Tony spelled backwards is "y not."
Well, "y not" indeed: Why not open up eligibility for the Tony Awards to Off-Broadway? It's a "why" query raised with increasing volume almost every Tony season.
Why, for instance, must the Tony nominating committee declare plays like Sam Shepard's True West or Noel Coward's 40-year-old Waiting in the Wings eligible for nominations in order to fill categories that would be embarrassingly thin otherwise?
Why must this occur when so many of this season's acclaimed plays--whether August Wilson's Jitney, Charles Busch's The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, or Kenneth Lonergan's The Waverly Gallery--are sitting smartly in Off-Broadway houses?
Why is it that those who police the Tony awards aren't red-faced at the fact that four of the last five winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama--Edward Albee's Three Tall Women, Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive, Margaret Edson's Wit, and this year's winner, Donald Margulies's Dinner With Friends--weren't even in the running for Tonys?
Predictably, no one at the American Theatre Wing, which owns the Tony trademark, is nonplussed--at least not officially. In discussing the issue of plays, for instance, Roy Somlyo, president of the organization, says, flatly, "The award is for the best play on Broadway--not for the best new play." As to whether a Tony Awards overhaul is in the offing, Somlyo says "There's no discussion on that and no plans on that at this time." Indeed, the only difference between the awards to be handed out this year and those coming up next year is that, at a meeting held last week, it was decided to establish a Special Theatrical Event category. This decision was made in order to avoid situations in which performers like Barry Humphries (a.k.a. Dame Edna), Jackie Mason, or Squonk, are disregarded.
While it's certainly true that the Tony awards were established in 1947 to honor Broadway, it should be unnecessary to point out that things have changed since then. Fifty-three years ago, Off-Broadway amounted to very little at all (the birth of Circle in the Square, generally regarded as the first modern Off-Broadway venue, was still several years away). Needless to say, there was also no call yet to coin the term Off-Off Broadway in 1947 either. But though the theatrical landscape has altered radically, the Tony overseers maintain there's no reason for change.
Jed Bernstein, executive director of the League of American Theaters and Producers, which produces the Tony Awards, reiterates the stance, saying that the Tony's are for "excellence on Broadway," although he also refuses to "predict it will remain" that way. Bernstein goes on to ask a few questions of his own, mostly having to do with the logic of broadening the scope of the awards. "Are we righting all wrongs by including Off-Broadway?" he asks, answering his own question by saying that such an action inevitably will lead to maddening ramifications. "If we include all five boroughs, do we count the Guthrie [in Minneapolis] and the Goodman [in Chicago]?" he asks.
Bernstein adds that the demands of the annual Tony broadcast have to be considered as well. "You have to be practical," he states. "If there were five categories honoring Off-Broadway, would they be televised? The television audience doesn't know many of the Broadway names--would they know any of the Off-Broadway names? Does [including them] make a better television show?" Bernstein also expresses concern for what he calls "a level playing field." For example, Bernstein wonders "What does it mean to compare set design for The Music Man?" Bernstein also recalls that the League and the Wing made overtures to Off-Broadway producers several years ago. "Off-Broadway," he says, "was not welcoming."
Margo Lion, who produced Jelly's Last Jam and is preparing the musical adaptation of Hairspray, agrees with her colleagues that the Tonys are really a Broadway thing and mentions the other awards that are regularly bestowed--the Drama Desk awards and the Obies, for example. But then, Lion enlarges the argument. "The point is, there's a practical issue here that nobody ever brings up. There are 700 Tony voters. How in the world can you get every Tony voter in [299- to 399-seat] houses? You can't ask Off-Broadway producers to make 1,400 seats available." Commenting that she "is not opposed to [including Off-Broadway] at all," Lion says simply that such blanket inclusion "would be an administrative nightmare." Thinking about it further, Lion predicts that including Off-Broadway in the Tony Awards would necessitate having to "change the way shows are voted on." But if, as she posits, a special Off-Broadway vetting committee is formed, "You would have to have a small group of people whose life would be going to the theater."