17 August 2009

Tony Committee to Theater Journalists: “Yer Out!”

It’s been a while since I’ve had something to say (for public consumption, that is) about a current situation. On Wednesday, 15 July, the presenters of the Tony Awards, the Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing, announced: "After careful consideration, the Tony Awards Management Committee has determined that Tony-voting privileges will no longer be extended to members of the First Night Press List, commencing with the 2009-2010 season.” Thus, reviewers, editors, and columnists who cover theater for the First Night Press will no longer be on the list of Tony Award voters. The Tony Management Committee made notification by e-mail to the journalists on the First Night Press List, about 100 writers who cover theater on opening nights, on Tuesday evening but no concrete reason for the elimination was provided. (Second-nighters were not affected by the decision as they were not Tony voters.) Speculation, based in part on hints and clues in the message, has been circulating among reviewers. As a member of ATCA, the critics’ association, I’ve received some of the communications making the rounds, in particular the official response by the ATCA chairman, Christopher Rawson of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, to the Tony producers, a copy of which was sent out to the membership.

Now, let me confess first that I don’t really pay much attention to awards. In fact, I reject the whole idea of turning art into a competition, not the least because judging artistic efforts is a wholly subjective endeavor. The entire notion, however, that one artist’s work, whether it’s an actor, a painter, a writer, a dancer, a composer, or any other worker in the fields of art and culture, should be pitted against any other’s offends me. And that’s not even considering that such awards and prizes become marketing tools, even if they didn’t start out that way, used mostly in advertising and promotion. This development renders the awards ripe for the kinds of crass campaigning that are usually reserved for selling products on TV--or, God help us, political candidates. (The Tonys do this less overtly than the Oscars. The Hollywood press is filled with ads promoting this movie or that actor when the Academy Awards are nearing and studios send out all kinds of swag to Oscar electors, a practice the Tony administration prohibits.) But, having admitted that, let me then add that if you’re going to have awards and if those awards will be determined by votes from insiders, presumably people in the know (as opposed, say, to “people’s choice” awards or gold record-type designations which are based on popularity and sales), then theater reviewers seem to be the absolute best judges in the whole class of theater pros.

Journalists have been part of the Tony voting pool since the 1964 awards, the same year members of the League of New York Theatres and Producers also became Tony voters. (The League, the organization representing Broadway producers, tour presenters, and theater-owners, became the League of American Theatres and Producers in 1985 and then the Broadway League in 2008.) The League became co-presenters of the Tony Awards in 1967. Other Tony electors are drawn from the boards of the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers, the Theatrical Council of the Casting Society of America, Dramatists Guild, Actors’ Equity, the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, and United Scenic Artists. Members of the press, who don’t vote in significant numbers for any of the other major industry awards such as the Grammys, Emmys, or Oscars, were included to broaden the point of view of the pool of Tony electors beyond industry insiders. The loss of an outside eye, critics of the decision observe, turns the award process over to only those representing people whose incomes, or the incomes of their colleagues, depend on the success of some of the productions under consideration. Some observers have voiced concern that the purge will turn the Tonys into an industry-only honor dominated entirely by the producers, tour operators, and others with a financial interest in the nominated shows. As Rawson put it in his letter to the Tony administrators:

Among the artists, craftspeople and producers who comprise most of that electorate, critics are the least biased voters with the broadest, best informed view of the theatrical scene. Their participation enhances the legitimacy of the Tonys, which otherwise would look parochial and self-congratulatory.

Two principal speculations have sprung up among reviewers for reasons that the Tony folks have cut them out of the approximately 800 (now 700) voters. One is that the Tony Management Committee sought to assure that first-nighters “avoid any possible conflicts of interest in fulfilling their primary responsibilities as journalists," noting that “certain publications and individual critics have historically pursued a policy of abstaining from voting on entertainment awards in general.” (The New York Times prohibits its critics and reviewers from voting on any awards, but it’s the only paper that does so.) The other suggested reason is that Broadway producers resent handing out the additional free tix to the reviewers after giving out complimentary seats when the writers come to review the production the first time around. (Tony voters are admonished to see all the shows nominated, so producers are constrained to provide free seats to encourage all voters to catch shows they hadn’t seen already. It is probably true that many voters, including first-nighters, cop tix to shows they already saw, and furthermore, the producers always offer a pair of seats both to the press for reviewing and to the Tony electors, doubling the outlay for freebies. The street value of 800 pairs of Annie Oakleys for a Broadway play is over 200 G’s; considering how marginal profits are in today’s commercial theater, that amounts to a helluva lot of income.)

It’s probably stating the obvious to note that theater journalists all over the area (some suburban papers are on the First Night Press List) and even some voices from around the country are screeching in horror. ("This is the most absurd decision ever made since my 15 years in the theater," said David Richardson according to the New York Post. The WOR radio reviewer then added, "They can take this decision and shove it up their a--!") Some, such as Adam Feldman of Time Out New York, feel that this is just the latest gambit in the attempt by producers to marginalize reviewers whom they see as adversaries and spoilsports. As far back as 1915, the Shuberts (yep, those same guys for whom the biggest Broadway producing and theater-owning firm is named) tried to disenfranchise Alexander Woollcott, who wrote for the New York Times and was, by far, the most prominent reviewer of his day. Theater writers today see the Tony ban as a step along that same path. But let’s examine the putative reasons for eliminating reviewers from the ranks of Tony electors and see what we get.

First, let’s look at the notion that voting on the Tonys could generate a conflict of interest among journalists who cover theater. The Tony administrators didn’t define this conflict, so we have to speculate. There are two perspectives in which to examine this charge. One is that somehow the other voters are less conflicted and therefore eliminating journalists will keep the voting pool pure and unsullied. (I’m tempted to utter an expletive here, but I won’t.) I listed above the organizations from which the other voters are drawn, and all of them are made up of artists or professionals who depend on employment in theater for their livelihoods. Many of the organizations’ members will be working in shows that are nominated and whose continuation on Broadway or on tour will contribute to their financial well-being, not to mention their future employability, having been associated with a Tony Award-winning play. Does anyone actually believe that a producer who is a voter and has a play in contention won’t vote for her own production even if she actually believes another show is artistically better? Or vote against a competitor’s? The road producers blow into town at the end of the season to scope out the big hits. A Tony Award, which has actual value at the box office, is a huge marketing boon for a touring show, so is it hard to conceive that such a producer might vote for one of the shows he’s planning to buy? Faced with the choice of voting for a show which she thinks is artistically superior and financially stable and one which she feels is less good but could use the boost of a Tony win to keep running, might a member of the Equity board not consider casting her vote for the show she can help and thereby secure the further employment of some of her members? Equity suffers 85% unemployment in the best of times--what union councilor wouldn’t help his fellow actors out if he has the chance? The same situation prevails for all the other electors--not that I believe most of them fall into this scenario. But it’s viable, and to look at the circumstances and find that journalists are more liable to the conflict is absurd.

The other perspective is to look at the actual potential for a conflict of interest among journalists. What, in fact, are a journalist’s interests in covering theater productions? Reviewers don’t get paid more if they praise more shows (or, as some cynics may believe, if they pan more). Theoretically, at least, reviewers are driven by a desire to recognize excellence and praise creativity. Now, I know no reviewer is devoid of prejudices and biases, some of them personal, but as a rule, a professional journalist is trying to call it as she sees it. Journalists are generally disinterested and impartial, like jurors are supposed to be. So, if the reviewer doesn’t gain anything from covering productions, what could conflict with his vote for an award? What’s the worse that he could do? He could vote for a show he previously praised. Yeah, well, if he praised it, he probably thought it was good. How is it dishonest for him now to determine that it was the best he saw? Since voters are supposed to make a point of seeing all the nominated plays, let’s say our imaginary reviewer goes to Times Square and sees a couple of shows she missed because someone else got the assignment when they opened. ‘Wow,’ she thinks, ‘this performance beats the hell out of anything I saw all year!’ And what does she do now? She casts her vote for a play she didn’t even write about during the season. Man, that sure is a conflict! Oh, wait. No it isn’t! Okay, so maybe our fictive reviewer sees a few new shows and decides one of them is the best he saw all year . . . but then votes for one he had praised earlier just so he can validate his own opinion. Now that would be dishonest--but I’m still not sure it qualifies as a conflict of interests. Furthermore, I have a hard time believing many journalists would do that. What would it get them? Bragging rights maybe, if the play wins--but really only if they cast the deciding votes. That’s pretty slim winnings for what’s being charged here.

You could look at this same situation from the other end, too, of course. Knowing that she’s going to vote for the Tony Awards at the end of the season, Ms. Reviewer decides to promote a play she’s seen and liked well enough. So she writes the play a great review and then uses her by-line to keep mentioning the play in laudatory terms every chance she gets thereafter. I don’t know why she’d do this; it doesn’t get her much. Maybe she just wants to prove her strength. Again, I can’t really imagine any reviewer doing this, and I certainly can’t see anyone being successful at it. The New York Times has arguably the loudest critical voice on Broadway, but it’s out of the running because its reviewers can’t vote for the Tonys by Times policy. What other reviewer from what other New York paper could pull this off? I don’t think there’s anyone. (Even if the New York Times were in the mix, I don’t believe one of its reviewers could manage anything like this. I remember back in ’98 when Footloose opened on Broadway, Ben Brantley panned the show and ever thereafter, at every opportunity he had in subsequent columns, Brantley ran the play down in the most derogatory terms he could get away with. He seemed obsessed with this play and the low opinion he had of it. Nevertheless, despite Brantley’s efforts, Footloose ran for a year-and-a-half and 709 performances. It was nominated for four Tonys and didn’t win any of them, so maybe Brantley could take some pride in that dubious accomplishment.)

So, as I look at it (and many reviewers share this analysis, as you might guess), reviewers have nothing resembling a profession-wide conflict of interest and are certainly the least susceptible to such a clash of all the participants in the Tony decisions. As for the quasi-legitimate concerns the producers have in giving away thousands of ducats, there are ways to address the issue without disenfranchising what may be the best voting bloc in the award process. It’s only quasi-legit because, of course, all the other voting groups also get freebies and they account for 88% of the original roster of electors. Besides, of the 100 names purged from the Tony list, nearly all will still be receiving comps when they come to review the plays anyway, so the producers aren’t really saving much of the cost of free tix. Granted, the journalists may be the main group that might double-dip, but that can be addressed, too, less drastically. Simply forbid taking a second pair of complementary tix to a show any Tony elector has already seen. There are other reasonable measures, too, of course, such as restricting the Tony ducats to the voters themselves.

Another suggestion that’s being floated is to pare the list of voters who are members of the press to actual reviewers and purge the 70 or so who are editors and columnists, who seldom actually see productions as part of their work. The New York Drama Critics Circle maintains a pretty tight list of New York City reviewers, numbering about 20 members. Even adding in those on the First Night Press List, which is maintained by a committee of New York press agents not the League or ATW, who represent out-of-town papers, it still doesn’t add up to many more than a couple of dozen writers. ATCA chairman Rawson suggests that the Tony Committee just start with the NYDCC list and then add whomever they deem appropriate. (This might antagonize the columnists and editors who get cut, but then, ATCA represents reviewers, doesn’t it.)

Another, less salient reason that producers might want to remove reviewers from the Tony electorate is the hope that without their influence, awards won’t as often go to the quirky little show that catches reviewers’ attention and instead go to the big commercial hit the producers favor. Some believe, and I don’t know if there’s really any evidence for this assertion, that Tony winners like Rent (Tony 1996), Avenue Q (2004), Spring Awakening (2007), and In the Heights (2008) wouldn’t have gotten the honor if reviewers hadn’t championed them. Their competition for Best Musical those years might have been more favored by traditional Tony voters. Back Stage, the theater trade paper that bills itself as “The Actor’s Resource,” advising that “actors should care about this change,” warned:

That means producers will take fewer chances on such shows, and actors will have fewer opportunities to perform challenging musical roles on Broadway. We could end up with nothing but musicals based on popular movies, jukebox tuners, and kiddie shows. Not that there's anything wrong with such productions, but a steady diet of them would lead to artistically starved audiences and performers.

Not only reviewers and other journalists, whose ox it is that’s been gored, after all, are raising objections. The New York Times quotes several other Tony-interested theater pros who disagree with the League and ATW’s decision. “Losing 100 voters who are basically unbiased threatens to increase the influence of the biased producers,” said Jeffrey Seller, himself a Tony-winning producer. “The fact is, the press is potentially an unencumbered pool of voters, and I’m not sure we really want to leave the Tonys in the hands of encumbered producers.” Seller, a Tony voter, produced Best Musical winners In the Heights, Avenue Q, and Rent. Richard Kornberg, a Broadway press agent who worked on Rent, opined, “I just don’t understand why they have changed the rules. It makes the Tony more like a marketing tool and less like an award for excellence.”

ATCA members still vote to recommend the regional theater Tony and on membership in the Theatre Hall of Fame. In addition, the association gives its own awards which honor plays and playwrights. There are also local awards across the country in which the press are important participants such as the Joseph Jefferson Awards in Chicago, the Barrymore Awards in Philadelphia, the Helen Hayes Awards in Washington, and the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle Awards. Here in New York City, the Drama Desk Awards and the Outer Critics Circle Awards are held in high esteem by theater people and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award is considered a sort of preview of the Tonys. In fact, some reviewers declare that in revenge for the Tony slight, they ought to build up the public profile of the NYDCC Award, expand its scope, make it a TV event, and thumb their noses at the Tony presenters. Michael Riedel of the New York Post puts it rather pungently: The theater press “still has platforms, it still has power. It can put its boot on Broadway's neck and break it.” I think he was joking. But only slightly.

In addition to enhancing the NYDCC Award, there are other actions Broadway reviewers can take to . . . ummm, compensate themselves for their elimination as Tony voters. Riedel has these suggestions:

Ignore the whole idea of a first night press performance.
Shows preview for weeks and weeks but still charge full price. Why should critics be told which performances they can attend? Give a show two weeks (if it's not ready by then, it never will be), buy a ticket, file your review and listen to the producers squeal.

Ignore the crass commercial shows.
There's no reason why thoughtful critics should bother with kiddie twaddle like "Shrek" or "Legally Blonde." Leave those things to correspondents from Highlights magazine and Buzznet.

Ignore the Broadway League and the American Theater Wing, the two useless organizations that control the Tonys.
The League specializes in "marketing" meetings, while the Wing's main activities appear to be pimping itself out to Visa (its biggest sponsor) and producing "The American Theater Wing Seminar," the most unwatchable television program in the history of telecommunications.

But both organizations always send out press releases asking for "coverage" of this or that "initiative" or "event."

The next time you get one, quote the great Times theater columnist Alex Witchel and bark: "Take out an ad!"

The Tony Awards are a private endeavor so the League and the American Theatre Wing can run them any way they want. If they don’t want journalists to participate, that’s their look-out. The public and the industry will make whatever judgment of the results that they want, as well. The reviewers and ATCA have no legal recourse; they can only use moral suasion to change the Tony administrators’ minds, which is what’s happening now. If they don’t succeed, then the first-nighters are out and that’s an end to it.

Marginalizing the reviewers, some feel, will strengthen the hand of the producers. Their interest lies in promoting the commercial hit, the big musical or the popular comedy, over the artistic success which may garner good press notices but draws smaller audiences. Adam Feldman observes: “Critics, and indeed criticism, are inconvenient to the modern theater marketer: Old-fashioned in our insistence on quality, unreliable in our support for expensive projects and less necessary in light of the diffusion of information in the Internet Age.” Looking into his crystal ball, Feldman concludes: “We can expect to see more such gestures of exclusion in the future, each chipping away, as intended, at the status of critics within the theater world.” Beyond New York City, there are cities where the theater reviewer has completely disappeared from the local newspapers altogether. Is that where we’re headed in this, the theater capital of the United States (and one of the most important cultural centers in the world)?

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