No “Best Musical” Tony Award – To Think!
The Tony Awards are an important part of the Broadway season, not so much because people need to be rewarded for doing what is already an amazing job, but because the people who wend their way through the challenges, heartbreak and exhaustion of show business deserve a time of the year to celebrate what they do. God knows if the theatre community doesn’t revel in their own achievements, who else is going to? Ring your own bell! Our country is so caught up in the goings on of athletic events that theatre will never be a priority to anyone other than those create it. That’s what makes us special, isn’t it?
The big question is that, in a lackluster year, should certain categories be eliminated? I think back to 1985 when the “Best Actor” and “Best Actress” in a musical categories were excised because it was determined that there wasn’t enough competition in the category (or enough deserving competition anyway). Some of this is a question of billing. Are “Jim” and “Huck” really featured or supporting performers in Big River? They hold the stage for the show’s duration and are the key subjects and catalysts to the story’s unfolding. Was Ben Vereen, a consummate triple-threat and past Tony winner just so completely bad in Grind that he didn’t deserve a nomination, but his supporting co-star Leilani Jones was? I’ve seen clips of Vereen, and he is pouring his soul into that role, even if the show that was nominated for “Best Musical” had its problems. And when has Anna Leanowens ever been a supporting character in The King and I? Oddly, Mary Beth Peil was put in the supporting character category for the 1985 revival. How come Kelli O’Hara is not being judged in the same manner? Dinah Manoff sang half the songs in Leader of the Pack, practically carrying the show on her back? Was she not worthy of a nomination in the Leading Actress category? Leader of the Pack wasn’t changing the world or anything, but she must have had something in her abilities to do that.
Yes, most of this is a matter of billing and what the Tony rules state regarding placement of performers names above and below the title, rulings made by the nominating committee, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera (oh yeah, Yul Brynner was considered “Featured or Supporting” for the original The King and I). Imagine, however, if we were to cancel the “Best Musical” Tony Award for a year, simply because we decided there just weren’t any musicals we felt deserved recognition? What would that Tony Award ceremony look like? How would we get excited? Could we find a way to rally around one show and celebrate it, if it were the only offering worth our attention? It almost happened in 1995 when Sunset Boulevard was practically handed the Tony award by default. Thank goodness we had the musical revue Smokey Joe’s Café to keep things honest. Interesting question for debate: If Sunset Boulevard had opened a year later, would it have been received with such honor and enthusiasm if it had been in competition with the likes of Rent, Bring in Da Noise…, or the egregiously overlooked Victor/Victoria? What if Sunset Boulevard hadn’t opened that year? Would we have still had the category just for Smokey Joe’s Café?
I recently wrote a piece about how the Tony Award nominations should not be handed out like participation ribbons and I still feel strongly that only excellence should be recognized with trophies. I just find it an interesting subject to think about, wondering if we will ever have a season where we just don’t think that the “Best Musical” prize deserves to be handed out. How would that effect our big celebration and our Tony telecast? I imagine a year where Dance of the Vampires, Nick & Nora, The Red Shoes, and Hazel Flagg all open close to the end of the same season and nothing else presents itself as an option. Would we have looked at these musicals differently? Food for thought.