PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, June 7-13: Tony Awards Rulings Draw Ire From Industry

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13 Jun 2014

Jefferson Mays
Jefferson Mays
Photo by Henry DiRocco

The Tony Awards people were the focus of all press, both good and bad (and there were equal measures of each), in the theatre this week.

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder — which, following months of being a respected Broadway property, but a laggard at the box office, has been gaining momentum ever since collecting more Tony nominations than any other show a month ago — completed its coup by taking home the Best Musical prize. It also won three other awards, included Best Direction of a Musical for Darko Tresnjak (thus forcing all theatre journalists to finally learn how to pronounce and spell the director's name). With four, the show tied for the most wins of the night. This could mean a longer life for the Little Musical that Could.

The producers of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical may have been disappointed that they didn't win for Best Musical. But their star Jessie Mueller — who charmed viewers by performing with Carole King, the woman she portrays — took home Best Actress in a Musical. As long as the producers keep Mueller in the show, they'll do just fine.

Winning as many Tonys as Gentleman's Guide was Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which claimed Best Revival of a Musical and collected another laurel for actor Neil Patrick Harris, who can now add the title "Tony winner" to his resume, alongside "Tony host." Ticketbuyers who thought such a win would meet a longer stay for Harris were disappointed, however. The actor will leave as scheduled Aug. 17. He will be replaced by Andrew Rannells of The Book of Mormon and "Girls" fame. Soon after, producers will find out if people were coming to see Harris or Hedwig.

Predictably, All The Way, won the Best Play award, and its star and raison d'être, Bryan Cranston, took home the Best Actor in a Play prize.

Audra McDonald made history by claiming her sixth Tony Award, for Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, making her the winningest Tony competitor of all time — if you don't count the honorary Tony given to Julie Harris, who also had six awards. (We can just call the ceremony the Audrys now, and get it over with, right?)

Jason Robert Brown
Photo by Monica Simoes
Jason Robert Brown continued to be that curious case: a composer who can't catch a break on Broadway (his shows don't last long), but continues to collect Tony Awards. He took home two for the now-closed The Bridges of Madison County: Best Score and Best Orchestrations.

Regarding Madison County, some observers were surprised and irate to see that the musical was not given a number on the Tonys broadcast, and that Rocky, another luckless show, was given time for a scene but not a song... but not as surprised and irate as they were to see Sting perform a number for The Last Ship and Jennifer Hudson sing a song from Finding Neverland. Both those shows are coming to Broadway next season, but were not part of the 2013-14 season — the season the June 8 Tony ceremony purported to celebrate. So they amounted, in the eyes of critics, to nothing more than advertisements for coming attractions.

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The grumbling about the Tonys that began with the Sting and Hudson performances intensified June 11 when the Tony Awards Administration Committee met for the final time this season to determine new eligibility rules for the 2014-15 season. It emerged with the stunning announcement that the Best Sound Design of a Play and Best Sound Design of a Musical would be eliminated from the competitive categories in the 2014-2015 season. However, it was added, "the Tony committee holds the right to determine a special Tony award for certain productions that have excelled in this particular design realm."

The outcry from the theatre community was almost immediate. The sound design awards had been hard won. The oft-ignored craft was finally given a complete category in 2008, falling alongside awards for scenic, lighting and costume design.

According to reports, the decision was prompted by several factors, including that many Tony voters do not know what sound design is or how to judge it. (This begs the question: How do you get to be a Tony voter and not know anything about theatre sound design?) And, as the Times put it, "some administration committee members believe that sound design is more of a technical craft, rather than a theatrical art form that the Tonys are intended to honor." (And this begs the additional question: How is sound design any more of a craft and less of an art, than costume, scenic and lighting design? And then there are those who argue that acting and directing are actually more craft than art, but there things get messy fast.)

John Gromada
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Sound designer John Gromada — about as famous a name as there is in the sound design world (he won in 2013 for The Trip to Bountiful) — started an online petition to reinstate the Tony Awards for Sound Design. On thepetitionsite.com Gromada wrote, "Sound Design is a theatrical design art that is a critical part of the collaborative art of theatre. The American Theatre Wing should continue to honor excellence in sound design as it does for scenery, costume and lighting design, and as it has done since 2008. Sound designers are an important part of the theatrical community whose vital contributions cannot be ignored or dismissed. Reverse this decision now!"

The petition is aimed at the American Theatre Wing Tony Administration Committee. As of the morning of June 13, the petition has already received nearly 20,000 signatures.

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But there was still more Tony controversy!

It was announced late last week that the rules regarding what producers of Tony-nominated shows can distribute to Tony voters have been suspended for one year.

Previously, the Rules and Regulations of The American Theatre Wing's Tony Awards had enforced very narrow guidelines to producers as to what they could give to those voting for the annual Tony Awards. Under those rules, the producers could hand to Tony voters only: a souvenir book; a script; "an audio and/or video cast recording that replicates the on-stage performance of the eligible production and that does not contain additional material such as narration, quotations, musical underscoring, etc."; and "one set of selected reviews and/or unedited quotations regarding the eligible production."

In other words: no gravy, no graft, no superfluous swag. Just honest, educational promotional materials.

No more! About the suspension of the rules, Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of The Broadway League, and Heather Hitchens, executive director of the American Theatre Wing, said in a joint statement, "It is the feeling of the committee that the producers have been acting responsibly and that they will continue to do so without such restrictive language. It is felt that the voters also act responsibly and that such things as souvenirs, edited reviews and small gifts, etc. have no bearing on the voters selections."

I envy them their faith in human nature.