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Michael John Meets Tony?

Why Must Tony = Broadway?

The controversy over including Off-Broadway in the Tony Awards heats up, as usual.

By New York City

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."


Not every Broadway mindset is dismissive of Off-Broadway. Mark Routh, president of the Off-Broadway League of Theaters and Producers, points out that his organization has no official policy regarding awards and merely responds to proposals. He concurs that "just the logistics would be very difficult for people supposed to vote," were Off-Broadway brought into the Tony purview. Among other considerations, Routh questions how a thorough adjudication process can include an Off-Broadway scene that is rife with limited engagements. In addition, at the time that many prospective voters are preparing to attend performances, runs may have long since ended. It's Routh's intention "to focus," as he phrases it, on the 15-year-old Lucille Lortel Awards more diligently. In the coming years, Routh figures to model the Lortels even more closely on the Tony Award model. Ironically, the Lortels have also established a new category for next year--Unique Theatrical Experience.

Not everyone toiling Off-Broadway sees things Routh's way, however. Ben Sprecher, vice president of the Lucille Lortel, the Promenade, the Variety Arts, and the new 499-seat Shubert-owned house coming to Theater Row next year, says of opening the Tonys to Off-Broadway, "I have been in favor of it since I started working Off-Broadway." Sprecher also pooh-poohs the argument about having enough voter tickets to go around. "We'd have no problem taking care of them," he says. And as for Off-Broadway factions turning up their noses at that outreach from the Broadway world, Sprecher insists the overture itself had limited appeal. "The specificity of the [League and/or Wing's] offer has been lost," he says, calling the suggestion of only a few awards "substandard." He explains, "We rejected [their offer] because we wouldn't be treated like a stepchild."

Susan Gallin, who currently has Fully Committed safely lodged in Off-Broadway's Cherry Lane Theatre, also refuses to accept the Tony committee's position. She says of any move to extend boundaries, "I think it would be the best thing that can happen, and it never will. The Broadway theater owners will never allow it to happen. It's to their best interests not to have it happen." On the accommodating-voters subject, Gallin says, "I would be thrilled to make those seats available. Financially, it would be great. It couldn't be better." In fact, she'd be glad, she emphasizes, to hold aside Fully Committed seats, even though she's got sold-out signs up. "Turning people away is good," she says about the potential effects of Tony publicity. "It's better for people to have a hard time getting a ticket." The way she sees it, television exposure can only enhance the play's in-theater life as well as possibly clinch a film or video deal.

"I've thought about it a lot--ever since the days of Three Tall Women," comments Daryl Roth, who has arguably turned herself into Off-Broadway's premier producer--a woman who some say is the natural successor to Lortel as the "Queen of Off-Broadway." "I think there should be a way [to include Off-Broadway]," Roth says, but she adds "granted, it's a complex issue. I think what would happen is that maybe there's a committee that's appointed to cover just Off-Broadway--maybe just 300, not all the Tony voters. I don't know if it's feasible, but some recognition is better than no recognition. The first thing that would be helpful is if people just sat down and talked about it--a first meeting with the Off-Broadway league and the Tony committee. Talk in a casual, friendly way. I don't think it's been explored."

Roth's guarded hope isn't reflected by the thoughts of playwright A. R. Gurney, who quit this year's Tony nominating committee because of what he felt was an impenetrable opposition to change. Mentioning that he tried to discuss improvements when he first joined up a year ago, he was told "we'll meet in the fall," which was followed by "let's meet in January" which was followed by "no, it would be better if we meet in May." Gurney further describes his futile battle: "I met with [Tony administrators] two or three times and couldn't get them to admit we needed a change. That meeting I asked for a year ago finally occurred last week. It was like a ritual dance. The representatives just smiled benignly and said, 'We'll think about your suggestions.'"

Susan Lee, senior vice president of Broadway Television Network, scrutinizes the dilemma from an altogether different angle. "I think the Tony Awards have always been--and should continue to be--about Broadway, because that's the criteria by which that award has been established. It's excellence on Broadway--as narrowly defined as that might be." Lee goes on to say that she'd prefer to examine "the whole idea of Broadway in a bigger context. By 'bigger'--how do we define the words? Is it the Tony's responsibility to do that? I'd like to see an institutional effort. How do we promote that New York is the best place to see theater in the country?"

So Tony or not to Tony--that remains, for now, the question.


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