Why are the Tony Awards so afraid of the Tony Awards?
On Sunday night’s Tony Awards, history was made. Unfortunately, it was made during the commercial breaks. Early in the three-hour show, while viewers at home watched commercials for the wide array of insurance packages and pharmaceutical products that Madison Avenue seems to think are a perfect fit for either CBS or theater lovers, the audience at Radio City Music Hall got to see Lisa Kron win Best Book of a Musical for Fun Home, and then return to the stage to share the Tony for Best Musical Score with its composer, Jeanine Tesori.
On the simplest level, shoving these awards into an ad break is a missed opportunity. Awards telecasts, when they’re good, are often about narratives that build over the course of the night, and this year’s was about whether the coveted prize for Best Musical would go to Fun Home, a brilliant, innovative, intimate, modern piece about lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s Pennsylvania childhood with a closeted (and ultimately suicidal) dad, or to An American In Paris, a crowd-pleasing, elegant, beautifully rendered staging of a 65-year-old movie (Sunday night, that show ended up winning four Tonys of its own). There’s a good story there, a story about two different but not necessarily exclusive visions of what Broadway can be. And the groundwork for this year’s outcome — a surprisingly decisive win for Fun Home, which also took Best Musical, Best Director, and Best Actor — was laid with these first two wins.
But awards telecasts are also, in some years, about thrilling firsts, and this ceremony offered one of them. In a year when women took home prizes in every craft category — costumes, lighting, scenic design, direction — no single win was more striking than the prize Tesori and Kron shared for writing Fun Home’s music and lyrics. Their win was the first time in the nearly 70-year history of the Tonys that the award went to an all-female team — and the fact that the source material was also by a woman and that four women in the cast were up for Tonys constituted the kind of naturally emerging moment that wiser overseers might have anticipated and decided to highlight as it happened instead of in a brief clip.
But recognizing history is something the Tonys, in recent years, have become not just indifferent to but openly fearful about. The thinking is all terror-based: Ratings have fallen from decades past; the telecast skews old; young people must be entertained at all costs. Otherwise the Tonys’ network berth, which is considered essential to its value as a ticket-selling tool, will be imperiled. Even as the telecast has expanded from two hours to three, it’s gotten more and more uncomfortable with the fact that it’s an awards ceremony. Because musicals drive the box office, plays are given short shrift; the four Best Play nominees, excerpts of which used to be staged live on the telecast, are now relegated to a clip reel of shouty, echoey B-roll that I can only assume was filmed by someone who wants to make sure that nobody, under any circumstances, is ever given the idea that it might be fun or rewarding to see a play.
And although musical numbers (and as many audience shots of Bradley Cooper as possible) are the be-all-and-end-all of the show—there were 11 song performances on Sunday, including a Jersey Boys reprise and, for the second year in a row, a number from the zero-time Tony nominee Finding Neverland — apparently the idea that anyone writes these musicals is considered a form of kryptonite that will make people run screaming for their remotes.
Let’s set aside Tesori and Kron’s considerable achievement and talk about some of the other people who were nominated for Best Book or Best Musical Score this year. Craig Lucas, who wrote a tough and insightful book that gave An American in Paris a historical specificity that the movie didn’t have, is also a librettist, a screenwriter, and a three-time Tony nominee whose Broadway work includes the play Prelude to a Kiss and the musical The Light in the Piazza. Terrence McNally, who was nominated this year for writing the book of the musical The Visit, is a seven-time nominee; he’s won the award twice (for Ragtime and Kiss of the Spider Woman) as well as two Tonys for Best Play. John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, nominated for the score of their final collaboration The Visit, accumulated more than a dozen nominations apiece as a result of their forty-year partnership. They wrote Cabaret and Chicago. Maybe you’ve heard of them. This year, they were up against a first-time musical writer named Sting. Maybe you’ve heard of him.
Scrub these people from the narrative of a Broadway year — which is what banishing these awards effectively does — and you scrub theater of its past, its present, and its living treasures. The argument that it’s necessary for the pace of the Tonys is nonsense, because A) we’ve seen the show, and the four minutes it would take to give these prizes on the air is absolutely not the problem and B) The Oscars and the Emmys manage to make their telecasts work while honoring writers on the air. So do the Golden Globes, and nobody has ever complained about the pacing of that show. Even the Grammys, now a concert show with a small handful of awards thrown in along the way, still gives Song of the Year — a writing award — on the air.
As for the argument that the Tonys need to stay young and fresh: Please. That ship has sailed. The Tonys are not young. They will never be young. Nor are they male; guys watch the NBA finals instead — and always will, unless the Tonys change their date; and no teenager decides to endure a three-hour show just because you’ve promised that Nick Jonas or Ashley Tisdale is going to present or that Vanessa Hudgens will sing something from Gigi; they watch because they want to, or they don’t watch. In some years, movie stars do Broadway shows and they get nominated (this year Bradley Cooper was, and Jake Gyllenhaal should have been), and that’s great — although it doesn’t really spike the ratings. But in most years, the story of the Tonys isn’t really their story; it’s the story of someone like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’s 26-year-old Alex Sharp transforming in one year from unknown freshly minted Juilliard grad to youngest winner of Best Actor in a Play in history — for his first professional job as an actor. If you can’t get excited by that and figure out a way to excite viewers about it too, then don’t do the Tonys.
Broadway is specialized, and problematic. It’s all in New York, it’s ridiculously expensive, and many of its most ardent fans must travel if they want to see what’s being honored, or else wait and hope there will be tours. Those are hindrances that make the Tony telecast a night for true believers. It should be by, about, and for people who love Broadway theater — and in fact, that’s who’s watching. Those people are not going to turn off the awards because you take a few minutes to honor the talented folks who wrote the shows that sold 13 million tickets and grossed $1.4 billion last season. That audience is your base. You want to improve the Tonys? Start by showing greater respect for them and for the people who you’re purporting to honor.