Railing Against Railing Against the Tony Mythos

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Every year, it seems, journalists, critics, and theater artists question why the Tony Awards do what they do and how they go about doing it. There’s questioning and/or criticism of the nomination process: Why are there only four slots? Why are replacements never nominated? Why should musicals that aren’t nominated for Best Musical receive the opportunity to perform on national TV when scenes from straight plays are almost always given short shrift or are at least showcased so badly? Why are there big-star presenters who haven’t done a Broadway play since Sophocles was in tights? Why can’t the public vote? Why do the technical awards receive short shrift? Why is the Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing so openly contemptuous of Off- and Off-Off-Broadway that they cannot, will not and shall not include those industry sectors as part of awards consideration? (This last question reveals the fundamental moral failings of each group, as they know perfectly well that Off- and Off-Off serves as R&D for new product. They also depend on regional theaters, which is salt on an open wound: The American Theatre Critics Association recommends one regional theater annually for a special Tony.)

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These questions have all been asked, answered and debated 87 times over. Thumbing through those questions, I bet you knew some of the answers and thought of some questions I didn’t ask. All of the questions are good, and all of the answers range from truthful to realistic to disingenuous. Everyone is a stakeholder, or thinks they are.

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So when I read Laura Collins-Hughes’ blogpost Elbowing Playwrights Out of the Way, (inspired by a recent column by the New York Post’s ever-inflammable Michael Riedel), I sighed. I’m not saying re-raising the topic of why producers, not artists, get to accept the Tony for Best Play or Musical isn’t fair — it completely is. But, um, haven’t we been over this, collectively, a few times? Must we rehash who all the entrenched interests are and why Broadway is absurdly dysfunctional? Riedel is on target when he calls certain Broadway League boosters as “apparatchiks.” But let’s — well — sigh. Let me just say some of the things that need to be said.

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Certain commercial producers — that is, those with scads of money to slosh around but who really don’t have a hand or an interest in the day-to-day “producing” of producing but want to brag to their friends that they’re “producers” — are really a step above white trash. That is, white trash with money. Given the examples of bad, bourgeois, boorish behavior that Riedel furnishes in his column, it’s really quite clear. These aren’t people who actively care about the product or, heaven help us, the art. They care in very bottom sense, a core sense, about their own glory, their own names, their own egos, their own talent. Oh, that’s right — they don’t actually possess any talent — they’re Broadway investors. Their talent, if you could call it as such, is either spotting talent (admittedly not a bad one to have) or, far more predictably, spotting the people who spot the talent, at which point they can slosh their money around enough so as to affix themselves to the commercial enterprise. These are people cut from the same cloth as the Hair Too Big Club and the McMansion Society — people who are, um, compensating for something. To these folks, the playwright, the director, whoever it is, is entirely disposable. (“Oh, come on, Murray, anyone can write Death of a Salesman.”) Fundamentally, these are people who are jealous of talent because they don’t understand talent. But they can control talent, in a sense, through the use of their money. And they do.

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Never mind asking these aesthetic pimps to look at commercial Off-Broadway — which they probably consider avant-garde and scary and out there and adventurous — or, heaven help us, Off-Off-Broadway or the not-for-profit sector as a whole. And so the game goes on: producers, not artists, speak first, or sometimes exclusively when the Tony for Best Play or Musical is awarded. “And why shouldn’t we?” is the response. We paid for the show. Yes, they did.

Thank God the producers who generally speak on camera first are actually, in all fairness, the best of the batch — the true, genuine descendents of the David Merricks, Kermit Bloomgardens and Alexander H. Cohen’s that were a solid bedrock mainstay of the Great White Way for much of the 20th century. What we’re really talking about here — and railing against — are the other ones. The ones who troop up to the stage with those “Look, Ma, I’m on TV” grins across their botoxed faces. The ones who sit in those awful marketing meetings Riedel described, salivating at the chance to flex their monetary muscles and show off in the mirror of the own souls.

I love the part of Riedel’s story in which producers now have it written into their contract that if the show wins the Tony, they get to go on stage. I’ll happily piss away my money, but I wanna be on TV. Oh, and what about that quote from Stephen Schwartz, head of the Dramatists Guild: Well, uh, we really need those people to invest in our shows so I guess we’ll just have to be whores and that’s okie-dokie. Why isn’t the Dramatists Guild making it a condition of all Broadway contracts that if the show wins the Tony for Best Play or Musical, the author gets to speak? I didn’t say “be the only one to speak,” but speak. Restructure the Tony broadcast to allow for 60 more seconds for Best Play and 60 more seconds for Best Musical? If such a clause on behalf of writers could be a standard part of Broadway contracts (could it be already?), what are these investors going to do, not invest? Really? You’re telling me the Broadway brand that lured all those investors to the table to begin with is so fragile that it won’t withstand the application of principle?

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So, here’s the thing: of course producers accepting Best Play or Best Musical Tonys in lieu of those who created the show is morally wrong. But here’s the other thing — just to bring me back to the top of this post: this matter isn’t new. No, my dears, Collins-Hughes isn’t wrong when she writes…

No one with any understanding of what a producer does would suggest that the role is unimportant or undeserving of recognition. Neither is the role of backer. But it’s evidence of warped priorities when the writers, without whom no one would be standing there on Tony night, are deemed less important than the money people…

…These, no doubt, are the same crass individuals who’d also try to take credit for a playwright’s Pulitzer, a prize that has nothing whatsoever to do with producers or backers (though that point is frequently lost on them).

…You can always get another producer; you can always find another investor — and you’ll probably have to, given the crowd it takes to finance a Broadway show these days. Only in the most artistically doomed, too-many-cooks circumstances, however, is switching out a writer even a possibility. That’s not going to happen to an original, single-author straight play. In the grand collaboration that is theater, the playwright simply is not expendable.

But using moral arguments to effect change on Broadway is never going to work. This is commercial theater. Put it in writing.

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