It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Tony Time

When Sarah Chalke began her run in Modern Orthodox off-Broadway, her representative talked to me about her possible Tony eligibility. I said to him, "No, off-Broadway shows aren't eligible, the rules are clear." I think that may be the only time I ever referred to the Tony rules as "clear." Usually, I am trying to decipher them with a puzzled look on my face reserved solely for that and times when my grandmother tells stories involving a friend of her hairdresser's cousin. After my last Tony column, I received emails asking follow-up questions. This is my attempt to answer two of them.

Issue #1: How are the White Christmas actors eligible if the show is not?

Within the last 10 years, the Tony people created a rule that said that in order to be considered for Best Revival a show must have "not had a professional performance in the Borough of Manhattan at any time during the three years immediately preceding the Eligibility Date." Complicated wording, but you get the point, White Christmas can't be eligible as a revival. However, the Tony rules also state that even if a show isn't eligible, elements of the production that do not "substantially duplicate any prior presentation of the play or musical" can be eligible. So new designers, choreographers, directors and, apparently, actors can be eligible.

That's the rule at least. There are problems in applying this rule to actors. One is that there is a weird issue with the phrasing "substantially duplicate" in terms of performers. White Christmas returned to the theater it played at the year before and featured the same direction and choreography. The actors were pretty much duplicating what the actors from the year before had done. They added their own flair, but they were essentially doing the same thing. Yet American Theater Wing head Howard Sherman told me they are eligible as they "did not appear in the previous visit."

Which leads me to another problem: what makes these actors different than replacement actors (who are not Tony eligible)? When I asked this question of the Tony folks, I didn't get an answer. I also didn't get a real answer as to what makes something a new production. If God of Carnage had come back from its summer 2009 break with a different cast, would those people have been Tony eligible? No, because Sherman said that would be part of a "continued run on Broadway, albeit with a hiatus." Apparently the show has to close and return, but I don't know what "close" means. If Lion King moves theaters again and reopens with a new Nala, is that Nala Tony eligible because the show closed at one theater? If A View From the Bridge returns this week with Jessica Alba in place of Scarlett Johansson, would Alba be eligible? It would seem "no" in the case of Lion King and "yes" in the case of Alba, but I don't know for sure as the Tony people wouldn't answer these questions. The problem with it not being clearly defined is that we risk this sort of thing becoming part of contract gamesmanship. Let's say Reba McEntire wants to step into Mamma Mia!, but tells the producers they have to close down the production for a few months in the winter so she can get a Tony. Is she eligible? I have no idea. That's bad. Because what that means is it depends how the committee feels when they get the petition. It also means that it depends on who is sending the petition. And that's also bad -- because rules should apply based on the product, not the people.

Issue #2: Is it possible for them to not give a Best Score Tony Award?

Yes, it's possible, as it has happened before. In 1989 -- when eligible shows included Starmites, Legs Diamond and Chu Chem -- there was no Score category.

But I don't think it will happen this year. In 1995, when there was only one candidate, Sunset Boulevard, they gave the Score Tony to Andrew Lloyd Webber et al.. This year the obviously eligible contenders are Memphis and Addams Family. Another possible contender is Branford Marsalis for his original music for the Fences revival. (Yes, Fences is a play, but music for plays can be nominated. The category can even be filled that way this year.)

Fela! producers neglected to petition for that show's eligibility in the Score category. Now, understand, petitioning is not required. What is required, as per Sherman, is a score have "51% [of it songs] newly written for the stage." That is not a hard-and-fast rule, but it is a guideline that the committee uses. Fela! does have people credited with additional music and lyrics, but the production's argument really isn't based on there being 51% original material. Production spokesperson Richard Kornberg explained:

"When Fela wrote his music, he was writing in another language these 15-20 minute songs. My perception is the wording of 'written for the stage' was meant to eliminate songs that were written for film and jukebox musicals. It was not meant to cover this situation, where the original songs were unknown to 99% of Broadway audiences and totally transformed for the stage."

That's an argument and, even though I don't completely agree with it, I believe it should be heard. I don't understand why it won't be. In 2003, the Urban Cowboy producers didn't petition and the score was ruled ineligible. But, then, the show was reconsidered at the next meeting and ruled eligible. Why can't the Fela! situation be reevaluated in just the same way? Is it because the people asking for the reevaluation aren't Broadway vets like the Urban Cowboy producers were?

There is another show that people are forgetting in the Best Score discussion: All About Me. It has nine original songs listed in the Playbill, but producer Jeffrey Richards said there were only two new songs written for the show, so no petition, no eligibility.

In summary, as it stands now, we have three possible nominees. As the musical scores aren't the fiascos present in 1989, I think that will be enough to have a category.

Well, that's all folks. If you have other Tony questions, let me know.

AN UNRELATED SPECIAL NOTE TO THE UNINSURED PERFORMERS OUT THERE: A couple of years ago, one of my closest friends passed away from liver cancer. The cancer stemmed from Hepatitis B. My friend was uninsured and unaware of his condition until it was too late. With this in mind, The Al D. Rodriguez Liver Foundation, the non-profit established in his memory, is sponsoring free hepatitis screenings for uninsured working member of the Entertainment and Performing Arts Community. Screenings will be held May 17-21. If you are interested, send an email to Janet Pearl, and include your telephone number to reserve a time. I cannot stress enough how important this is. Please take this opportunity to get checked.