Theatre League president Jed Bernstein on the first annual NBTA awards for touring Broadway shows.
The awards evening, expected to be attended by winners who will travel to NYC from wherever they might be on the road, will be hosted by Alan Cumming (who didn't tour in Cabaret) and Aida's Sherie René Scott. It will be presided over by Jed Bernstein, president of the League of American Theatres and Producers, who says that the idea of the Stars (or NBTAs to some) was seriously considered for the past two years and mooted on a more casual basis for a long time before that. He explains that the reason for creating them was twofold. First, the League wished to recognize touring shows, which heretofore have never been honored despite their importance dating back to the days of such inveterate troupers as Lynne Fontanne and Alfred Lunt, Helen Hayes, Mary Martin and, actually, to eras preceding them. (Wasn't Sarah Bernhardt famous for going on many a farewell tour?) Secondly, Bernstein says, the League membership liked the notion of theater awards that were audience-driven.
That's right: Audiences across the country are involved in the Stars. Ticket buyers were asked to register their choices either on the internet or through ballots distributed by Variety. Since the shows in contention were assumed to have played to audiences of varying cumulative sizes, the League retained the Louis Harris polling outfit to analyze the voter demographics and make appropriate adjustments. The weighted voting came down, roughly, to reckoning what percentage of the audience for a nominated show or individual voted for that particular nominee. ("I don't want to do the math," Bernstein says, jokingly.)
Determination of the winners was also subject to an accommodation that the League reached with Actors' Equity. When the formation of the awards was announced, AEA lodged a complaint stating its unhappiness that non-union tours would be judged on an equal footing with Equity tours. Shortly thereafter, Equity members Henry Winkler and John Ritter, who had agreed to host the awards show, withdrew. In subsequent discussion, it was decided that if a non-Equity performer won in any category, the Equity member pulling the second-highest number of votes would also be designated a winner. This year, as it happens, the four winning actors are Equity members.
Bernstein views the awards as part of the League's continuing campaign "to return living theater to its place as popular, middle-class entertainment. Theater is something that can't be expressed on a computer," he says. He also notes that many shows "without a famous title or a big star" are at a commercial disadvantage in today's market and that, therefore, awards are "a good promotional tool." And he believes that, in a society where the concept of interactivity is ever more popular, it can only be beneficial to give the public an opportunity to speak back to the theater community by way of naming favorites.
Though some veteran observers have suggested that that the awards were established to deal with League members (500 strong) who are also Tony voters and might tend to cast their ballots for Broadway presentations with tour potential (rather than shows not figured to sprout road companies), Bernstein dismisses that idea. He says he doubts that any of his members "vote as a bloc." Asked whether he was convinced the awards were necessary, Bernstein--who's also preparing for the Tonys on June 3--laughed and said, "I don't know if any awards show is necessary."
Although the winners have been named and will presumably stride to the podium on May 21, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of the new honors. Understandably, wrinkles will need to be ironed out. For example: If shows lacking name recognition and/or a bankable actor or two are supposed to be bolstered by the outcome, it would be helpful for more Stars to go to straight plays. Also, certain of the designated winners invite profound skepticism, none more so than the vote-topper in the best song category: " 'Til We Reach That Day," the Flaherty-Ahrens first-act finale from Ragtime, which is arguably not even the finest song in that lauded score, won in a field that also included "Ol' Man River!" That Kern-Hammerstein showstopper, introduced in 1927's Show Boat, would rank at or near the top of any list compiled by theater historians; its losing to just about anything else ever written is ludicrous. Flaherty and Ahrens themselves will probably be wondering what they're doing at the lectern, while others might be thinking privately that there has to be a better way to handle the category.
Still, this is only the first year of what's planned to be an annual event. If the theatrical road continues its general trend toward increasing importance, the NBTA awards may themselves become that much more significant over the years, and there will be lots of time for fine-tuning.