First-Night Critics Lose Tony-Voting Privileges. Producers Salivate and Sigh.

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CriticsGiven the parlous state of American arts journalism — theater criticism in particular — it’s disheartening, though unsurprising, that the Tony Award Management Committee decreed on Tuesday that first-night critics, or about 100 people, have been stripped of their voting privileges effective with the 2009-2010 season.

The fourth estate’s expected outcry has come fast and has been largely driven by logic, although in more emotional moments it has also been bilious and vituperative, perhaps understandably so. After all, the move does reveal the Broadway League — the powerful trade association that represents half the custodianship of the Antoinette Perry Awards, along with the American Theatre Wing — as a petty, provincial coven of fools, a pack of intellectually disingenuous, monumentally odd powermongers fundamentally uninterested in maintaining a balance between the aesthetic quality of Broadway shows and the consumers who sustain these producers with their ticket purchases. Well, these are commercial producers: save for padding their pocketbooks and placating their investors, there’s never been too much interest on their part in what critics have to say beyond a thumbs-up, thumbs-down, find-me-a-pull-quote mentality. Find me a producer who actually reads the better criticism out there — by which I mean the constructive criticism that exists out there, and it does — and I’ll show you a dead producer. The days of comity between producers and critics have been gone for years. All that’s happened is that now the coffin is being lowered and the mourners are throwing dirt into the grave.

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For critics are, sad to say, a nuisance to producers, a necessary evil that they have decided isn’t quite so necessary. So now the ministers have solidified control over the kingdom — you can nearly hear them crying, “Let them eat ducats!”

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As soon as the decision was made public (via 6pm press release, Tues., July 14, timed for minimal exposure), one of the first critics to respond was Matt Windman of AM New York. Making exceptionally fine use of the caps lock key, he wrote:

What possible reason have they offered? They’ve pointed to the fact that a number of individual critics and publications have pursued a policy of abstaining from voting on awards. And while that might be true, that’s still not a reason to exclude ALL JOURNALISTS.

….This regrettable decision will have harsh consequences that will flow throughout the theater industry. Will this affect how the affected journalists cover the Tony Awards? ABSOLUTELY. NO QUESTION. You know why? Because allowing journalists to be voters gave us a personal stake in the Tony Awards. It made us feel like we were a part of the theater community. It made us care. It made us give a damn. But not anymore. Now we’re pissed and insulted. It also means that journalists will be less likely to attend Broadway productions throughout the year – and therefore less likely to write about such productions.

If this decision is not reversed, I guarantee that there will be considerably less press coverage of the Tony Awards next year. And not only that, it will be considerably more negative. Why? Because it’s now truly turned into a fake and meaningless awards show. Therefore, the Tony Awards is no longer worthy of coverage by the journalists who were deemed unworthy of it. Consider it a mutual divorce.

Much as I like Windman, I wish to offer some contradictory views. First, I see no diminution of either Broadway or Tony coverage (and if Windman wishes to relinquish his post in protest, I can take over for him in a New York minute).

Second, the question of the Tonys as, um, something not “fake” and not “meaningless” is a canard — and I would have probably chosen slightly more descriptive words than “fake” or “meaningless” to describe the honors themselves. For one thing, the Tony Awards never offer any assurance that every voter actually sees every show they vote on — so the voters, the producers, the viewers at home, the theatergoers, the nominees and the winners never actually know if the voting fair or ethical. (Do the accountants vouch for more than the accuracy of their own tabulations? I think not.)

Third, I can’t imagine the Tony poo-bahs care a whit that critics may be “pissed and insulted.” Bullies to the last, they are no doubt delighting in avenging those who, in print or digital, wound their precious commodities with their words. Critics can stand in Tienamen Square, hands raised up as the tanks approach, and the producers will gleefully just roll right over them and watch them die. I mean, if commercial producers had consciences, they wouldn’t be commercial producers. (Let me add at this point that there are exceptions and insider know who they are. Problem is, commercial producers of intelligence and morality are as rare as pro-choice Republicans.)

Now, I do foresee coverage of Broadway generally, and the Tonys specifically, evolving into a more scrutinizing and savage enterprise. Will this thrill the Broadway chieftains currently rejoicing over the battle just won? Of course not: they think they’ve won the war, too. Let them.

But let me step back for a moment, as I think examining the text of the statement from the Tony Awards Management Committee might be instructive. As reported by Variety and the New York Times, the change is driven by the desire for critics “to avoid any possible conflicts of interest in fulfilling their primary responsibilities as journalists.” Re-read that: the Tony Awards Management Committee aims to protect, preserve and defend the ethics of journalism. That’s a bit like asking the Auschwitz Fire Department to guard against accidental conflagrations. (Side note: I have taken this line out and put it back in again three times. Part of me feels terrible having written it, part of me feels it’s really spot-on. I’m not exactly making friends with the commercial-producing establishment with this essay, so I’ll leave it in. The point is this: the Tonys’ reasoning is preposterous and you know it, I know it and, by God, they know it.)

I’d also suggest that there could easily be a financial element at work in all this — it depends on what happens next. If 100 names are siphoned off the Tony voting roster, that means a savings of 200 tickets per show since first-nighters, like second-nighters, traditionally receive a second comp. Two hundred Billy Elliot tickets multiplied by, say, $120 a ticket works out to $240,000 per show. If you figure 40 productions per season, now we’re talking $9.6 million, about what it costs to produce the costumes for Spiderman.

But just because critics and journalists are losing their Tony voting privileges doesn’t mean they’re losing all access to the shows themselves. This is a critical fact and it points to where Variety’s reportage digs deeper than the Times’. The decision, says Variety:

…repped an effort to pare back an expanding first-night list, which has grown over the years to include a wide array of assignment editors, bloggers, TV bookers and others. Generous estimates peg the actual number of legitimate first-night press at 30-40, leaving 60 or so other media professionals who may or may not cover theater directly and in many cases don’t see a large number of the eligible shows.

So if we’re talking about stripping, say, 60 people from the first-night list — again, that’s if they’re no longer comped — that works out to 120 tickets per show. And $120 a ticket means $144,000 per show, or $5.76 million for 40 shows. A not-inconsequential sum, no matter how you slice it.

But let’s also establish what this action by the Tony Awards Management Committee really represents: a George W. Bush-style assertion of frothing, all-consuming power. The media landscape is changing rapidly, and it’s currently the rare commercial producer that is technologically savvy enough to follow, or get ahead of, what is happening around them. The possibility of too many unchecked voices, too many unleavened, undiluted opinions, pose a direct threat to the revenue-enhancement schemes commercial producers call their business model. It’s much more reassuring, then, to retrench, to brook no dissent, to shut down wherever possible any opinion that could mortally interfere with their holy commerce. As Variety observes:

One significant sore point for the Tony organizers is believed to be the proliferation of theater pundits publishing exhaustive lists of Tony predictions in the run-up to the awards each year. Some feel critics are setting themselves up as oracles and then using their votes to make their predictions come true.

Others feel the outbreak in recent years of bloggers who disregard established professional etiquette by weighing in before a show’s official opening has damaged the reputation of the entire critical community. “Anyone in a position to make editorial comment is now regarded as the enemy,” one pundit said.

Things have always been, shall we say, difficult or contention between critics and producers. But these are dangerous times, and dangerous times call for draconian measures.

My friend and colleague Matthew Murray, over at BroadwayStars.com, did his customarily excellent job of going right for the jugular with his view on the matter:

So let me get this straight. It’s a conflict of interest for journalists-who live by the standards through which their very jobs and statuses within their professional community exist, and don’t work professionally on shows or with people they write about-to vote for the Tony Awards, because they might write about the shows they see. But it isn’t a conflict of interest for hundreds of other people to vote for themselves, their friends, or the shows in which they have a vested, public, and frequently financial interest. In other words, that the critics possess and exercise objectivity is a problem for the Tony Awards, but that everyone else has a stake in what wins and loses is perfectly fine. This sort of logic could occur only in the theatre.

By eliminating from the voting a considerable bloc of people who are not only actually disinterested parties in the purest sense of the term, but who also unequivocally see every show-something Tony voters are not required to do, and something a significant number, particularly those who operate primarily outside of New York, most likely do not-the Tonys are making a clear statement about the viewpoints that are of interest and importance to them.

Perfectly put.

For now, I leave you with two final thoughts:

On my trip last weekend to the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, where I taught a session on criticism and another on the critic-as-reporter for the National Critics’ Institute, there was a Q&A with a major commercial Broadway producer. He argued that the New York Times offers substandard criticism because Ben Brantley and Charles Isherwood are “gay white men.” To be clear, said producer didn’t say this on a public panel but during a roundtable attended by the critic fellows accepted into the program. I was there, I heard him say it, and I didn’t say a word. I didn’t need to: it occured to me in that moment that producers aren’t fighting for journalistic ethics but against demographics they fear will hurt their product. The producer in question feverishly attempted to cycle back and re-establish his liberal bona fides, but he lost the group. You could sense it; it was palpable. Frankly, I think the producer in question is neither homophobic nor bigoted. I think he’s neither ignorant nor evil. To him, it was fair to question the ability of two “gay white men” to evaluate the slate of Broadway productions. I think his “questioning” says more about him than about theater critics.

Like Murray, I’ll give the last word to Adam Feldman of Time Out New York, president of the Drama Critics Circle. I have some feelings about that organization, too — the blithe, seemingly arbitrary manner by which its rules appear to apply to some people and not to others. But that’s for another day. Feldman is correct when he writes that stripping first-night critics of Tony-voting rights:

…represents another regrettable step toward the marginalization of critics within the New York theatrical community. It is true that critics do not vote for the Oscar or Emmy Awards; but theater is an inherently more local and personal industry, in which critics have historically played an important role. (Not for nothing are Broadway theaters named after Walter Kerr and Brooks Atkinson.) But critics, and indeed criticism, are inconvenient to the modern theater 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 theater world.