A Big Spring for Tony Classics

I write about the Tony Awards a lot. I admit it. A couple of weeks ago, The New York Post's Michael Riedel wrote about Cabaret's potential eligibility and I felt the need to respond. Now I feel equally compelled to talk about another big issue facing the Tony Awards Administration Committee: the numerous "classics" present this season. This spring will feature the Broadway debut of four shows that will likely be considered revivals.

As you may know, the Tony Awards have a rule that makes plays and musicals eligible in the revival category even if they have never been on Broadway before. The rule was enacted in fall 2002, the season after Fortune's Fool was eligible in the Best Play category. (It came just in time to prevent Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune and Little Shop of Horrors from being deemed "new.") The rule states as follows:

A play or musical that is determined by the Tony Awards Administration Committee (in its sole discretion) to be a "classic" or in the historical or popular repertoire shall not be eligible for an Award in the Best Play or Best Musical category but may be eligible in the appropriate Best Revival category, if any, provided it meets all other eligibility requirements set forth in these Rules.

Last year, the committee made Cinderella a revival, even though a strong argument could be made that this Cinderella was new. It had a brand new book and four additional songs from the Rodgers & Hammerstein catalog. Nevertheless it was deemed a revival. And, so, we see the Administration Committee may favor treating things as revivals. There is a strong public policy purpose behind that. The American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League, the two organizations who jointly administer the Tony Awards, want writers to keep creating new work. That is how theater grows. The organizations want to incentivize new work by honoring more of it. That is easier to do if new work is not up against old work. It's as simple as that.

The four shows that this rule may very well impact this spring are Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, Violet, The Cripple of Inishmaan and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I think all of them will be deemed revivals.

Lanie Robertson's Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill (not to be confused with the Lady Day that ran off-Broadway last year) premiered at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre in 1986 before moving off-Broadway. It is frequently performed at regional theaters and seemingly in the popular repertoire. The show actually has its fate in the hands of the Tony Administration Committee in more than one regard. The committee may also need to bless that it is a play, not a musical. Marlene was a musical, End of the Rainbow a play. The IBDB page for Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill originally called it a musical, but it has since been changed. A production spokesperson told me that it is a "play with music," not a "musical." Strategy-wise this is a good call for the production. Leading lady Audra McDonald has a better shot at a Tony if the production is considered a play. While the move into the play world means she won't automatically get to perform on the broadcast, End of the Rainbow's Tracie Bennett did get a telecast slot. I suspect the Tony folks won't turn down the offer of an Audra performance.

Violet is a less well-known title. The musical had a short run at Playwrights Horizons in 1997. It doesn't boast a famous subject. It isn't a show most theatergoers would recognize. However the Brian Crawley/Jeanine Tesori musical has a cult following. It has been performed extensively regionally. The show was highly regarded enough to get a sold-out Encores! Off-Center staging last year. It is far from a new musical.

The Cripple of Inishmaan has already had two off-Broadway engagements, a short run in 1998 at the Public and a longer run at the Atlantic from December 2008-March 2009. Those runs alone probably sink its chances of being considered in the Best Play category. Let alone all the other productions of the play that have taken place (two of which I even saw).

Hedwig and the Angry Inch seems even more obvious than the rest. First, it ran off-Broadway for two-years-plus almost a decade-and-a-half ago. Then there is the movie and all the regional and international mountings. Best Revival of a Musical category. So that means (assuming Lady Day is considered a play and Cabaret is not eligible) two of the three shows eligible in that category are "classics" in the Tony-sense: Violet and Hedwig. (Les Miz would be referred to as a classic in another sense.)

And so it goes, the classics rule is tested once again. If I'm wrong on any of the above, stay tuned for yet another column on this topic.