THE TONY AWARDS, ALAS, are becoming less tony by the year. Meant to celebrate (however questionably) the best in Broadway theater, they are resorting to ever more desperate stratagems to, as they believe, tailor their TV show to higher ratings, i.e., peddle it to what used to be called the great unwashed when looking washed was still deemed desirable.
So how do we sell the Tonys? For the 2003/4 awards, one had Tony Bennett and Mary J. Blige to sing show tunes; there was also a duet for L.L. Cool J and Carol Channing. This time, for the 2004/5 awards, we got Aretha Franklin in squeaky-squawky duet with Hugh Jackman. All certifiable ways to kill a good song; the question is, does this really lure in the mass audience? And supposing it does, are those people going to fork over big bucks for a Broadway musical?
To beef up their importance, there seem now to be far more Tony categories--so many, that some, considered minor, were reduced to being shown on local public television (PBS) while the others got full network treatment on CBS (what a difference one letter makes!). Since nobody much watched the ones on PBS--for such things as best set, costume, and lighting design--PBS dropped them, and they were relegated to the Internet; in other words, miniaturized. Yet most of these awards involve great artistry, and deserve equal, unshrunken exposure. Conversely, the Drama Critics' Circle sticks chastely to three awards: best play, best foreign play, and best musical, and some years only two out of the three are considered worthy of an award.
How, exactly, are the Tonys arrived at? First, there is a committee of nominators, some 20-odd, or not so odd, of them, mostly connected to show business in some way, though there may be among them, for example, a retired judge of the New York Court of Claims, whose claim to participating may be unclear. Still, their pick of nominees is generally acceptable, save when a category has too few eligible candidates, and some unelectable clunkers must be thrown in to add up to at least three, although four or five are preferable.
Then come the voters: the boards of directors of the American Theatre Wing, Actors' Equity Association, the Dramatists Guild, the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, the United Scenic Artists, persons on the first-or second-night press list, and the entire membership of the League of American Theatres and Producers--some 650 voters altogether.
It should be clear to even the most conspicuously lay reader that such a lineup will include at least as much deadwood as brains and taste. I have often been accused of disrespect for my fellow critics, yet I would unequivocally put their choices ahead of that motley crew of 650, even though, by a mere shortfall of a couple of votes, they obtusely slighted The Light in the Piazza. But at least the Drama Critics' Circle avoided the error of the Tonys in enshrining Monty Python's Spamalot.
Let's face it: All awards are impugnable, even the most prestigious. Whether chosen by troglodytic Hollywoodsmen or hoary Swedish academicians, the laureates often enough succumb to the judgment of time. Read a list of Nobel Prize winners and you'll be amazed by the number of names without resonance, indeed defying recognition. Where in Stockholm the perceived need for geographic distribution ("How long since we gave one to a South American author?") colors the judgment, in Los Angeles the winners tend to come anointed by hype. As for the Tonys, the steady disgruntlement of those of us who rightly consider the ineligible Off Broadway shows easily as artistically valid as the exclusively eligible Broadway ones, casts a pall on the awards. Even at the Oscars, the little independents are allowed to compete with the big studio products.
It speaks volumes--or at least pamphlets--for the state of our culture that the most coveted, and of course most lucrative, Tony, the one that is climactically presented last, is the one for best musical rather than for drama. This year, it went to Spamalot, which had won in only two categories, rather than to The Light in the Piazza, which had won in six. The two for the former went to Mike Nichols, for best direction of a musical, and to Sara Ramirez, for best featured actress as the Lady of the Lake. Even if you don't feel, as I do, that Nichols's admittedly slick direction owed more to the director's quasi-legendary status in the public's eye, largely based on long-past work, and that the coarse and skimpily gifted Ramirez must have profited from P.C.'s bow to multiculturalism, you may still wonder why two awards should count for more than six.
Piazza won for music and lyrics (Adam Guettel), leading actress (Victoria Clark), sets (Michael Yeargan), costumes (Catherine Zuber), lighting (Christopher Akerlind), and, very importantly, orchestrations (Ted Sperling, Guettel, and Bruce Coughlin). To my mind, Bartlett Sher's cinematically panoramic direction of Piazza, which involved conveying the lives and atmospheres of two cities, Florence and Rome, required more invention than Nichols's typical jazzing-up of the traipsings of some parodic medieval knights. But of course, the influence of hard-core Monty Python fans--as, in other contexts, of Trekkies and Star Wars aficionados--must not be discounted, as I gathered from outbursts of laughter from many Spamalot spectators who memoriously howled at jokes well before the punch line.
One Tony strikes me as eminently just: the one for John Patrick Shanley's Doubt as best play, winning over its contrived and sensationalist chief rival, Martin McDonogh's The Pillowman. But how absurd is an award for best revival of a musical when none of the three the cat managed to drag in--La Cage aux Folles (which won), Pacific Overtures, or Sweet Charity (I'm speaking of productions here)--merited much of anything? The Nobels, in principle, can always pick deserving winners from the immense array of world writing; in the incomparably narrower field of Broadway theatricals, there may well be no winner in some category--a thing, however, with which neither the Tonys nor, perhaps, television viewers would be likely to put up.
We must not forget that the Tonys, even more than the Oscars, are in large measure a marketing ploy: something to attract the huge, extended TV audience to the Broadway bailiwick, regardless of how great a distance these potential theatergoers might have to travel. And that could easily sway a box office-oriented voter to rate a likely crowd-pleaser above a superior work, rightly or wrongly, considered elitist.
Another thing militates against correctly adjudged awards. This year, rather exceptionally, all nominees for best director of a play did outstanding work: John Crowley on The Pillowman, Scott Ellis on Twelve Angry Men, Joe Mantello on Glengarry Glen Ross, and Doug Hughes for Doubt. Arguably, any one of them might have won; I voted for the ultimate winner, Hughes, not (I hope) because Doubt happened to be the best play. But there is no doubt that quality of the vehicle influences the director's award. In a less level field, it would take an extremely savvy voter not to prefer more or less automatically the director of a halfway decent production of Shakespeare to a highly accomplished stager of a mere potboiler.
Finally, I must raise a further doubt. The award for best leading actor in a play went to Bill Irwin in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? That entire revival seemed misbegotten to me, what with, for instance, the much-lauded performance of Kathleen Turner as Martha striking me as vulgarly hammy. But Irwin, a mime rather than actor, who always seemed good to me only with mouth shut, was particularly out of place. His performance, featuring insecure vocalization, supererogatory gesticulation, and egregious lack of presence, nowise equaled that of any of his accomplished rivals: Philip Bosco, Billy Crudup, James Earl Jones, and Brian F. O'Byrne. A mime who actually memorizes that many lines, and somehow manages to get them out--someone, in other words, with the temerity to remake himself, however ineptly, as something new--promptly earns the misty-eyed accolade of a pack of underdog-boosters.
What are we to conclude from this, and similar, injustices? That the Tonys, already subject to creeping marginalization, may even end up extinct? Not really. In an imperfect world, even poorly adjudicated and garishly televised awards promoting that endangered species, theater, can be guardedly endorsed, and ought to find an audience. Whether this justifies them under the aspect of eternity is a rather different matter. But eternity is not for us to bestow; time will have to take care of that.
John Simon writes about theater for Bloomberg News.