PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, July 11-17: No Votes For You!

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, July 11-17: No Votes For You! The American Theatre Wing and The Broadway League, the two groups that control the Tony Awards, decided this week, "after careful consideration," to poke a stick inside a hornet nest and stir it around.

It began with a press release:

"After careful consideration, the Tony Awards Management Committee has determined that Tony-voting privileges will no longer be extended to members of the First Night Press List, commencing with the 2009-2010 season."

After the ink-stained wretches whose sad lot in life it is to cover the New York theatre — and to whom this missive was addressed — spilled coffee all over their laptops, they read on:

"Please note that this change in no way affects your inclusion on the First Night Press List. As you know, a committee of Broadway press agents develops and administers the First Night Press List, and it does not fall under the purview of Tony Award Productions, The Broadway League, or the American Theatre Wing."

"But, why?" they cried. "Why? Why? Why?" Then they were told: "In making this decision, the Tony Management Committee took into account that members of the First Night Press List will of course continue to have the opportunity to express their critical opinions in reviews and other coverage of the theatre season. In addition, the Management Committee took into consideration the fact that certain publications and individual critics have historically pursued a policy of abstaining from voting on entertainment awards in general, to avoid any possible conflicts of interest in fulfilling their primary responsibilities as journalists."

This, the journos thought, is juicy stuff in its utter absurdity and hypocrisy. But more on that in a second. First a little history.

Journalists have been part of the Tony voting pool since the days when Stephen Sondheim was known mainly as a talented lyricist. The first voted during the 1963-64 season, the same year, it turns out, that members of the League of New York Theaters and Producers (now The Broadway League) were invited to vote. This has always been a unique set-up; critics do not vote for the Oscars, the Emmys or Grammy. But, as one writer pointed out, the film, music and television communities are not as close-knit as the theatre world.

Now, some facts. The removal of the journos from the Tony voting pool is no mere shaving of the group's numbers. The Move reduces the 800-strong pool of Tony voters by about 100, or down by 12.5 percent. That's not a small difference.

I have to believe that the Wing and the League knew their announcement would be greeted with a hail of abuse (who would write up the news but the same theatrical press they just gave the boot?), and indeed it was. Most reports zeroed in on the "conflict of interest" argument. I could reason it out myself, but why, when so many others have already done it so well already?

Adam Feldman, a critic at Time Out New York, the president of the New York Drama Critics Circle, was one of the first to comment on the change: "The rationale for the new exclusion — a vague allusion to conflicts of interest, the precise nature of which are hard to imagine — is thin stuff indeed. If anything, critics are among the voters least compromised by conflicts of interest, and most likely to vote objectively and fairly for the work they judge to be best. (The others are liable to have greater personal, professional and financial stakes in the outcome.) The excision of this voting block represents a step backward in the seriousness of the awards."

"The conflict of interest justification is transparently mendacious," said David Cote, Feldman's Time Out New York colleague, speaking in the New York Times. "Critics are the ones with the least conflict of interest, as opposed to the log-rolling and back-patting by producers and other Tony voters. They're eliminating the voting bloc that gives the Tonys credibility."

In short, the Tony voting pool is nothing but one big, intertangled conflict of interest. If the Tonys are going to hand people their hat for that idealistic reason, they're going to be very few people left at the party.

And it wasn't only critics who saw things this way. "Losing 100 voters who are basically unbiased threatens to increase the influence of the biased producers," producer Jeffrey Seller told the Times. "The fact is, the press is potentially an unencumbered pool of voters, and I'm not sure we really want to leave the Tonys in the hands of encumbered producers."

Seller, producer of Rent, had reason to regret the change. "If this change was in effect that year, Rent might not have been awarded Best Musical," Rent publicist Richard Kornberg told the Times. "I just don't understand why they have changed the rules. It makes the Tonys more like a marketing tool and less like an award for excellence." (It could also be argued that another Seller show, Avenue Q, would not have prevailed over the megahit Wicked for the Best Musical Tony of its season, had it not been for the critic voters.)

Having dismantled the rationale, the press looked for the real reason behind the decision.

"Critics, and indeed criticism," wrote Feldman, "are inconvenient to the modern theatre marketer: Old-fashioned in our insistence on quality, unreliable in our support for expensive projects and less necessary in light of the diffusion of information in the Internet Age. We can expect to see more such gestures of exclusion in the future, each chipping away, as intended, at the status of critics within the theatre world."

Variety also added this somber note, "It's safe to say critics will continue to dig for a more satisfying explanation of what the radical move accomplishes and whom it benefits. Whether or not the aim was directly to antagonize the people who write about the legit industry in a media landscape of shrinking arts coverage, that's the outcome." Repercussions? Some suggested that Tony coverage would decrease as a result. All seemed to agree that this was another step in the continued marginalization of theatre critics. (e.g., one-time first-nighters Michael Sommers and Jacques le Sourd don't have to worry about this decision, since their newspapers recently eliminated their jobs.) Matthew Murray at BroadwayStars.com waggishly noted that we might get "quite possibly very many more, choice Michael Riedel columns out of this."

Finally, the press wondered aloud what the press (themselves) might do in response. Toward that end, most heads turned in the direction of the first-nighter-led New York Drama Critics Circle, whose once-significant influence has waned in recent years. Pundits suggested they could beef up the award, add more categories, steal some of the Tonys thunder.

One thing's for certain: in a long, headline-less summer, this story probably isn't going away anytime soon.

***

One of the first shows of the 2009-10 which will be considered by the newly critic-and-conflict-of-interest-free Tony-voting pool will be the fall Broadway revival of Finian's Rainbow — the 1947 musical comedy satire by Burton Lane, Fred Saidy and E.Y. Harburg — which will play Broadway's St. James Theatre.

The production, an expanded version of the March City Center Encores! concert, will begin previews Oct. 8 with an official opening Oct. 29. Tickets are currently on sale through Jan. 3, 2010, by visiting Telecharge.com.

The cast will feature Wonderful Town's Kate Baldwin (Sharon) and The Seafarer Tony winner Jim Norton (Finian), who starred in the Encores! run, as well as Young Frankenstein Tony nominee Christopher Fitzgerald as the leprechaun Og and Tony Award winner Chuck Cooper (The Life) as Billboard. The role of Woody, played by Cheyenne Jackson at Encores!, has yet to be cast.