Can A Closed Show Still Win? A Look at Tony Voting
This past season, thirteen new musicals opened on Broadway. Six of them closed before the Tonys, and of those six, only two received any nominations: A Night with Janis Joplin and The Bridges of Madison County. There is a pattern present in the Tony nomination and voting process that routinely favors still-running shows over those that have closed, and it holds true for both musicals and plays. Looking only at new musicals in the past six seasons, 19 closed before the Tonys, and of those 19, the only musical to win anything was The Bridges of Madison County. Other shows received nominations (The Scottsboro Boys receiving 12 and setting the record for most Tonys ever lost), but not a single one aside from Bridges received a statue.
I for one was surprised at just how strongly Tony voters favor shows that are still running, since when you look at a single year, it may not seem like anything significant. But it made me wonder why this is a status quo that we all calmly acknowledge, and what the cause might be. After making a neurotic spreadsheet to calculate the statistics above, I looked into the Tony nominating and voting rules and procedures.
Now, because I love a good list, here are the basics:
- The Tony Awards Administration Committee selects the Nominating Committee, which consists of up to 50 theatre professionals.
- Members of the Nominating Committee can also be voters, of which there were 868 this past year.
- The Nominating Committee is required to see every show that opens for the entire season.
- Voters are “expected” to see everything, but if they do not, they are at least expected to abstain from voting in categories where they haven’t seen every nominee.
- No mention is made of enforcing these expectations.
In general, of the four major awards shows, the Tonys have the greatest effect on the industry it represents. For the Oscars, Emmys, and Grammys, the product has already been made and exists in the world permanently, but we’ve all seen how not getting Tony nominations or not winning can close a show, and quickly. However, the Tonys don’t hold the same weight for every production. Some shows do well despite not winning awards, or entirely independently of them, and these are often plays. The how and why of this is, I think, the prevalence of limited runs among plays on Broadway. These are star-driven endeavors, and as such, they primarily rely not on Tony press but on their actors to support ticket sales. Additionally, plays cost less to operate, so it is feasible that a celebrity’s name alone could lead to a production recouping its full investment. But outside of non-profit theatre seasons, has there ever been a limited run of a musical on Broadway other than Elf, A Christmas Story, or another holidays-only show?While limited-run plays can open and close in the fall to little financial loss, musicals that face the same fate can have their lives cut short, with no cast recording, no national tour, and no licensing for regional theatres.
Without the cushion of limited runs, musicals often suffer more as a result of the complicated and problematic Tony voting procedures, which make it difficult for voters to fulfill the requirements of their position. Put simply, many Tony voters cannot and will not have seen shows that close before nominations come out, whether they live out of town or just got behind on their theatergoing. Presumably those individuals abstain from voting in any associated categories, and if that rule is indeed enforced somehow, then many categories will be missing a large percentage of potential votes. Any number of factors will influence how this affects the results, but in a year like 2011, where one of the Best Musical nominees was a closed show (The Scottsboro Boys), I imagine that people voted in this major category without having seen Scottsboro – or that the award might have gone a different way if all 868 voters had been able to attend.
Is the answer then to have shows open as close to the Tonys deadline as possible so the maximum number of voters can attend? I would venture a “probably not” since this season was an example of how that tactic could backfire: when upwards of ten shows open in under a month, all the press becomes white noise and it prevents any single show from becoming a frontrunner. Ultimately, I think this problem will need to be handled administratively. The Tony voting procedure has been criticized and tweaked before, but count me as one of the people who believes it is now due for a more significant overhaul.
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