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A Very Special Tony Award

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FELA BROADWAY
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When the Tony Award nominations are announced this Tuesday, there won't be nominees announced for a Special Theatrical Event award. That is because last season the folks at the Tonys decided to retire the award.

This didn't strike me as the worst thing in the world -- I have never really understood the category. To me, one thing that should make a show a Special Theatrical Event is if there can't be an understudy. Except Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life was Best Musical because that is what the producers wanted. See, if a show was in the Special Theatrical Event category, none of its actors or creative personnel would be eligible to receive individual honors. So there was a little jockeying.

The Special Theatrical Event award was created after the whole "Is Contact a musical?" drama. There were good intentions behind it, but it ended up being sort of an undefined catch-all category. Some years there were more entries than others -- the first year of the award's existence Blast! won because there was nothing else. Last season, when the category was eliminated, Burn The Floor and All About Me may have been the only eligible shows. This year, on the other hand, there were tons of shows that would have likely been there.

Do any of us think The Pee-wee Herman Show is a play? It seems that was pretty "special." Then there is Colin Quinn: Long Story Short and Ghetto Klown both eligible for Best Play this year, but Special Theatrical if they had come two years ago. And there are three shows with limited engagements this season that are not eligible at all: Harry Connick, Jr. in Concert on Broadway, Donnie & Marie and Kathy Griffin Wants a Tony.

Many years ago shows like the last three may have been awarded a Special Tony (or at least their star performer may have been). For example, in 1974, Bette Midler won a Special Award "for adding lustre to the Broadway season" due to the Broadway stint of her self-titled concert. There was also a Special Tony Award For a Live Theatrical Presentation that was given in 1999 (to Fool Moon) and 2000 (to Dame Edna: The Royal Tour). When the Special Theatrical Event category was eliminated in 2009, a statement from the Tony Administration Committee said the committee would "retain its ability to award a Special Tony Award to productions or any element thereof, worthy of extraordinary recognition." That's all well and good, but not very substantial.

"In their wisdom, the Administration Committee decided it was not formed to give an award," Fool Moon producer James B. Freydberg, who was also on the Administration Committee at the time, said of the decision to first eliminate the Special Tony Award For a Live Theatrical Presentation. "It was a decision made in good conscience. They didn't think they were supposed to decide what was good or bad. But then what happens to something special?" The full-fledged category, with nominees, didn't work, as Freydberg and many others admit.

So what is the best alternative? I say an award given by the Nominating Committee (instead of the Administration Committee as had been done previously) is the way to go. The Special Tony Award For a Live Theatrical Presentation was an award that was simply announced; no nominations were ever known. However--while it did not necessarily need to be given each year--it was more set than the possibility of a Special Tony. Before Fool Moon returned its third time, its producers knew of the availability of that particular Tony, available to shows, like Fool Moon, that are neither plays nor musicals. Bringing something like that back is the best way to deal with unusual shows that deserve recognition.

Having a category such as this might even attract more performers to Broadway. Because it would not be voted on, shows with a limited engagement would not necessarily need to invite all Tony voters. It would be perfect. Obviously if Tony voters were not invited, the actors or creative personnel wouldn't be eligible for an award, but the show could still receive honors.

Someone is going to say that, if such a category existed, we would go back to a situation in which those actors and creatives would not be able to be honored. To that I say there are two ways to deal: 1) act as if they are eligible in play or musical (whichever is most similar to the particular show) or 2) continue a system (in place now) where producers can, via petition, ask for the show to be considered as a play or musical. In other words, under option two, if a production asked to be eligible for Best Play or Best Musical instead of the chance of receiving a Special Tony, then their actors and creatives would be eligible (and Tony voters would need to be invited). Politics would play a role, sure, but it would be better than ignoring these shows altogether or treating them like something they are not.

Maybe on Tuesday there will be such a Special Tony and I just don't know it yet. If not, next year, Administrative Committee. It's a win-win. Though maybe choose a name less cumbersome and more intelligent than Special Tony Award For a Live Theatrical Presentation.