Perhaps it's because so many Tony Award races are so tight this year, but Little Ol' New York's own quaint hometown theatre contest is beginning to look like a classic down and dirty Oscar battle. There's always a lot riding on the Tonys, but usually theatre folks get through May by crossing their fingers and biting their nails. The major battleground is the Tony broadcast, where shows vie for air time. Beyond that, showfolk are a bunch of relative softies next to the hard campaigning Weinstein brothers and their ilk out west.
Not this year. Savvy politicking abounds. Ads a plenty are taken out. People take sides. Producers openly attack theatre reporters and critics biased against their shows. Critics attack other critics, for God's sake. It all makes for an unusually exciting time in the theatre, and for a lot of bad feelings.
Most of the dust-ups surround the all-important Best Musical category, that box office Holy Grail, which, most observers have decided, is between Thoroughly Modern Millie (the establishment darling) Urinetown (the counterculture cutie). This is a contest which advocates on either side are inclined to paint as a fight between good and evil. Urinetown got the reviews and, for a while, the audience. Millie's getting a better turnout, even if it didn't quite get the reviews. But Millie's a good old fashioned silly musical comedy, the kind that'll sell out in the cornfields—or, so the thinking of regional presenters goes. Your friendly regional showman wants a title he can sell to win the Tony laurels. And he thinks he can't sell something called Urinetown. (Of course, this is exactly what all the New York professionals once thought.)
And then there's the conspiracy theory that the League of American Theatres and Producers, who co-present the Tonys with the American Theatre Wing, doesn't want Urinetown to win because its backed by those meanies, The Dodgers, who had the audacity to resign from the League last year.
All these political considerations infuriate the fans of Urinetown, who consider it artistically superior to any Broadway musical this year. Bruce Weber, of the New York Times, even went so far as to go on the radio—very rare for Times employees, who usually keep themselves well above the fray. There, he enumerated the reasons why Urinetown should win the trophy and dismissed every reason why it should not. Michael Riedel, columnist for the New York Post, meanwhile, is Urinetown's very nemesis. Rarely does a column go by when he doesn't deliver a paragraph or two damaging to the show's fortunes. He happily quotes unflattered audience attendance figures, touts Tony voters' supposed dislike for the show, calls Weber a whiner. Urinetown does it's best to counter all this static. The New York Times reported that the musical held a May 23 lunch at the club Laura Belle, proffering production numbers for road presenters. Into the Woods also buskered for the out-of-town crowd. Millie held a similar event at China Club. And Metamorphoses, a contender for the Best Play award, held a pool party using its very own stage pool. (No word on whether The Goat put together an invitation-only petting zoo.)
The parties are, of course, the nice part of campaigning—at least on the face of it. Most of what's been transpiring since the nominations were revealed, though, has been acrimonious. Last week, the producers of Sweet Smell of Success sent out letters to the Tony voters crying foul, saying they were the victims of an unfair prejudice among the New York theatre press. The show should be reconsidered, they argued. After that, you could have placed ready money bets on what Riedel's column would be that Friday. Sure enough, he refuted the producers' claims in no uncertain terms. This week, Sweet Smell producer David Brown fired back a pointedly unpleasant letter. As is the ever entertaining Riedel's habit in these cases (the man does seem to relish the abuse of the industry), he published the letter in his column. In it, Brown quoted Broadway's first columnist, Walter Winchell: "Be nice to the people you meet on the way up—they're the same ones you meet on the way down." (I'm not sure if Winchell actually said that, but if Brown's aim was to make Riedel see the error of his vituperative ways, citing Winchell as a paragon of good behavior isn't the way to do it.)
But, for sheer jaw-dropping mean-spiritedness, nothing beats the Gregg Edelman affair Riedel broke in the same column. Edelman is nominated for a Tony Award for his work in Into the Woods. Apparently, someone is forging Edelman's signature on a series of hateful letters (all written on stationary with Edelman's name), which were then sent to Stephen Sondheim, Shubert head Gerald Schoenfeld, American Theatre Wing president Isabelle Stevenson and critic John Simon. With the exception of Simon, you couldn't pick better people to alienate if your goal was to get the theatre community to turn against you. Edelman has denied writing the missives and all believe him. Who committed the fraud, no one can say as yet. Edelman probably speaks for the whole of Times Square when he said, "I've never heard of anything like this."
But there's still a week to go before the Tonys. We may hear of something even worse before then.
—By Robert Simonson