The Tony Nominations: Torn Between Two Feelings, Feelin’ Like a Fool

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tonyawards1Is it maturity or disillusionment? When I was a kid, starting when I was about 12 or so and continuing on for years, the annual announcement of the Tony nominations was the second-holiest day of the year for me, right behind the Tony Awards ceremony itself each June. But in recent years, including all the years I served as associate editor and then national theater editor of the trade publication and website Back Stage, and attending the announcement of the nominations on a regular basis, I found myself increasingly less obsessed — ambivalent, almost — about the Tonys. What changed? Was it maturity or disillusionment?

This is not to say that I don’t care, mind you. I love being a Tony voter, and there’s something about watching a group of superlatively talented and worthy theater artists being nominated or winning that makes me turn the waterworks on full. Here are three of my favorite moments: the late, great Michael Jeter, who won a Tony for the musical Grand Hotel nearly 20 years ago; Rita Moreno, who won for The Ritz more than 30 years ago; and John Gallagher, Jr., who more recently won a Tony for Spring Awakening. Watch these and tell me if something inside of you doesn’t become at at least a little misty:

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So I’m not without heart, right?

At the same time, I do not believe Broadway is the center of the national theatrical universe. Of course, the Broadway community would like the rest of the nation to believe that it is — such are the prerogatives of a largely commercial industry that too often allows artistic achievement to be trumped by the bottom line. As a critic, I think perhaps it is a sign of maturity to accept this situation as inevitable as well as a sign of disillusionment. After all, in an ideal world, Broadway would be the best theater in the nation.

But this is not what I’m really getting at. Within the theater industry itself, especially among certain members of the press and the more hyper-focused of the general public, there is an obsession with the Tony nominations and awards that increasingly eludes me. Today, with the 2009 Tony nominations announced, I can already hear the exasperated chatter in bars and restaurants all over Times Square as it becomes inflamed, if not maniacal: “Oh, she was robbed!” “Oh my, that show was awful!” “Oh my God, what were they thinking when they decided to nominate that?”

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Sure, in this year’s pool of nominations there are bizarre omissions: Kristin Scott Thomas’ performance in the revival of The Seagull, for example. Hers was one of the most lavishly praised performances in years but you wouldn’t know it from its total absence among the 2009 Tony nominations. Then there’s the choice to include, among the nominees for Best Musical, the 1980s songbook tuner Rock of Ages over Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5. Truth to tell, neither show is an unassailable, timeless wonder for the ages, but both are fun. One might have imagined that the Tony nominators would have valued the drawing power of a Dolly Parton tuner over 1980s pop-tart retreads.

Then again, I have to remind myself that Rock of Ages and 9 to 5 are apples and oranges. Indeed, competitive awards are inherently ridiculous because it’s impossible to compare that which cannot be compared. Sometimes exceptions can be found in terms of competitions that seem fair. At this year’s Oscars, for example, one could argue that Sean Penn and Frank Langella competing for the Best Actor Oscar made sense: both impersonated famous figures (Harvey Milk and President Richard Nixon), so perhaps those performances are a question of apples and apples. However, there were five nominees, and Penn and Langella had to compete against the likes of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, and Rourke’s performance, pardon the metaphor, was definitely an orange (or kumquat).

Producers of theater or film are loathe to acknowledge any fault in competitive honors in any event due to fiscal self-interest. So criticizing nominations is something of a zero-sum game.

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And that is why, when it comes to the Tony Awards, I think my feeling is one of maturity and disillusionment. In the New York theater, just as in any other genre or medium or industry, awards a popularity contest first and foremost. On Broadway especially, there is always the question on the minds of Tony voters regarding whether a show might be able to tour outside of New York (a good way to beef up profits), or to enjoy a licensing afterlife via subsidiary film or TV rights (another good way to beef up profits). The whining and wheezing over who was egregiously overlooked and who should not have been nominated but wasn’t is fundamentally inside-baseball chatter, an echo chamber of those-in-the-know discussing those-in-the-know that the rest of the nation really doesn’t lose sleep over. And that’s why, to be frank, the Tony Awards broadcast on CBS faces the same daunting challenge each year: overcoming sad, anemic ratings.

What Broadway really needs, then, is not an industry of self-obsessed insider but an industry of revolutionary and groundbreaking thinkers devoted to ensuring that the American theater — including, but not limited to, Broadway — is as relevant to the cultural consciousness as possible. I do not believe it is right now. It ought to be. All those tears shouldn’t be for naught.