contract regarding the presentation of the Tonys, and the Wing subsequently submitted a response to that contract. "I then sat in on a meeting in which the League rejected everything the Wing asked for." The League, which represents Broadway theatre owners and producers, then introduced two new demands which Somlyo termed "unacceptable." He would not elaborate on the nature of the demands except to say they involved the further commercialization of the Tonys, "the concept of marketing the Tony Award [and] the use the Tony Award to market the League's interests."

"None of the issues of the table were financial in nature and none of the issues affected the awards themselves," said Bernstein. "They had to do with the business relationship of producing and managing the event."

The Wing had decided to approve the contract without asking for changes when it received a letter from the League on July 31 stating the latter did not intend to renew its agreement to produce the Tonys. That pact expires after the 1999 awards. In Variety, League President Jed Bernstein characterized that letter as the product of a contract "quirk" that requires a party intending not to renew the agreement to inform the other party by July 31.

Ironically, that removal of that clause was one of the original suggestions made by the Wing during negotiations, said Somlyo. "The league rejected that," he said.

Bernstein told Playbill On-Line that he had contacted ATW with the intention of resuming negotiations, but had not heard back from the Wing.

Somlyo greeted the idea of a reconciliation with skepticism. "When you get divorced, do you go back and renegotiate?" he asked, adding, "I'm not going into any discussions at any time with any conditions... We were not the active party here. We're the passive process."

The disagreement is not the first between the two organizations. In 1985, the League, complaining about the costs of presenting the Tonys, was making noises about setting up its own awards ceremony. Meanwhile, the Wing claimed to be underrepresented on the Tony Administration Committee. As told in David Sheward's Big Book of Show Business Awards, matters were somewhat resolved in 1986 with the exit of Alexander Cohen and Hildy Parks, who had produced the show for 20 years. The year before, Cohen had quit the League and suggested the Wing run the Tonys solo.

"I don't think it's inevitable," said Somlyo, when asked about the conflicting aims of the League and the Wing. He stipulated that the two groups are only partners in the presentation of the Tonys, and that the Wing retains sole ownership of and rights to the award. "The wing will not surrender its proprietorship of the Tonys," he stated.

Somlyo will succeed Isabelle Stevenson as President at ATW Sept. 1. Stevenson held the post for 33 years. Somlyo has been managing producer of the Tony Awards for 12 years.

A call to the office of Rosie O'Donnell, who has hosted the show for the past two years and has been instrumental in its ratings resurrection, was not returned.

David Sheward, president of the Drama Desk, an group of theatre writers and editors which presents its own annual awards, thinks all eventually will be well. "I think they'll patch it up," he said. "I think it's in their mutual interests. The League needs the Wing's prestige, and the Wing needs the League's money.... Anytime you have an organization whose principal purpose is producing theatre and another which judges theatre objectively, you're going to have conflicts from time to time."

Asked if he thought the League might try to conceive its own awards program, Sheward said, "I don't think so. I don't think there's a market for two big Broadway awards on television." Bernstein said he hadn't considered the idea of a separate award show.

The Tonys have an even more immediate problem to contend with. Radio City Music Hall, where the awards ceremony has been held for the past two years, will be closed for renovation in 1999, and another venue will have to be found.

-- By Robert Simonson

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