We Were That Kid: Tony Eligibility Rulings and Why They Matter

The last three shows that I saw on Broadway, Violet, The Bridges of Madison County, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, have some interesting things in common. All three were produced on Broadway this season for the first time. All three feature daring and beautiful scores, written for the musical stage by important musical theatre voices of our time. None of them were nominated for the Tony Award for Best Musical.

The commonality ends there, though, because what I’m more concerned with, for the purposes of this post, is that only one of them was eligible to be nominated. Many people feel that Bridges deserved a nomination, while the nominating committee, apparently, did not; nonetheless, it was eligible. It had the chance. The same cannot be said for Violet and Hedwig, which were instead considered—and in fact nominated—in the category of Best Revival of a Musical.

What do these two Broadway divas have in common?  Hint: It’s not their long, flowy hair or their fabulous belting.

What do these two Broadway divas have in common? Hint: It’s not their long, flowy hair or their fabulous belting.

“Wait a minute!” you might be thinking. “You just said they’ve never been on Broadway before. How are they revivals?” The reason is an idiosyncrasy of Tony bylaws that allows the committee to consider shows as revivals that were produced Off-Broadway in the past, and have become recognizable commodities in the time since. Hedwig and Violet are part of this peculiar group of shows, having both premiered Off-Broadway in the 1990s and since become well known among the theater community. This kind of eligibility ruling has happened with some frequency in the past—the earliest example I remember being around for, as a budding musical theatre enthusiast, was the 2003 Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors.

After we saw Hedwig and the Angry Inch a few nights ago, my friends and I walked together to the subway volleying Tony-related questions back and forth, as is often the case at this time of year. One of us wondered whether to rule a show ineligible for Best Musical because it has appeared Off-Broadway and become a recognizable brand veers close to an admission that the voting process does not represent an unbiased look at art and art alone, without the influence of outside factors. One pointed out that unlike Best Play, which awards a play’s author as well as its producers, Best Musical is solely a production award, as there are separate categories for Best Book and Best Score. This begged another question: if only the production values are being judged, why separate Best Musical and Best Revival of a Musical at all? Why not just have Best Production of a Musical along with the prizes for book and score?

That particular line of conversation led me to zero in on what strikes me as the true tragedy of Hedwig and Violet’s being considered as revivals: their books and scores will never be Tony-eligible.

It’s easy to say that awards like the Tonys don’t matter, especially when they don’t go the way we might like. I’m often reminded at Tony time of the words of Ron Swanson, of TV’s Parks and Recreation: “Awards are stupid. They’d be less stupid if they went to the right people.” And in a lot of ways, they don’t matter: what’s most essential to the vitality of our community is that brave, creative people keep making the very best work that they can, whether or not it ends up being recognized by things like reviews and prizes.

But the fact is, we also need people to come and see that work, and there’s no denying that winning a Tony—or even being nominated for one—gets butts in seats. Tony recognition for a specific show may extend its run by months or even years, but a Tony win for an individual artist can be even more powerful, as the moniker of “Tony nominee” or “Tony winner” will follow that person for the rest of his or her career.

I should acknowledge here that there are lots of prestigious awards that Off-Broadway productions can and do receive, including the Obies, the Drama Desks, the Outer Critics Circle Awards, and more. But there is a key difference between these awards and the Tonys: the Tony telecast. The live telecast brings the Tonys—and thus the shows highlighted by the Tonys—to millions of people all over America who have no other way of accessing New York theater. Think of all the stars who’ve said in interviews that they grew up obsessively watching Tony performances. That exposure makes a huge difference.

"There’s a kid in the middle of nowhere who’s sitting there living for Tony performances...so we might reassure that kid, and do something to spur that kid, ’cause I promise you, all of us up here tonight, we were that kid."

“There’s a kid in the middle of nowhere who’s sitting there living for Tony performances…so we might reassure that kid, and do something to spur that kid, ’cause I promise you, all of us up here tonight, we were that kid.”

You might be wondering right about now what all of this has to do with the topic of this blog, not just musical theatre, but New Musical Theatre. My friends certainly were when I told them on our walk to the subway that I might write this post. Well, here’s the thing: think about where NMT writers, and up-and-coming voices in general, have commonly been produced in the last few years. Salzman and Cunningham’s I Love You Because was at the Village Theatre in 2006. Adam Gwon’s Ordinary Days was at Roundabout Underground in 2009. Pasek and Paul’s Dogfight was at Second Stage Theatre in 2012. All three are now available for licensing and have gone on to healthy lives in regional and amateur production.

I have no doubt that there will be more shows that take this path in the future, and that’s great. More and more these days, as the pressures of the commercial theatre world make it harder and harder for producers to gamble on anything but a surefire hit, new works are finding homes Off-Broadway and being licensed from there, bypassing Broadway altogether…for the moment. But what happens when, fifteen or twenty years from now, I Love You Because or Ordinary Days or Dogfight opens on Broadway for the first time, and those scores don’t have the chance at being Tony-nominated? Should writers be deprived of the opportunity for that accolade just because the best home for their work, early in its life, wasn’t on Broadway?

I can’t pretend to have anything approaching a comprehensive understanding of the ins and outs of Tony rules and politics, and I’m not here to say that anybody involved with the Tonys is doing anything wrong. But it seems to me like something has to change, just as our industry is constantly changing. Does this mean we should overhaul the Tony categories and eligibility rules, and if so, what would that look like? Or is it a matter of expanding the reach of Off-Broadway productions by giving the awards they are eligible for more exposure? Is this really just about the Tonys, or is it a broader question about awards and their impact on licensing, touring, and other aspects of a show’s long-term success? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I think that as we look ahead to the future, it’s important to be asking them.

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