Special Reports

Story of the Week: The Tony Awards Telecast Will Proceed, Despite Writers’ Strike

The Writers Guild of America has vowed not to picket the United Palace on June 11.

Ariana DeBose hosted the 2022 Tony Awards and will host again on June 11.
(© Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)

Two weeks ago, I reported on the possibility that the ongoing writers’ strike could cancel the Tony Awards telecast this year. That crisis seems to have been averted following an announcement by the Writers Guild of America (the union representing film and television writers) that its members will not picket the Tony Awards ceremony at the United Palace on June 11.

The show will go on, but in an altered form and without the contributions of WGA writers. Story of the Week will update you on this developing situation and speculate on how this year’s Tony broadcast will be different.

How did the writers’ strike imperil the Tonys telecast?  

All the jokes, clever musical numbers, and category intros at the Tony Awards are typically written by WGA writers (according to the New York Times, a draft script of this year’s ceremony already exists, but will not be used in any capacity on June 11). While there was talk last week of an unscripted Tony Awards, this compromise was not a given. In fact, there was a very real possibility that the broadcast would be canceled, with stage talent unwilling to cross the picket line to participate in Broadway’s biggest night.

Unions representing stage actors, technicians, and musicians have all expressed solidarity with the striking writers, meaning members of those unions could face repercussions for participating in a picketed event. The 2023 MTV Movie & TV Awards were canceled after Drew Barrymore withdrew from hosting in solidarity with striking writers. Tonys host Ariana DeBose has remained silent on the prospect of the awards going dark this year, holding out some hope that a compromise would be reached.

The week the nominations were announced, I speculated that Tony organizers (the event is jointly produced by the Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing) were actively lobbying for a waiver that would allow union writers to work on the Tony Awards even as the strike was ongoing. That request was denied, according to the Hollywood Reporter, which reported late on Friday, May 12, that the awards would not be televised as scheduled.

This led to a flurry of anguished social media posts over the weekend by members of the theater community emphasizing how important the Tonys telecast is to an industry that is still recovering from the pandemic shutdown. It also led to some pushback from WGA members, who correctly pointed out that the Tony telecast is still a major event around which CBS sells millions of dollars in advertising. The entire purpose of a strike is to disrupt business as usual, and carving out exceptions for certain events undermines that mission.

So what changed?

On Monday, May 15, the Tony Awards Management Committee met to determine the best path forward. According to the New York Post, the plan was to again request a waiver — so essentially, no backup plan. The WGA remained firm and once again denied that request.

But that evening, a joint statement by both the WGA East and West assured Broadway fans that the union would not picket the event on June 11 in recognition of the Tony producers’ commitment to conform to specific requests from the WGA. Those requests have not been made public, but it almost certainly includes an agreement to not do any work that would have been performed by a WGA writer. You can read the complete statement below:

So how will that work?

Again, it’s not entirely clear what the Tony producers agreed to. It seems likely that the ceremony will include the presentation of awards and performances from the nominated musicals, as usual; but the event will not include material that would have been scripted by WGA writers. Theater gadflies who habitually kvetch about the length of the awards and the staleness of the jokes might finally get their wish to see a pared-down ceremony that sticks to the basics.

It may prove to be a Monkey’s Paw wish, delivering a sleepy, somewhat bland event that is inexplicably still four hours long. It has been reported that Lin-Manuel Miranda was working on a number for the telecast when writers put their pencils down on May 2. Now we won’t get to hear what he came up with, which is a shame. Filling the void will likely be numerous off-the-cuff speeches in support of the striking writers as a sign of gratitude to the WGA for not obliterating Broadway’s infomercial. It’s great publicity for the union, but might make for an awkward or dull event for the casual viewer. Writers stealthily do a lot to keep a show entertaining and flowing gracefully, as we are sure to discover when they are absent from this year’s Tonys.

Of course, this compromise is still a better option than not having a Tony broadcast at all, or postponing the awards until the strike is over. Something similar happened around the pandemic two years ago, when the 2020 Tonys were presented in September 2021. By then, many of the nominated shows were closed and not coming back, and what was meant to be a celebration of Broadway’s resilience looked a bit too much like a live feed from the ICU.

There is precedent for the Tonys going forward in the middle of a writers’ strike: In 1988, Angela Lansbury hosted a modest ceremony that emphasized performances and personal anecdotes. The Phantom of the Opera and M. Butterfly took home the top awards that year (beating Into the Woods and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, respectively). And Patti LuPone delivered a memorable performance from Anything Goes. You can watch the whole thing below for an idea of what we’re in for. It’s not bad, as far as awards shows go.