It would be easy for the Tony Awards -- any awards -- to get stuck in the past. After all, the very nature of the ceremony is to honor outstanding achievement of the preceding season, already a look back. Add to that the Tonys' rich, 51-year heritage of Broadway history, and who could blame the Tonys if they turned into a trip down theatrical memory lane?
But they're not. The Tonys are as much about where Broadway is headed as where it's been, and the painstaking prelude to get to Tony night reflects its commitment to keeping an eye on the new, while preserving the Tonys' tradition of excellence.
"This is an ever-changing business," says Roy A. Somlyo, a Tony Awards veteran since 1967, initially as associate producer, then as co-producer. Since 1986, Somlyo has served as managing producer. "In the theatre world, there are technical changes, audience changes, pace changes. Now, Broadway is even changing physically," says Somlyo, referring to the highly publicized refurbishment of the theatre district and the opening of new theatres around Times Square: the "Berlinized" Henry Miller Theatre cum Kit Kat Klub; the restored New Amsterdam Theatre; and the reconfigured Lyric and Apollo Theatres, rechristened the Ford Center for the Performing Arts.
The Tony Awards have always recognized that the only thing for certain in life is change. "Things are forever changing, so many aspects of the Tonys are organized one year at a time," Somlyo says, pointing out that venues that have housed the Tonys range from the first year's midnight supper at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in 1947, to numerous Broadway theatres, to this year's (and last year's) telecast from Radio City Music Hall. "We don't like to be locked into a set way of doing things. People always claim to be innovative, but with the Tonys, it's actually true."
Of course, that first ceremony over a half-century ago wasn't telecast; while Broadway was in full flourish, television was still in its infancy. At that time, the Tonys were sponsored by the American Theatre Wing, in honor of Antoinette Perry, a Wing founder. But in 1967, the League of American Theatres and Producers came on board as co-sponsors just in time for the first Tony Awards telecast. New partners. New venues. New categories -- including last year's addition of a new category, Best Orchestrations. But if the Tonys are expanding outwardly to reach a broader audience and to recognize a greater range of theatre artists, the internal structure is also evolving. Consider last year's doubling in size -- from 15 to 30 -- of the Tony Nominating Committee, the people responsible for narrowing the dozens (and sometimes, hundreds) of entries in each category down to four nominees. "There was a feeling that the Nominating Committee didn't have a fully diverse representation, so the Administration Committee increased its number," says Somlyo.
The current Nominating Committee is a body of wide-ranging talent -- writers, lyricists, composers, actors, choreographers, managers and educators -- who must see every show that opens. Although this might sound like a dream to the average theatre buff, the reality can be quite grueling. "Being a member of the Nominating Committee is not just flattery, it's a chore," Somlyo says. "It's one thing to be a professional critic who goes to see all the shows, but committee members have professions outside their Tony duties."
Mary Schmidt Campbell, Dean of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and a second-year committee member, agrees. "As a regular theatregoer, you may see six to 10 productions a year," she says, "but as a member of the Nominating Committee, you see as many as 40." To make things more demanding, many Broadway shows open in a crunch during the final three weeks before the Tony deadline, which this year fell on April 29. Not that the Dean is complaining. "Seeing such a range of shows is very instructive to what we're doing at NYU," she says. "In this way, the Tonys create a real connection between the educational and professional theatrical communities."
Robert Kamlot, a committee member for several years, also counts his blessings. "I consider it a privilege, and I take the responsibility very seriously," says Kamlot, a general manager of over 50 Broadway shows, including the legendary, multi-Tony Award-winning A Chorus Line. "No matter what I see, there's always an element that's of interest to me as a committee member." To minimize any partisanship, no producers or active members of the drama press serve on the committee.
The Nominating Committee used to hold periodic meetings to discuss the ongoing season, but, last year, a new rule limited discussion to two hours. And Kamlot (last year's chairman) took it one step further: "I made a motion that we dispense with the discussion, because it can lead to politicking," Kamlot says, quick to point out that the Tony Awards have never been associated with the kind of intense lobbying that goes on in connection with other awards within the entertainment industry. "The Nominating Committee works as independent people," he says. "It's a diligent and passionate group of professionals who are committed, and not biased." Adds Somlyo, "We say, 'Leave your disciplines and your personal agendas at the door,' and that's how they reach their decisions."
That kind of independent thought is perfect for the nomination process, but the two other committees that keep the Tonys going -- the Administration Committee and the Management Committee -- are decidedly group efforts.
Overall supervision is provided through monthly meetings of the Management Committee, which is comprised of five Wing and five League members (with an equal number of alternates). Their number-one priority is the television broadcast, not to mention the selection of a venue and the sales of tickets to the ceremony -- which, thanks to Radio City Music Hall's 5,910 seats, was able to accommodate more working members of the Broadway community last year than ever before, including 1,500 seats sold to the general public.
Meanwhile, the Administration Committee, with equal parts Wing and League members, plus one from each of four crafts -- Dramatists' Guild, Actors' Equity Association, Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers and United Scenic Artists -- determines the eligibility of shows for each category, designates special awards, names the Nominating Committee and annually reviews the Tonys' rules and regulations, making any necessary changes or modifications when the passage of time results in an outdated policy.
All three committees work year-round, but the big countdown begins after the Tony deadline in April, when the committees switch into the high gear that carries them through the awards ceremony, always held on the first Sunday in June. The day after the deadline, the Administration Committee holds a last meeting to finalize what plays are eligible in each of the 20 categories. The number of categories sometimes grows to 21 when the Administration Committee splits the "Best Revival" category in two as they did this year: one for play and one for musical.
In addition, on the recommendation of the American Theatre Critics Association, the Administration Committee chooses a regional theatre to be honored by a Tony, creating a nationwide web of Tony winners from Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage -- the first winner in 1976 -- to last year's recipient, The Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California. And, at the discretion of the Administration Committee, there may be special awards as well, like the lifetime achievement Tony awarded posthumously to Bernard J. Jacobs, the late president of the Shubert Organization, at last year's ceremony.
A very busy Jean Kroper, manager of Tony administration, then prepares a computerized list of eligible shows, performances and other categories for use by the Nominating Committee. Talk about your long weekends: the Nominating Committee members have just two days to comb through the 35-page list and their own notes on each production (Schmidt Campbell tapes Playbill pages in a notebook, annotated with her comments to refresh her memory come voting time) in order to make some difficult decisions about how to distill an entire season of theatre down to its very best moments.
"The toughest categories are the acting awards," Robert Kamlot says. "There are so many qualified and talented individuals that it's next to impossible to choose just four nominees." But by the end of the day on the Sunday following Tony deadline -- May 3, this year -- those choices must be made. At 5 PM, the committee takes a breath, casts its ballots and waits until 8:30 the next morning, when the nominations are announced at an early-morning press conference at Sardi's, the one day of the year when every Broadway baby rises and shines with the rooster.
Of course, the final decisions are made by the Tony voters, a group of 770 theatre professionals drawn from the boards of various theatrical unions, the Casting Society of America and the American Theatre Wing, individuals on the official opening-night press list, and the entire League membership.
Which brings us to the June 7 awards ceremony, the 52nd Annual Tony Awards, a chance to relive the highlights of the 1997-98 season and, by extension, the decades of seasons that came before it. But it's also a glimpse at the future of Broadway, and the ways in which the Tony Awards continue to cherish Broadway's past even as they keep up with its future.
-- Alice Naude