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!”

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.

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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.

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  • Leonard, I think that you have perfectly articulated an excellent response to this situation. This seems to really be done because critics are, as Feldman puts it, inconvenient, even though the Tony Award producers will probably come up more reasons as to why this was done, because the “conflict of interest” explanation is not holding up well. Although the financial issue does seem to be a viable point, but this whole issue seems as though it is just unfolding.

    Also, the comment about the New York Times having subpar criticism because Brantley and Isherwood are “gay white men” does seem very bigoted. First of all, I don’t think it’s well-known that Isherwood is gay, unlike with Brantley. Second of all, saying that statement would be like saying that The New Yorker has substandard criticism because Hilton Als is a black man. Does this producer think that a gay white woman would help fix this problem? A straight white man?

    I’ve been wanting Brantley’s job since I was twelve, so maybe if the New York Times hires me after I complete college, that would fix the producer’s problem.

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  • Maybe it is a good thing I wasn’t at the O’Neill this summer. I think that particular comment would have brought forth a rather blistering response. And I can’t go punch a commercial producer: I need my fingers to type.

  • Anonymous

    If we are talking about the same panel, I believe the producer said this in response to a question of “Where are the women in these fields?” She made a good point that the panel had reflected only white men, and while there are women critics and women producers, they are significantly underrepresented in these two fields. The ratio is quite skewed. The producer in turn, thought that she brought up a good point, especially since the target audience, the majority of people who see Broadway shows are, in fact, white women in their 40’s. Said producer added that perhaps the perfect critic would be someone from that target audience, and not a “gay white male”- I don’t think that he was making a stab at gay white men, but simply stating that they are not the only people whose opinion is valid. Additionally, the producer then used the NYTimes critics as an example of the lack of turnover in the critic field. That lack of turnover may then lead to a stale repertoire of reviews. As my boyfriend once so aptly put it, “you have to die out of that position before one becomes available.” The producer was using Ben Brantley and Charles Isherwood more as an example of the longevity of their careers, and the problems with that longevity, rather than bashing their sexual preferences.

  • Anonymous, I completely disagree. Does that mean only African-Americans should review Fela!? Or that only Jews should review Neil Simon? Or that women should only review plays by women? The producer’s comment was completely and utterly offensive — and he knew it, which is why he immediately backtracked. It was a shameful and inappropriate — and more than that, intellectually ridiculous — statement. The idea that the “target” audience may be women in their 40s is NOT a license to ridicule two “gay white men.” And, by the way, I take issue with his assessment of the target audience. You mean to tell me that the “target” audience for the Disney shows are women in their 40s? Or for “In the Heights” Really? Go ahead, try to make that case. It won’t wash.

  • Jen

    Critics don’t vote for Oscars or Emmys or Grammys.
    Enough said.

  • Gil

    What’s a shame on the part of the critics is that–regardless of whether each critic was personally insulted or whether he or she logically thinks that the exclusion of critics now hampers how meaningful the award results are–they all came off as a little pissy, capslock or otherwise.

    So let’s say I put myself in the shoes of a “professional critic”. If I’m going to want an op-ed written about how the Tony process is now “suddenly” lacking in integrity because of what happened to have been personally done to me, I wouldn’t write the article *myself*.

    I would put that energy into getting a column from a third-party person that is respected in the community. A “this is a bad idea” from a critic isn’t going to be taken as seriously as the equivalent message from, say, a Harold Prince or a Steven Sondheim. Not that I see specifically Prince putting himself out there to take the bullet even if he agreed with the critics. But the uninvolved viewpoint is always taken more seriously.

  • Monica, when Hilton Als speaks as THE black man, the New Yorker does have substandard criticism. Agendas don’t belong in critiques, and I’m tired of seeing “reviews” in the New Yorker that have more to say about other stuff than about the show itself. Of course, everybody–Isherwood and Brantley included–has biases that blind them to certain things on the stage; I’m hoping that the revoking of critics from Broadway (and the paring back of first-night and second-night privileges) actually helps to strip off some of these blinders. It might actually be a case of the producers getting *exactly* what they wish for . . . as they’ve clearly forgotten that you need to be *careful* what you wish for.

  • C Heath

    First, gotta say: your numbers are off…you’ve got an extra zero in each of your sums.

    But the point still remains…there is a hefty financial impact. So shut up with the corrections, CH.

    Ok, Leonard. Stop yelling at me.

    It seems–oh, and I’m not a critic, so hopefully this post will pass Gil’s test–that like the Oscars (nod to Jen), the Tonys are more and more fueled by finances…What show is going to bring in the most revenue…What has the most potential for after-Broadway life…It’s not surprising when you look at the recent years big winners that the shows that win the BIG ONE! are the shows with the most producers. I think, really, Avenue Q is the only standout. Though I’m open to more examples…but not open to enough to disprove my point.

    The producers don’t give a shit about the critics because they’ve proven in recent years that shows can generate revenue without having the critics on their side. What may tank on Broadway in the critical sense may be fodder for a long long afterlife with national tours, regional productions, and *horror of all horrors* high school and community theaters (says the once-actor whose primary credits are from community theater productions).

    So, fine. Let the producers have their Tonys. Yes, it will push out small shows. Yes, we’ll return to building record-setting wins for shows (the aptly named, and relatively short-lived and not-successful-outside-of-New York, The Producers). And yes, the Tonys will continue to lose audience because the shows will become more and more homogenous and bland (than they are already). And that’s ok.

    What the critics can do is fight lack of attention with lack of attention. Fuck the Broadway shows. Turn the critical eye to the off-Broadway world…or the off-off Broadway world…Both are fighting for audiences and attention. And both are providing a fresh (or fresher-than-Broadway, anyway) perspective on American Theater.

    Isn’t that where the majority of the creative talent is, anyway?

    Oh, and Jen: 5,830 Oscar voters. 11,000 Grammy voters. 15,000 Emmy voters. 800, now 700, Tony voters. You can’t really lump the nationwide film industry, the nationwide music industry, the nationwide television industry, and the New York-based theater industry into one nice, pretty “it’s a major award so it’s the same as every other one” box. It just doesn’t work. Theater critics ARE part of the Broadway community.

    They are, if you will, Broadway’s opposable thumbs.

  • Gil

    @CHeath
    “What the critics can do is fight lack of attention with lack of attention. Fuck the Broadway shows. Turn the critical eye to the off-Broadway world…or the off-off Broadway world…”

    Ideally you’re right. But in the real world, casual theatergoers want the Broadway information. So if all the newspapers except for one start focusing more on off-Broadway and less on Broadway, you can bet that the one that doesn’t is going to come out ahead.

    I really would like for the critic’s awards to become a bigger thing. The point is not to make the Tonys smaller, but to make the other awards more important. We do have room for more than one type of award out there…

    @Leonard
    Aww, what, no “alert me when other people comment on this post”? Boo.

  • Aaron, I think I picked a poor example because the New Yorker does have fairly subpar criticism in contrast to the other publications. (I could go on, but I’m not sure if Leonard would like me doing that on his blog.) And, yes, all critics have blinders as the result of their upbringing, I think. But that was the only comparison I could come up with.

    C Heath, I think you have a good idea, but I’m with Gil. As nice as it would be for more tourists/casual theatergoers to see off-Broadway and Broadway show, they’ll probably prefer the big, familiar Broadway shows.

    Gil, I think that the idea that people have suggested of the NYDCC awards being bigger is probably the way to go. Maybe the Drama Desk awards could be a bigger event. Again, not to diminish the Tonys, but to make people aware of the other awards. After all, in film and television there are the Emmys and the Oscars and then the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards. There are multiple awards that people are well aware of that recognize acheivement in those fields. People I know who claim to be theater nerds don’t know of the existance of the Obies, Drama Desk Awards, Outer Critics Circle, or the NYDCC award.

    • Actually, go ahead, sound off. It drives traffic! :-)

  • Thank you, Leonard.

    In contrast to all of the other publications that have critics, The New Yorker (which I do read on a weekly basis) has very substandard theater criticism. I’m referring to their criticism now, since Kenneth Tynan was a drama critic there at one point and wrote very good theater reviews. Before I go in to discussing this, I would like to point out that I think that critics do have biases based on how they were raised, their tastes, etcetera. I also don’t mind it if a critic divulges something about themselves in a review if it tells us a little bit about them in relation to the play. Like that they hated listening to rock music in the 80’s, but they feel as though rock of ages gives them a new fresh look at the music.

    I have a problem if a critic spends more time sharing an interesting anecdote about themselves than actually telling me about the play. This happened with John Lahr’s review of “Waiting For Godot.” First of all, anyone with half a brain and a keyboard can Google John Lahr’s name and discover that his father is Bert Lahr who was in the original production of “Waiting for Godot.” In my opinion, since John Lahr has a personal connection with the original Broadway production, I think he had a bias and shouldn’t have reviewed the show in the first place. Second of all, reading the review, it was like Lahr realized halfway through the writing of his review that he needed to inform the readers of Anthony Lane’s revival, not the production his dad was in. (By the way, I also have issues with Ben Brantley’s review of “Three Days of Rain” for a similar reason, but at least Brantley conveyed, very well, that the production was that good. I just could have done without knowing that he’s a “Juliaholic.”)

    The problem with not really being informed about the production is rampant with theater reviews in the New Yorker. (I do enjoy the music, film, television and book reviews). I’m truly amazed that the people at Critic-O-Meter are able to give a review from the New Yorker a grade. I can only come up with two theater reviews from the New Yorker where I read it and thought, “Wow, I should go see it” or “Wow, I should stay away from this” and that was with “Liza’s At the Palace” and “Mother Courage and Her Children.” (yes, I’m young, but the public library was giving away free back copies of magazines, so I took home half of their New Yorkers.) To me, speaking as a patron, critic and journalist, a review does me no good if it tells me very little about how good the production is. If the critics at Time Out New York, Time Out Chicago and the Chicago Reader can convey this in as few words as possible, and do it very well, if I might add, I don’t see why John Lahr and Hilton Als can’t do the same thing.

    • Well, I don’t understand how the Critic-O-Meter people do what they do in the first place. Far too many times it seems like the grades are hyper-subjective. Also, quantifying text mathematically degrades nuance.

  • I think the conceit that powers the Critic-O-Meter is pretty straightforward — and that conceit may well be useless for some people, especially if they already have a go-to long-form critic they trust. But if the critic you trust already uses a blunt star-system metric (ChiReader, TONY, USA Today, Entertainment Weekly), how crazy is it to expand that to a 14-point A+ to F- scale?

    I’m new to the Meter and the grading process is the hardest component to learn. For example, I read a scathing review recently, but it made a poor case for its hatred and was therefore hard to compute as an out-and-out F grade. In another post, I read a largely positive review, but this critic’s criteria for success wasn’t especially affirming to begin with, so I couldn’t list it as the same A that another, more thorough-going A review might have been. Slippery, meta-critical, etc … and I don’t know if I’ll get better at it with time or worse.

    But I spend much more time carving my summary post and finding the most representative pull-quotes — and that, I hope, is the labor that makes the Meter worthwhile for others. It’s a subjective process mixed with the already-subjective process of the primary-source reviews. I don’t think the grading is useful as an evaluative scale so much as it is helpful as an ordinal scale: it helps place different reviews next to each other in the aggregated body of critical response. Given this, an individual critic might not agree with their Meter grade, but they may see how that grade and their review fits within a larger network of responses. And from thence, interesting patterns of unanimity and dissent emerge.

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