To me the Tony Awards is about honoring excellence on Broadway. With a few awards, including special honors and the Regional Theatre Tony, the Tony Awards Administration Committee reaches beyond Broadway. But I've always believed, in the mushy center of my heart, that the awards in general are striving to celebrate the best in theater. (That is why I don't agree with allowing Motown and The Rascals to perform on the telecast.) This is not to say I always believe the nominees and winners are the best in theater; often I don't agree with the choices. For example, I think Lilla Crawford should have been nominated over Valisia LeKae. Everyone who has spoken to me in recent weeks knows that, while I totally enjoyed Tony winner Kinky Boots, I think Matilda was the best new musical I've seen in many seasons. Nevertheless I still think the purpose of the awards is really to recognize (someone's version of) the brightest lights of the season. So one would think I would applaud the decision to allow New York City resident theaters to be awarded the Regional Theatre Tony -- after all, if they are the best, they should not be discriminated against based on geography. Except it's more complicated than all of that, and I worry about this decision.
There has been talk throughout my career of allowing NYC theaters to get the Regional Theatre Tony. They've wanted it. I've always thought it was sort of a ridiculous, greedy desire. New York theaters are supported by the New York press and the New York community in a way regional theaters often are not supported by their towns/cities. Rapture, Blister, Burn at Playwrights Horizons got more attention than the show's ongoing production at the Huntington Theatre (this year's Regional Theatre winner) has received. The Rapture, Blister, Burn hype arose during the show's NYC run despite the fact that there is more theatrical competition in New York than there is in Boston. And Boston is a city where theater is very respected and supported. Now, you could argue that the NYC production was a world premiere with a television star in it and, had those variables been accounted for, my argument would fail. I don't think so however.
Even if you discount the above point, there are more problems with this newly redefined Tony Award. First, it's unclear who is eligible. Nothing in the release said that non-profit companies with Broadway houses (Lincoln Center Theater, Manhattan Theatre Club and Roundabout) would be ineligible. However, when I followed up with the Tony press people, I was told that in fact those theaters would not be able to take the award. I then asked at what time a company became ineligible. Second Stage has announced a Broadway home -- the Helen Hayes -- but it is yet to present anything there. Would it be eligible? (I have yet to receive a response from the Tony press office in regards to this inquiry, but will add a comment to this article if I do.)
Then there is the biggest problem -- the politics of it all. Those of you not in the entertainment industry might not realize the amount of campaigning that goes into these awards. A lot of campaigning is involved. There are also definitely Broadway politics. You see it all through the spring -- the jockeying, sometimes veiled but often not. I cannot even imagine the "secret" campaigning that is now going to go on for this award. Every major NY theater is going to start romancing Administration Committee members and friends of Administration Committee members and friends of friends of Administration Committee members. They can do it so much more easily than out-of-town theater folks can. After all, Tim Sanford (AD of Playwrights) has a better chance of running into Administration Committee member Margo Lion at a party than Howard Shalwitz (AD of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company) does. That stuff matters for all awards in every industry. It shouldn't, but it does.
I am not against honoring New York non-profits. Many of them do great work. Their staffs work tirelessly hard to present a full season of theater. Some do it with corporate funding, some scrape by with funding from friends and a lot of prop donations. They are no less deserving of a Tony than a theater in Kansas City. I just don't know if they need a Regional Theatre Tony Award. I would have preferred a Special Award, an unknown surprise. But we have what we have now. It will be interesting to see if a NYC theater takes the prize next season -- I am sure all the NYC companies (with the exception of LCT, MTC and Roundabout, of course) believe it will be one of them. Though it has been a mere seven years since we all thought Jonathan Pryce would win the inaugural Best Replacement Tony and look how that turned out.