From Hedwig to Lady Day to Violet... A Revival or Not a Revival: The Eternal Tony Question

By Robert Simonson
April 24, 2014

Playbill.com offers a look at the history of the rules determining which plays are considered revivals for the Tony Awards. 



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The Tony Administration Committee, a group of 24 theatre professionals (ten designated by the American Theatre Wing, ten by the Broadway League, and one each by the Dramatists Guild, Actors' Equity Association, United Scenic Artists and the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers) will meet for the final time this season April 25. At this meeting, the fates of the final shows that opened this spring — as far as their eligibility for various Tony Awards categories goes — will be decided.

For old shows like Violet (1997), Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill (1986) and Hedwig and the Angry Inch (1998), this meeting holds little drama. The producers of their shows largely know what decisions will be handed down regarding their productions. This is because the Tony Awards' rules regarding eligibility of revivals are quite clear. They read, in part:

"A 'Revival' shall be any production in an eligible Broadway theatre of a play or musical that: (A) is deemed a 'classic' or in the historical or popular repertoire in accordance with paragraph 2(g) above; (B) was previously presented professionally at any time prior to the 1946-47 Broadway season in substantially the same form in the Borough of Manhattan (other than as a showcase, workshop or so-called 'letter of agreement' production) and that has not had a professional performance in the Borough of Manhattan at any time during the three years immediately preceding the Eligibility Date; or (C) was previously presented professionally at any time during or after the 1946-47 Broadway season in substantially the same form in an eligible Broadway theatre and that has not had a professional performance in the Borough of Manhattan at any time during the three years immediately preceding the Eligibility Date."

The key phrase where the above-mentioned shows are concerned is (A)'s "popular repertoire." Hedwig, Violet and Lady Day will likely be considered as being part of the popular repertoire of produced titles and thus considered revivals.

Life wasn't always this straightforward for productions of old plays experiencing their Broadway production. In the early decades of the Tonys, new plays produced in New York were largely produced on Broadway, so the first time that Broadway staged them were generally the first time critics and audiences laid eyes and ears them as well.

The separate Tony Awards for Revival of a Play and Revival of a Musical were first introduced in 1994 in response to an increased number of revivals of both kinds on Broadway. Prior to that, plays and musicals were bunched together in one category, first called "Reproduction (Play or Musical)" (1980 to 1986) and then "Revival" (1987 to 1993).

Neil Patrick Harris inHedwig and the Angry Inch.
Photo by Joan Marcus
However, in the 1990s, material for revivals began to emerge from places other than the age-old dramatic canon or dusty books. Plays of more recent vintage, by playwrights who had already experienced stagings and successes Off-Broadway and elsewhere, were plucked by producers and given a shot on Broadway. This state of affairs made for some sticky situations for the Tony deciders.

In the 1996 race, Sam Shepard's Buried Child — produced on Broadway for the first time that season, but first produced Off-Broadway 17 years prior — was nominated for Best Play. Gary Sinise, the play's director, argued that nearly half of the drama had been rewritten by Shepard since it was first staged in New York. The Tony Administration Committee agreed that the work was sufficiently "new" and let it compete with contemporary plays like Seven Guitars by August Wilson and Master Class by Terrence McNally (which eventually won). Nonetheless, most observers believed it should have been categorized as a revival.

The previous year, Indiscretions, a play written by Jean Cocteau in 1948 under the title Les Parents terrible, was nominated as Best Play against the more modern likes of Arcadia by Tom Stoppard and Love! Valour! Compassion! by McNally. In that instance, the committee decided the Cocteau qualified as new simply because the play had never been on Broadway before. In 1999, Not About Nightingales, an early uncovered play by Tennessee Williams getting its first production, was nominated alongside Closer by Patrick Marber, The Lonesome West by Martin McDonagh and Side Man by Warren Leight.  This set up the strange scenario that a dead playwright might win the prize for best new play over three living ones.

The same thing happened in 2001, when Fortune's Fool, a play written in 1848 — two centuries previous — by the very-dead Russian master Ivan Turgenev, was nominated as Best Play. At the time, a Tony spokesman cited the precedent of the 1995 Broadway mounting of Cocteau's Indescretions, arguing that the play had been substantially rewritten by adaptor Mike Poulton.

Among Turgenev's co-nominees was Edward Albee, who was represented for The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?. Asked by the New York Times how he felt sharing his category with Turgenev, Albee told the paper, "I'm most fascinated since I've been reading his novels since I was 16. I can't wait to meet Turgenev.''

Such surreal contests have been less common in recent years, but they still come along. The instance of Cabaret — a new Broadway run of the exact production a revival that had already been to Broadway years ago (and won Tonys), and with the same lead actor (Alan Cumming), no less — is without precedent. It seems clear that neither the production, its scenic effects, its directors or Cumming will be eligible for nomination. How the other actors in the revival will be treated is another matter.