Tony Snubs, Pulitzer Flubs, Theater Award Excitement

Tony Snubs
There was, as always, so much talk of snubbing after the 2014 Tony nominations were announced Tuesday morning, that it made one wonder whether anybody was actually nominated:

“Tony Snubs of 2014: Denzel Washington, Daniel Radcliffe, Daniel Craig, Michelle Williams Walk Away Empty Handed,” read a headline in Playbill. “Shocked Waiting for Godot was overlooked,” Playbill editor Blake Ross Tweeted. New York Times drama critic Charles Isherwood lamented “the almost comically ostentatious snubbing of The Realistic Joneses by the nominating committee.”

By keeping the category of Best Musical to four nominees rather than adding a fifth, Broadway producer Ken Davenport wrote on his blog, “they choose to snub” the eight non-nominated musicals that were eligible: “[T]o cast aside Bridges and If/Then and so on is a slap to the Artists and Producers out there trying to get new musicals off the ground.” “There are not enough characters in a tweet to fit the names of all our friends nominated for Tony this morning,” Bobby Lopez, the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winning co-composer of Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon tweeted…and then added immediately in a second tweet:  “Nor are there enough to fit those snubbed.”

The Tonys Statue
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Some decry this annual Snub Census, saying it insults those who were nominated, and turns a celebratory event negative. Some even find the ubiquitous word “snubbed” itself offensive. (Perhaps they prefer the phrase Julie Andrews coined, “egregiously overlooked,” when she refused her nomination for Victor/Victoria because there were no others for the production.)

But sometimes the word really does fit. The seventh Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie, directed by John Tiffany and starring Cherry Jones, is the first to be nominated for a Tony. None of the other six were even nominated. It would seem most astonishing that the original production in 1945, starring the legendary Laurette Taylor as Amanda Wingfield, would not have received any Tony nominations—until one realizes that The Antoinette Perry Award for Excellence in Theatre didn’t exist then; it was created two years later.

The Pulitzer Prize for Drama, on the other hand, has been around since 1917—and The Glass Menagerie did not win a Pulitzer either. The 1945 Pulitzer was given to Harvey, Mary Chase’s comedy about an invisible rabbit.

Pulitzer Flubs
The Glass Menagerie, indeed, was on the top of the list I did for Culturalist of the 10 best stage shows that did not win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama:

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? By Edward Albee

A Raisin In the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

The Crucible by Arthur Miller)

The Iceman Cometh (Eugene O’Neill)

West Side Story (Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim)

Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Sondheim)

Oklahoma! (Rodgers and Hammerstein)

The Orphans Home Cycle (Horton Foote)

Company (Sondheim)

Now, in fairness, almost all these great figures in American theater won Pulitzers for other work. (An exception is Lorraine Hansberry, who died young. In something of an irritating irony, while Raisin didn’t win, the Pulitzer was given to Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris, a play that appropriates some of Hansberry’s characters and setting to update and comment on the older drama.)

But some of these omissions still sting. From the Pulitzer site itself: “In 1963 the drama jury nominated Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but the board found the script insufficiently "uplifting," a complaint that related to arguments over sexual permissiveness and rough dialogue.” There was no Pulitzer Prize for Drama given that year.

This history doesn’t prove much, but it offers an interesting context for a discussion of this year’s choice for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, The Flick by Annie Baker. The production of the play at Playwrights Horizons prompted so many theatergoers to walk out and/or complain the artistic director Tim Sanford wrote a letter of (sort of) apology. Many of the complaints were about the play’s length, which I too, in my review, considered a significant flaw—and I wasn’t alone among New York critics—although I felt the play otherwise wonderful. I also am a great admirer of Annie Baker’s other work, especially her play Circle Mirror Transformation.

But what does it say that the Pulitzer jury picked this least publicly favored of Annie Baker's plays? Could the Pulitzer jury—should they—take into account public reaction and other critics’ assessment? And if they don’t, is this a “snub” of a different sort?

Are there any set and consistent criteria for choosing the play? Are they given any directions? What is the process by which the winner is selected?

I reached out to a couple of past and present jurists in hopes of discussing these questions, and they said that their deliberations were confidential, that it would be a breach to discuss the process.

With due respect to the participants, if this is an official policy of the Pulitzer Prizes—an organization that gives most of its awards to journalists—the organization should kindly consider changing to a more transparent process. Plays are not Popes. A precedent for openness is the New York Drama Critics Circle, which will announce its 2014 awards on May 5—and, if its past awards are a guide, reveal the voting process step by step.

But I was able to gain some perspective on the Pulitzers in particular and theater awards in general. The award is for the text, I was told, not for any particular production—which could theoretically make a slow pace irrelevant. The jury this year was made up of just five people—three theater critics, a professor, and a playwright. Is it sacrilegious to suggest that a different group might have chosen a different play?

As anybody judging awards can tell you, your choice is limited to what is out there; nothing is indisputably perfect, and winning an award doesn’t suddenly make it so. The best one hopes for as a judge, as one of them pointed out, is to help shine some light on vital new work.

 

As anybody judging awards can tell you, your choice is limited to what is out there; nothing is indisputably perfect, and winning an award doesn’t suddenly make it so.

 

Nobody likes to be attacked for trying one’s best to shine the light in the right direction. So I understand the impulse to secrecy.

2014 Regional Tony Award
There are 26 competitive categories in the Tony Awards. There are also four “special” categories—awards and honors given non-competitively….or so the saying goes. The truth is a little more complicated, at least for one of these awards, the Regional Theater Tony Award.

This year, for the first time since the award began in 1976, the Regional Tony Award is going to a theater in New York City, the Signature Theatre Company. The Tony committee last year changed the rules to permit a non-profit, non-Broadway theater within the five boroughs to be considered, something that didn’t sit well with many members of the American Theatre Critics Association, as I wrote in HowlRound last July.  ATCA, the only nationwide association of professional theater critics, is charged with coming up with a recommendation for the Regional Tony that Tony Award Productions, which is a joint venture of the Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing, can then accept or reject, although they’ve yet to reject one.

ATCA critics from throughout the United States submitted 17 theaters for consideration. Without contacting the theaters, each recommender had to write up the reasons why they thought the theater should get the Tony. This was a process that, we were told, had to be kept in strictest confidence. If any theater learned of their recommendation, they would be disqualified.

I was shocked and thrilled to learn that the ATCA members’ objection to the inclusion of New York City theaters didn’t stop them from selecting what I see as a worthy choice. I have loved the Signature since it began in 1991 Off Broadway, with a focus on a playwright’s entire body of work, and involving the writer in every aspect of the creative process. For the first two decades, each season was dedicated to a single playwright. The results were extraordinary. Signature almost single-handedly resuscitated the career of Horton Foote, when they dedicated the 1994-1995 season to his work, reviving two of his plays and giving world premiere productions to two more, including The Young Man From Atlanta, which went on to win the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Two years later, a different production of that play opened on Broadway—the first play of Horton Foote’s to open on Broadway in 43 years! Signature has presented world premiere productions of new works by such towering figures of the American stage as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard and Edward Albee.

More recently, having moved to a brand new, much larger building, they have begun a new program to showcase the work of emerging playwrights. Their current “Residency Five” playwrights are a diverse and extraordinary group—Branden Jacobs-Jenkens, Martha Clarke, Will Eno (author of the “snubbed” The Realistic Joneses), Katori Hall, Kenneth Lonergan, Regina Taylor…and, yes, Annie Baker.

Besides all that, Signature is consumer friendly, committed to ensuring a diverse audience. During the initial run of every show, top ticket prices are only twenty five dollars—about a fifth the price of most of the theaters in a ten-block radius—and the Signature Theater has pledged to continue to keep this price for at least twenty more years! This is exactly the sort of theater that deserves the kind of national recognition that comes from a Tony Award, but that has been ineligible until this year, because it is an Off-Broadway theater, thus being neither fish—a Broadway show—nor fowl—a theater outside the five boroughs of New York City.

I do understand the arguments for a Tony award reserved for theaters outside New York City. My preference would have been for the Tonys to create a new award specifically for Off and Off-Off Broadway. But that’s not what they did.

Theater Award Excitement
I am no longer a Tony voter—a long story—but I do vote for the Outer Critics Awards and the Drama Desk Awards, both of which began not long after the Tony Awards, and they are just two among the many, many theater awards….more it seems with each passing year—and most given over the next month or so. With the possible exception of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, none of the other awards have the cachet of the Tony Awards, which (except for the Regional Tony) are restricted to Broadway. But their focus on Broadway is not the reason they have the most cachet. The reason is that the Tony Awards are the only ones televised nationally.

There is an argument to be made that the theater is an art form, and shouldn’t be presented as a competition. And, let’s face it, most theater awards, for all the lofty talk by the organizers, are competitions in which there are both winners and losers.

But, after all, even the Ancient Greeks presented theater as a competition. 

I am coming around to the idea that all the talk of snubs this week is almost a healthy thing. To quote Oscar Wilde: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Snub talk and arguments over awards are proof that the number of people who are still passionate about the theater could fill, well, Radio City Music Hall…several times over. After nominations are announced, theater fans are briefly indistinguishable in their mastery of statistics and bluster from baseball fans, before they turn into Kremlinologists, prognosticators and soothsayers in the weeks ahead.

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"My preference would have been for the Tonys to create a new award specifically for Off and Off-Off Broadway. But that’s not what they did."

Agree 100%. It's not right to have those theatres completely ignored and ineligible (and Signature is great!), but there is also a massive difference between anything happening in NYC and theatres operating around the country, and having the 'Regional' Tony reward NYC is just another indication of the pendulum swinging heavily towards New York again at the expense of the rest of the country.

Thankfully, the pendulum has swung back and forth for a century, and it appears we're ripe for another 'Little Theatre' or 'Regional Theatre' movement. Hopefully, anyway.

The night I saw The Flick some people left PH angrily in the middle, others smiled by the end of the show. It was fascinating to witness -- during a play (in part) about an audience and its mixed reactions to what the've seen.

Also made me wonder what people might have been saying afterwards: