Why I Don’t Watch the Tonys

 

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Tony winner and all-around excellent human James Iglehart as the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin. Photo by Cilla von Tiedemann.

Before anyone starts calling me out, Yes, I did watch part of the Tonys for the first time this year. My husband and I went to undergrad with James Iglehart, who may actually be the sweetest man in the world (or a strong contender), and we watched his number and his acceptance speech. It was a moment of pure joy, especially when he thanked Celestine Ranney-Howes, one of our lecturers. It’s always wonderful to see someone you know deserves recognition get it, doubly wonderful to see them thank a teacher, and triply wonderful to see a teacher you KNOW is fantastic get thanked. He sent my husband a beautiful note thanking him as well. It was lovely all around.

But I don’t watch the Tonys.

I don’t care about the Tonys and people give me a surprising amount of shit for it.

Broadway is, for the most part, commercial theatre that exists as a business enterprise to return profits to investors, and, as such, is entirely risk-averse. That’s not even remotely controversial– we all know Broadway is big business where some of the biggest players (like Disney) have set up shop. That doesn’t mean Broadway is “bad,” but it does create some specific outcomes. Broadway has massively high production values with incredible technical innovation, but shies away from anything even a little risky. Broadway is the Harlem Globetrotters of theatre– flashy, fun, technically marvelous, an amazing spectacle, an ambassador for the art, but not where the meat of the American Theatre lies. The risk is too high to do any kind of experimentation apart from tech, so the choices must be safe, tried-and-true. When the risk is 10 million dollars (or more), you’re going to choose a revival starring Hollywood celebrities or a splashy, safe musical almost every time because you have a reasonable assurance they’ll sell tickets and merch by the wagonload. You’re going to take on a new show only when it’s already proven to be a smash hit elsewhere. There are currently 45 Broadway productions with tickets on sale. 70% are musicals, and 42% feature a Hollywood star– and I didn’t count Broadway stars like Kristin Chenoweth and Sutton Foster. If I had, the count would have gone up to 50%. This is the model for Broadway today. It wasn’t always. But it is now.

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While Walter Lee’s exact age isn’t given, his sister, Beneatha, is 20 and a college student. Denzel Washington’s daughters are 27 and 23. For producers, his star status overrides the fact that he is far too old for the character. His characterization is far less important than his ability to sell tickets. LaTanya Richardson Jackson, who plays Walter Lee’s mother, Lena, is just five years older than Denzel Washington.

Broadway is a tiny percentage of the theatre that happens in this country, yet we talk about it as if it’s the most important theatre in the country– or the ONLY theatre in the country. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen an article about “theatre” only to find that it’s just about Broadway, ignoring 99% of American theatre. Audience trends that apply to an industry where ticket prices are $200 each are not applicable to, for example, the thousands of indie theatres across the nation charging $20 a ticket, where the supposedly non-existent under-40 audience is thriving, or gospel musicals, where the supposedly non-existent African American audience is thriving. I run one of those indie theatres, and my theatre would have to close its doors were it not for the under-40 audience I’m told repeatedly do not exist.

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One of my favorite moments in the entire history of my theatre company. This group of high school students brought spoons to Titus Andronicus, and held them up when the pie came out. I snagged them for this picture after the show.

Whenever I talk about the issue of overvaluing Broadway (and the attendant undervaluing of everything else), I get inundated with OUTRAGE!!11! I think, first and foremost, a lot of people grow up with Broadway as their Big Dream, and, as it’s inextricably tied to their personal dreams and identities, they can’t bear to see it discussed as anything other than the Holy Pinnacle of Theatrical Achievement. But what it really is (let’s be honest) is the Pinnacle of Theatrical Employment, which is a very different thing. It’s truly fantastic that there’s a theatre industry that employs so many people. I’m 100% behind that. But let’s not go off the rails and confuse money with quality. Money imparts a certain kind of quality– the kind that comes with technical achievement and jaw-droppingly gorgeous spectacle– but no amount of money can purchase genius, emotional impact, or transformative experience. They’re not mutually exclusive, but neither are they mutually dependent. Money does not automatically equal quality, nor does it automatically eliminate it. Let’s not go off the rails in the other direction and get pissy about corporate theatre. But money is a completely separate consideration from quality.  To equate the most money with the highest quality and the most importance dosn’t make sense. Although Amy Herzog is one of the most produced playwrights in the country, she’s never been produced on Broadway. The legendary Maria Irene Fornes has never been produced on Broadway. Likewise Lynn Nottage, Ping Chong, Tarell McCraney. Paula Vogel has never been produced on Broadway.

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Yes, THAT Paula Vogel.

Another point of outrage I’ve encountered about my opinion that Broadway is not the Mothership of All American Theatre is that many people hold Broadway up as one of the most important ways kids get interested in theatre, creating the theatremakers of the future. I deeply question this. First of all, sure, it gets the kids whose parents can afford to drop $600 on tickets for ONE SHOW for the family. And those kids are going to be the actors whose families can support them for several years after they graduate with their MFAs 67K in debt and can only find work at tiny indie theatres paying just enough to cover transportation– if they’re lucky. We know that far too many theatremakers are drawn from those relatively privileged classes, and more open accessibility for people not from the middle and upper classes is a conversation we’ve just begun as a community. But for now, most of Broadway is a closed ecosystem for the privileged. It’s expensive to get there, it’s expensive to stay there, and it’s expensive to see the shows. Sure, there are ways to game it to make it less expensive, but you have to be really driven to find those, and the people we’re talking about here are the NOT driven– the ones who aren’t theatre families, whose kids are potentially about to be awakened for the first time to the magic of live theatre and the possibility of making that magic central to their lives.

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Sarah Ford, Lisa Kass, and me in our college production of Dracula: A Musical Nightmare. I ran around taking pictures in black and white because ART. I can’t remember who I asked to take this one.

Most kids– like me– got into theatre because there were theatre programs at school. There are plenty of kids falling in love with theatre because of a lively theatre program, or a great teacher, or a local youth show that came to their school– many, many more than there are who’ve seen a Broadway show, even on tour. So while I’m not denying Broadway’s ability to excite people, especially kids who are suckers for spectacle, I don’t think it’s anywhere near the primary place this happens. Again: This is one tiny geographical area most people will never step foot in. If you see Broadway as the center of the theatrical universe and the reason you started in theatre: great. I support that. And I could really do without the shock that I do not.

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Broadway’s relationship to the rest of the theatre in this country is complicated. We make what they need. We create the playwrights, actors, designers, and techs that they need to survive. They won’t touch a play or an artist unless that play or person has been field tested extensively by the rest of us. They repackage what we make, pump a shitload of money into it, put it in a beautiful dress, and then charge us all a week’s salary to see it. But they take a tiny percentage of us and allow us to make a (often temporary, but still) living at what we do, an elusive dream for most of us. They make it possible for theatremakers to create and play in beautiful, beautiful worlds. They’re theatre ambassadors for a certain segment of the population, and that segment of the population are the same demographic from which donors and subscribers come, and boy do we need those. Their technical innovations are undeniably marvelous. Their corporate backers’ influence that creates so much aggressively inoffensive material and reliance on Hollywood stars is maddening. Their over-reliance on revivals and lack of interest in plays by women and people of color are maddening. Their nonstop repackaging of Hollywood films as slick, bland musicals is maddening. The fact that people go to see these slick, bland musicals and think “this is theatre” is maddening. But everyone connected to that slick, bland musical is EMPLOYED. The tech is spectacular. A sizable percentage of the people in that audience are thinking, “This is theatre AND I LOVE IT.” And the amount of press and public attention these shows get do continue to keep theatre’s existence on the radar. Like any longterm relationship . . . it’s complicated.

The Tonys are an awards show that celebrates the achievements of this one little corner of the world, a tiny percentage of the national theatre community. Most people in the national theatre community have not seen those shows. Most people in the national theatre community are so completely removed from what happens on Broadway that it could fall into the Atlantic and, without any connection to the internet, they wouldn’t find out for months, if ever.

That’s not to say that I begrudge your enjoyment of the Tonys, or of Broadway, or even of a Disney musical. I’m a human. Humans like spectacle. I get it. I actually love Disney. I was married in Disneyland (not even joking). I would happily watch a Disney musical or a star-studded revival of an old chestnut if I didn’t have to blow my entire month’s grocery budget on it. But this insistence that Broadway should be the center of my universe as a theatremaker– of all our universes as theatremakers– is nonsense. This insistence that what happens on Broadway happens to “Theatre”– that Broadway and the American Theatre are equivalent– is now laughably untrue. THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS “AMERICAN THEATRE.” We have many theatres, divided by class, with small indie theatres at the bottom and Broadway at the top– divided by one thing and one thing only: Money. I’ve seen great theatre in tiny houses and I’ve seen great theatre in big houses. We need to stop pretending that those with the most money are the ones producing the most important work.

And that’s why I don’t watch the Tonys unless I know someone nominated. A local awards show, not in my market, has nothing to do with me, and to pretend it does, and express shock at my lack of interest, is nuts. I don’t mind that you take an interest. I don’t mind that you care who wins an award at a regional award show not in your region. Live it up! Have your parties! Post your statuses celebrating the awardees you love and vilifying the awardees you hate! Complain away about the show itself! I support you 100% and will make cupcakes for your party. I will help you with your Antoinette Perry cosplay.

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I recommend pin curls.

But likewise allow me my opinion that the Tonys are no more important to me and my work than the Jeffs, Oscars, or VMAs. I have a passing curiosity, and it’s always wonderful to see a worthy friend, colleague, or former student recognized, but it’s not directly applicable to my work.

So let’s hug it out, Tony lovers and Broadway worshippers. There’s room for all of us.

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HUG IT OUT

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24 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Watch the Tonys

  1. I very much appreciate your candor here. I do watch the Tonys and have a fondness for the spectacle of Broadway, but I found this year’s broadcast on the whole repugnant. It was too crass, too commercialized two full of itself, too phony. It frankly turned my stomach. Appreciate very much what you wrote here.

    >

  2. I adore watching the Tonys and am always inspired by them, but this was a great post.

  3. Kathleen says:

    I know what you mean. To me, the Tonys are kind of like Star Wars: a galaxy far, far away, that also happens to be located a couple miles from where I live. And of my own theater-going, the greater majority of it is in the independent (less than $20 a ticket) variety…but I do manage a handful of Broadway shows each year, ranging from reasons like: my friend the understudy is going on! Or my friend who gets really good tickets is taking me! Or getting a (discounted) ticket for a show that I’m actually interested in. Most recently, I saw “Hedwig & the Angry Inch,” which is a rare instance of an awesome, transgressive rocking show making it to Broadway (because of a TV star). But somehow each season, I nearly always find a few gems that show me that SOMEONE is making important theater on the unwieldy huge houses in Midtown. This season, it was the revival of “The Glass Menagerie,” and “Mothers and Sons,” last season’s “La Bete,” and “Golden Boy,” and so on. And, yes, not too long ago I saw Pirandello on Broadway, with “Exit the King.” (go figure). I plan to seek out discount tickets to “Casa Valentina” before it closes. And “Fun Home” is going to be a pilgrimage for me next season.

    So I get ya, and agree that in some ways the Tonys are kind of a white elephant. But it’s my white elephant, and sometimes the huge old creature displays a surprising beauty.

    • a567and8 says:

      Into the bargain is the way Tonys are awarded. Way back when, around the 1950s-60s, the Tony committee was mostly critics. Seemed to make sense, eh? Now, the Tony structure is completely dominated by the people who produce the shows. They got rid of the critics because the producers got tired of spending oodles of bucks on stuff that might make a buck no matter how meretricious. Yes, it’s true. The best theater happening today is not, for the most part, on Broadway. Along with mikes for singers AND SPEAKERS, plots that are simple-minded, and exorbitant–I said EXORBITANT–prices it’s just a no-show for most people who live in NYC! I live near the theater district: almost all of the “theater goers” are tourists! That’s ridiculous.

  4. Hi Melissa~ Fully appreciated your breadth of remarks in this article AND I watched and enjoyed thoroughly our TONY’s:)

  5. erainbowd says:

    I’m with you. Didn’t watch ‘em. Haven’t seen ‘em in years. And also, your post made me think of this post: http://artiststruggle.wordpress.com/2012/10/30/why-i-still-give-a-shit-what-they-do-on-broadway/

  6. Jaz Dorsey says:

    Amen.amen,amen.
    Jaz Dorsey
    The Actors Reading Room
    Nashville, Tennessee
    “Come to Nashville and Go to the Theatre!”

  7. Super thought-provoking piece. Thanks for writing it! It’s definitely allowing me to expand my horizons and view Broadway differently than I have all my adult life.

  8. I agree with a lot of what is said here – particularly about class, the price of ticket and what really represents American theatre. But at the end of the day, I still look forward to the Tonys every year because I want to celebrate the people who created, performed, designed, director, and worked to make these shows happen. They are our friends and co-workers, even if we are in different theatres.

  9. jmf says:

    You always have a great take on things, Melissa.
    Excellent article.

  10. a567and8 says:

    Into the bargain is the way Tonys are awarded. Way back when, around the 1950s-60s, the Tony committee was mostly critics. Seemed to make sense, eh? Now, the Tony structure is completely dominated by the people who produce the shows. They got rid of the critics because the producers got tired of spending oodles of bucks on stuff that might make a buck but would be bad-mouthed by discerning people. Yes, it’s true. The best theater happening today is not, for the most part, on Broadway. Along with mikes for singers AND SPEAKERS, plots that are simple-minded, and prices that are exorbitant–I said EXORBITANT, it’s just a no-show for most people who live in NYC! I live near the theater district: almost all of the “theater goers” are tourists! That’s ridiculous.

  11. Melissa, I always enjoy reading your posts, and you make some familiar arguments here with which it is difficult to disagree.
    However, you also say some things that I feel compelled to respond to.
    1. You conflate the Tony Awards with Broadway, and they are not the same thing. The television network puts pressure on the theater community to put on a TV show that will get good ratings, not to reflect the full range of work on the Great White Way. That is why, every single year on the Tony broadcast, the straight plays are given short shrift.
    2. There is plenty of worthwhile theater on Broadway. It doesn’t all fit your too-pat summary. I touch on some of it in a current piece on Howlround.

    http://howlround.com/the-broadway-season-seen-through-its-cross-dressing

    There was more Shakespeare last year on Broadway than at any time since 1958, including the breathtaking productions by Shakespeare’s Globe of Twelfth Night and Richard III.
    You include the normal rant against “revivals starring Hollywood celebrities,” but I am thankful to Denzel Washington, Zachary Quinto and Neil Patrick Harris for three revivals that I found deeply satisfying and that would not have happened without them — “A Raisin in the Sun,” “The Glass Menagerie,” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”
    3. My last point is an entire discussion onto itself (and in fact, I have this discussion in an article due to be posted on Howlround later today) – -but what’s with the ageism? Why is it ok for an actor to play a character of a different race but not of a different age? The fudging of a performer’s age is hardly new, not even for this particular play: I’d like to point out that in the 1961 movie of A Raisin in the Sun, Sidney Poitier as Walter Lee Younger Jr. was only 10 years younger than Claudia McNeil, who played his mother Lena Younger.
    Did you see Kenny Leon’s production of this classic play? If not, why are you willing to “pre-judge” it based on one of the performer’s inherent identity (his age) – in other words, why are you not embarrassed to be prejudiced?

    • Teri Madonna says:

      Sorry to weirdly interject, but, some thoughts, as a young creator of devised theater in New York:
      1) Shakespeare might be ‘worthwhile’, but fits snugly into what is expected, clean, and safe as far as what can be produced on Broadway. Old people and rich people love their classics (or the idea of them) as much as they love some bright colors and song and dance.
      2) There is an ENORMOUS amount of daring, fascinating, challenging, rewarding, heart-wrenching, and hilarious theater that can never dream of making it to Broadway and earning a salary. Someone making an interesting design or directing choice in a Shakespeare play is barely the tip of the iceberg of cool, new choices.
      3) Lastly, I must address Broadway’s minimal and timid ventures into equal representation and social nonconformity. Firstly, there is only ever room for a tiny handful of plays about or by any minority group, and they have to share the same block with conventionally hetero, white-washed trash like Bullets Over Broadway. And interestingly, even the shows that do mildly address the issues that American minorities face are usually only able to depict the past; A Raisin in the Sun takes place in the 50s, for an obvious example. Where is today’s Raisin in the Sun? Where is the play about New York’s horrifying race issues only a few blocks away from those cozy, $350 seats?

  12. Scott says:

    This is wonderful. Everything that I have felt for years. Brava!

  13. Paul Reyburn says:

    Broadway and the Gorn. Thank you for that!
    While I enjoy watching the Tonys, I agree with you 100%. I started out, as many in theater do, dreaming of working on Broadway. So, like most everyone else, I am now perfectly happy making a living (mostly) somewhere else. For me, it’s Minneapolis/St.Paul. I have seen some of the best theater in bowling alley back rooms, storefront theaters, and warehouses. It is indeed not about the money, but about the commitment.
    I also serve as an evaluator for the Spotlight program here in MN, which evaluates high school musical productions around the state. I’m amazed at the amount of talent in our high schools. Even if they don’t make a career out of it, the kids at least have an understanding of the work it takes to do this crazy thing, many times on a shoestring budget. Just this week, we had the annual Spotlight showcase where the top shows performed a medley from their shows on the stage of the Orpheum Theater in front of 2000 people. What a thrill! I’ll take that energy and save myself the money.

  14. Patrick Du Laney says:

    I agree with a lot of what you say here, Matt. I have to take exception, however, to your idea that Broadway does not take risks. This season represented a staggering and exciting amount of diversity. Yes, audiences could go see the latest Disney sparkle package, it’s true – but they could also see Pinter and Beckett and Shakespeare in Rep performed by all-male casts. This season offered the musical Violet, which no one could call a runaway crowd-pleaser. Next season the musical Fun Home comes to Broadway, whose narrator is a prickly Lesbian cartoonist coming to terms with the suicide of her closeted gay father. Or Next to Normal, which deals head-on with addiction and loss. There is so much on Broadway that disappoints, dumbs down, and insulates us from the truly inspired, I heartily agree. But Broadway also often gives us the best of what theatre can be. I think our cultural challenge now is to separate the truly great from the demagoguery. Broadway is no exception.

  15. Brian O'Neil says:

    Interesting. I was just looking at a copy of the New York Daily News from November 23, 1963. There were 28 productions on Broadway and only 8 were musicals. However, appearing in those plays and musicals were the following: Van Heflin, Albert Finney, Charles Boyer, Maureen O’Sullivan, Kirk Douglas, Rudy Vallee,Claudette Colbert, Robert Horton (from the hit TV series “Wagon Train”), Craig Stevens (from the hit TV series “Peter Gunn”), Paul Ford (from the hit TV series “Sergeant Bilko”, and that’s not counting Mary Martin, Zero Mostel, Cyril Ritchard and Sidney Blackmer. I’ve been seeing “Hollywood stars” on Broadway for the fifty years (this month) that I’ve been going to Broadway productions.

  16. Teri Madonna says:

    Love your blog. Thanks for all these thoughts.

  17. Kyle Haden says:

    I can never get into the Tonys, either, although I was happy that shows like HEDWIG and ALL THE WAY were recognized – even though they had big stars carrying the show, both plays are thrilling and risky. But there’s so much good theater happening throughout the country – it’s hard to get worked up for the best of NYC.

    Walter Lee is supposed to be 35, by the way.

  18. Thank you for articulating this so well!! I’ve long been in the “I Don’t Watch the Tonys” closet even though I’m a theatre person (director, actor, writer, former artistic director, dramaturg). This is brilliant! Now I can admit my true proclivities and just give people a link.

  19. Eileen S. says:

    Maybe you should apply for a Grant from the ATW. Clearly you know nothing about what they do Nationally for OUR American Theatre Companies.

    http://americantheatrewing.org/

  20. Jaz Dorsey says:

    I pay my union dues
    I read that Broadway news
    I’m a natural ham
    Still here I am
    Singing those Manhattan Blues

    I stretch my limbs each day
    Audition for each play
    It’s a well know fact
    I can really act
    And still I’m singing those Manhattan Blues

    I ought to be on Broadway
    Up there in NYC
    Live out on Staten
    I’ll chase Manhattan
    Would be alright by me me me o

    I long for Tony nights
    To see my name in lights
    Its a wonderful thing
    I can dance I can sing
    I’ve got so much that New York could use
    But I’m stuck down here in Nashville
    Singing those Manhattan Blues.

    Come to Nashville and Go to the Theatre!

    Jaz Dorsey
    Dramaturg/e
    The Actors Reading Room

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