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5 Theatrical Elements That Deserve Awards Recognition

TheaterMania suggests five new categories for consideration during awards season.

Awards season is upon us! Before all the nominations are announced, we would like to offer our suggestions for five new categories. These are the theatrical elements that help make a show memorable, but are presently (and puzzlingly) uncelebrated by our major theater awards:

1. Original Song
Sometimes the best song of the Broadway season isn't in the show that wins Best Score. Think about the achingly gorgeous "You You You" from Kander & Ebb's final collaboration, The Visit. The Tony for Best Score ultimately (and deservedly) went to Fun Home that year, but if there had been a Tony for Best Original Song, it would have gone to "You You You," a model for how to drive the story forward with melodic simplicity. Even if not every number in a show is a winner, it would be nice to recognize the ones that stand out. These are the songs that will become a staple of the cabaret repertory, even after everyone forgets the shows for which they were written. The Oscars give an award for Best Original Song, so why shouldn't the Tonys?

2. Performance by an Understudy or Standby
We all love seeing a big star onstage, but sometimes it is even more satisfying to discover a new talent during an understudy performance. Sutton Foster famously got her big break as an understudy in the La Jolla run of Thoroughly Modern Millie (a show she led to Broadway, garnering a Tony Award for Best Actress). Similarly, standbys are often the most talented people you've never heard of on Broadway. Wouldn't it be nice to recognize them with an award when they need it the most, before they've hit it big? Oh sure, this could lead to some awkward backstage encounters when some young Eve Harrington wins a Tony Award and Margo Channing does not; but that's showbiz, kid.

3. Fight Choreography
Every year, J. David Brimmer and Rick Sordelet choreograph moments of realistic violence as innovative and technically complex as anything Jerry Mitchell and Andy Blankenbuehler have dreamed up. The latter two choreographers have Tony Awards, but the former two will not even be considered, because there is no category for their work. The good news is that some theater awards organizations (including the Drama Desk Awards and Chicago's Jeff Awards) have recently added fight choreography as a competitive category. Still, most overlook this essential theatrical craft. It's a baffling omission considering violence has been a part of theatrical storytelling since Aeschylus.

Austin P. McKenzie and Patrick Page starred in the Broadway revival of Spring Awakening. This photo is not scratch and sniff, but it should be.
(© Joan Marcus)

4. Olfactory Design
While violence is a time-honored element of storytelling onstage, this one is fairly new. In simple terms, this would be an award for smell design. You may scoff, but smart directors are increasingly employing smell (the sense most closely tied to memory) in their productions: The scent of a summer rain washes over the audience of Sam Gold's currently running production of The Glass Menagerie. Michael Arden infused the Brooks Atkinson Theatre with the smell of religious incense during his 2015 revival of Spring Awakening. Perhaps most famously, David Cromer's 2009 production of Our Town featured the unmistakable aroma of sizzling bacon. This discipline is still in its nascence, but methods will undoubtedly become more sophisticated in the coming years, necessitating dedicated olfactory designers and, yes, an award for their work.

Lucas Steele and Denée Benton star in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, a show that begins as soon as you enter the lobby of the Imperial Theatre.
(© Chad Batka)

5. Front of House
This would be an award for the ushers, ticket-takers, and bartenders who get us to our seats safely and comfortably. It's a harder job than you might think: Between the bathroom line and the bar, some Broadway intermissions rival Swan Lake for the amount of choreography required. The front of house experience can seriously color our enjoyment of what we are seeing onstage, so like it or not, it is part of the storytelling. The theatrical experience doesn't begin when the curtain rises, but when you step into the theater. The front-of-house staff is an essential part of that, and it's high time theater awards recognized their contributions.