How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Tonys?

Hadestown Best Musical Tony Awards - Getty - H 2019
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On the afternoon of Thursday, March 12, 2020, Broadway was hopping, with 31 shows in one stage or another of production. That evening, Six was to have its opening night and Flying Over Sunset was to have its first preview. The evening after, Plaza Suite was to begin previews, along with Caroline, or Change. And then, over the following 42 days leading up to April 23, the eligibility cutoff for the 74th Tony Awards, several other shows — among them American Buffalo, Birthday Candles, DianaHangmenHow I Learned to Drive, The Lehman Trilogy, Sing StreetTake Me Out and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — were to show their hands, gambling that a late unveiling would position them optimally for the sort of awards recognition that can make the difference between a show staying open or closing.

As it turned out, every Broadway show closed that evening — at least temporarily — as the Broadway League, the producers and trade organization that presides over the 41 theaters that comprise the Great White Way, shuttered all of them due to the outbreak of COVID-19.

Now, two months to the day from when the Tonys ceremony was supposed to take place at Radio City Music Hall, members of the New York theater community — from actors to producers to publicists to the 50 or so members of the Tonys nominating committee itself — have no better idea than they did on March 12 about how Broadway's best work from the 2019-2020 season will be recognized.

"Not a word," says a dismayed member of the nominating committee. "There has been a total lack of communication," adds a frustrated Broadway publicist who has several horses in the race.

Without a doubt, there are far bigger problems these days than what is going on with the Tonys, even within the Broadway community, which usually employs some 87,000 people, according to the Broadway League. Now, virtually everyone is out of work as the League tries to determine if/how Broadway's theaters, with their cramped seats and tiny bathrooms packed with tourists and the elderly, can possibly reopen before a vaccine is widely available.

But, as the Emmys and Oscars proceed with plans for virtual awards ceremonies in the coming months, many who had a stake in the 2019-2020 Broadway season are wondering — in email exchanges and on phone calls with each other, and in off-the-record exchanges with this reporter — if they have been forgotten by the Tonys. After all, almost every other annual awards ceremony that celebrates theatrical achievements in New York has proceeded via a press release or virtual ceremony — the New York Drama Critics Circle (April 16), the Lucille Lortel Awards (May 3), the Outer Circle Critics Awards (May 11), the Drama Desk Awards (May 31), the Drama League Awards (June 18), etc.

So what is going on?

The Hollywood Reporter has learned that the Tony Awards Management Committee, which is comprised of representatives of the Broadway League and the American Theater Wing (which established the Tonys and owns the brand), has had a number of Zoom meetings during which various gameplans have been considered and then tabled as the severity of the pandemic became increasingly clear.

Indeed, Broadway theaters were originally to be closed for one month through April 12, then that was extended to at least June, then through Labor Day and now all that is known is that they will not reopen before the end of the year. No Tonys gameplan has been arrived at yet, although there is an expectation that a meeting later this month could bring things to a head.

The Broadway League and American Theater Wing declined to answer questions for this story.

It is understood that there are three primary options under consideration at this time, each of which comes with pros and cons...

1) Ask nom-com members to select nominees from the shows they were able to see before the shutdown and then conduct a virtual Tonys ceremony soon.

Pros

This seems to be the option that would please the greatest number of people associated with the 2019-2020 season, since shows that were seen will still be fresh in the minds of the nom-com and the larger pool of final-round voters.

Indeed, in the minds of a cross-section of the community, there was quite a bit of Tony-worthy work that was widely seen. Among the contenders repeatedly brought up: The Inheritance and Slave Play for best play; Moulin Rouge! for best musical; Betrayal or A Soldier's Play for best play revival; Danny Burstein (Moulin Rouge!), a popular vet with six nominations but no wins under his belt (and who recently overcame a brutal battle with COVID-19), for best featured actor in a musical; 33-year-old phenom Adrienne Warren (Tina: The Tina Turner Musical) for best actress in a musical; 89-year-old Lois Smith (The Inheritance), who has worked steadily since her debut in 1952 and has been nominated twice but never won, and 80-year-old Jane Alexander (Grand Horizons), who made her debut in 1969 and won one competitive award 51 years ago, for best featured actress in a play; four-time Tonys bridesmaid Laura Linney (My Name Is Lucy Barton) and 2001 winner Mary Louise Parker (The Sound Inside) for best actress in a play; veterans Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins (The Height of the Storm) for best actor and actress in a play, respectively; Tom Hiddleston and Charlie Cox (Betrayal) for best actor in a play; Elizabeth Stanley (Jagged Little Pill) for best featured actress in a musical; David Alan Grier (A Soldier's Play) for best actor or featured actor in a play, depending on where the nom-com placed him; and Derek McLane (Moulin Rouge!) for best scenic design. David Byrne, meanwhile, would almost certainly receive a special award for American Utopia.

Additionally, announcing Tony noms and winners could be a morale booster. "We're not doing shit that says 'Broadway is still here,'" says a publicist. "TV is still on. Movies are adapting. But our industry is in the toilet. So all goodwill gestures would be very welcome."

Cons

Because so few people ever make it to New York to see one Broadway show a year, let alone many, the Tonys are a tough sell to TV viewers in the best of times. Moreover, because of the abbreviated season, there may not be enough contenders to fill several categories (e.g. best revival of a musical and best original score).

And, setting aside the issue of shows that never even began previews, there is no question that a handful of late-breaking shows would be at a disadvantage, either because they had only recently opened (e.g. West Side Story and Girl from the North Country) or begun previews (e.g. The Minutes, Hangmen, Company, The Lehman Trilogy, Diana, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), meaning not all nom-com voters would have seen them yet.

Perhaps most significantly, some associated with shows that were widely seen and plan to reopen would prefer waiting to hold the Tonys until the ceremony could be of some value to them at the box office.

2) Employ the Tonys ceremony in 2021 (assuming one is possible) to honor the best of both the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 seasons, each of which will have been abbreviated due to the pandemic.

Pros

By March 12, 2021, the one-year anniversary of the Broadway shutdown, theaters — and at least some of the shows that were interrupted but managed to survive thanks to business interruption exclusions in their insurance policies — will presumably have reopened, meaning that at least one full Broadway season's worth of work could be recognized at the Tonys, which itself could occur in the traditional manner with on-air performances that could help drive ticket sales.

It is possible that Broadway's top producer, Scott Rudin, now believes that this is the likeliest outcome, since a decision was announced on June 24 to postpone the opening night of his revival of The Music Man from Oct. 15, 2020 all the way to May 20, 2021, which would push it into the 2021-2022 Tonys season and thereby keep it from having to compete for best revival of a musical with another of his shows, West Side Story. (Rudin declined to comment for this piece.)

Cons

Not all shows that were interrupted by the pandemic will reopen — most plays won't, save for perhaps those mounted by nonprofit theaters, like Take Me Out and Birthday Candles, and the musicals which probably will, such as Moulin Rouge!, will be hindered by having opened so long before voting (in that case, in the summer of 2019, nearly two years prior to the would-be new Tonys date). Even those that opened later, like Jagged Little Pill and Tina, would be disadvantaged compared to any new blood in the spring.

Additionally, not all of the people who served on the nominating committee in 2019-2020 would be willing to return to Broadway theaters in 2021, making a small group even smaller. "I would withdraw from being a nominator," one older member of the 2019-2020 nom-com tells THR, citing health concerns.

3) Scrap the 2019-2020 Tonys altogether.

Pros

It would be one less headache for the Broadway League, which is first and foremost interested in reviving Broadway, as opposed to looking back at past glories.

Cons

It would deprive recognition of those who did great work on Broadway during the 2019-2020 season, and mark the first time in the 74-year history of the Tonys that a period of Broadway work was not recognized at all.