Tony Awards Update: Press Back In! Kind of.

The Tony Committee announces New York Drama Critics' Circle members will be Tony voters next season. Press people unaffiliated with the group are out of luck for now.
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The Tony Award, Broadway's holy grail. Who decides who wins one? The obvious answer is the Tony voters decide, but that answer leads to a host of other questions.

The last decade brought many changes to the Tony Awards. A Special Theatrical Event category was created, given out for six years, and then eliminated. A category for replacement performers was announced, never awarded to anyone and cut. And, last year, the voting list was chopped.

Approximately 700 people will vote for the Tony Awards this season -- a group made up of members of the Broadway League (theater owners, producers, road presenters and general managers), along with certain members of the American Theater Wing and the theater unions. Then there are the Tony Nominating Committee members -- who were only recently given the right to vote -- and the press. Well, sort of the press. The entire first night press list was entitled to vote for the Tony Awards until last year, when the Tony people announced that none of those 100 plus individuals would be able to vote anymore. So the press isn't actually part of that 700. When they were on the voter rolls, the number was 800ish.

Journalists were unhappy about their ouster, expressing their hurt feelings publicly. So this week, Tony Award Productions backed off a little, announcing that New York Drama Critics' Circle members will be Tony voters next season. What about the eliminated press people not up to the Drama Critics' Circle high eligibility standards? Well, they are out of luck for now.

"We don't know how the first night press list ever morphed into Tony voting privileges," Broadway League Executive Director Charlotte St. Martin said.

To hear St. Martin tell it, the press was scrapped because Tony Productions did not want people voting for the Tony Awards who weren't Broadway experts. (This explanation glosses over the fact that the initial justification offered had something to do with "conflicts of interests.") The first night press list includes major theater journalists, but it also includes people who work at The View.

"The secretary to the producer of a television show might get on the first night list," St. Martin explained. "We don't have a way of knowing if that person is knowledgeable about theater."

That brings us to the addition of Drama Critics' Circle members, who certainly know about theater. Circle President Adam Feldman told me that re-instituting the voting power of these critics was a good step. Feldman continued:

"The contingent of journalists is still too small. The old press contingent was a pretty healthy portion of the voter rolls -- 13 percent. I think having us there was helpful. I can't say for sure, but my guess is that there were probably times when the press helped smaller, less commercial shows win."

Can everyone be happy? St. Martin said the Drama Critics' Circle was chosen because it had clear membership criteria. She said the Tony folks "don't wish to be in a position to say whether [individual journalists] are qualified or not." This group selection enables them to pass the buck. Is that really fair? St. Martin said she was open to hearing from other groups of journalists who found "logical ways to present themselves." But what does that mean? Broadway journalists aren't unionized; the closest they get to a unifying group is the Drama Desk, an organization that basically only exists to sponsor a couple of panels and give an award themselves. So is the key that theater journalists form a guild? Feldman said that he'll continue to discuss the matter with the Tony Management Committee, but even he wasn't sure what the voter selection criteria should be.

Some of the non-critic press remained positive today. "I hope this isn't the end of it," Theater Talk host Susan Haskins said simply. But off-the-record, many journalists expressed distaste for the whole system, calling their removal last year a "slap in the face" and "a naked attempt at a power grab [by producers], not abated by this tiny olive branch."

St. Martin, who explained the media's dismissal was part of a two-year internal examination of Tony policies, said the move was about creating a list of Tony voters that the Tony Management Committee would be "comfortable with." One wonders why, in a world where voters are known to give away their (free) tickets, the Tony Management Committee chose to start their reformation with eliminating one of the few impartial groups of Tony voters. How about, to start, requiring voters to sign for tickets at box office pick-ups? Keeping a list of who saw a show to make sure those who vote have actually attended? Sure, occasionally a voter would attend as someone's guest, but in those cases, the voter could email to say s/he has seen a specific show as so-and-so's guest. Currently, voters sign saying they read the rules at season's start and, at voting time, they verify that they have seen all nominated shows. That is it. And I'm not saying voters purposely lie on their ballots, but sometimes, things blur. One just signs, forgetting that s/he didn't see the performance of a nominated featured actor whose show closed in early fall.

For years, I have been watching the people behind the Tony Awards do things and then change their mind. Jason Robert Brown was not eligible for his work for Urban Cowboy, but then, oh wait, he was. White Christmas isn't eligible as a revival this season, but, somehow its actors are eligible. The rules all change, with seemingly little regard to anything other than how the Tony Committee feels at a given moment. Part of me applauds the ability of the Tony folks to admit when they are wrong. Another part of me questions if that is what they are in fact doing and wonders why they make so many rash decisions in the first place.

Will there be a time when people who dedicate their lives to covering theater can again help decide the Tony Awards?

"We have great respect for the press," St. Martin stated. "I feel good about where we are now... but nothing is set in stone." Indeed.

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