Well now, everyone! It’s that time of the year when the annual convention of the Flat Earth Society takes place-namely, the Tony Awards. And as always, we celebrate in good heart the undeniable fact that everything about the Tonys is completely and wonderfully nuts.
‘Twas ever thus. After all, it was only yesterday when Sam Shepard’s 17-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Buried Child , was nominated for best new play-as opposed to best revival of a play. Obviously, to sensible souls such as you and me, a 17-year-old play cannot be a new play. It must be a revival. Because it’s an old play. And there we would be wrong.
The producers of Buried Child pointed out to the rapt Tony Awards administration committee that there were 1,151 lines in the play, but that Sam Shepard had cut, or rewritten, 519 of them for the new production. It was, therefore, half a new play, and half a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. The half that counts got the Tony nomination.
Members of the 24-strong Tony administration committee include every major Broadway producer, and the lads have exceeded themselves this year. But praise where praise is due: The committee wisely came to the decision this season that the Broadway production of Swan Lake could not be entered for best musical. They thought, and they thought, and they ruled: While Swan Lake has music, the ballet itself is not a musical.
So far, so good. But then the Tony Awards nominating committee went and spoiled it-nominating Swan Lake ‘s Matthew Bourne for best direction of a musical, and its lead dancer, Adam Cooper, for best performance by a leading actor in a musical.
Not since Buried Child was declared new, or half-new, have we had such fun. The spokesman for the Tonys is Keith Sherman, and each year I like to drive him insane by asking him to explain how black is white, or vice versa. He holds up well, considering. “We’re here to serve,” he said, anticipating the worst.
I asked if he could kindly explain to us how Swan Lake is ruled not to be a musical, yet its director and lead dancer are nominated for their work in a musical. The most patient Mr. Sherman replied: “The committee wants to recognize individual contributions. So while Swan Lake isn’t eligible for a Tony Award as a musical, Adam Cooper, for example, can be recognized for best performance in a musical.”
“Except he isn’t in a musical,” I couldn’t help but insist. “He’s in a ballet. Why not recognize a performer who is in a musical?”
“That’s up to the nominating committee,” he replied.
There is a certain neat Orwellian logic to all of this. The British dramatist Pam Gems was no doubt a little surprised to be nominated for best book of a musical for Marlene , particularly as it closed virtually overnight, alas. Marlene -with the usual Dietrich songs-was billed as “a New Musical Play.” Mr. Sherman explained: “We needed to decide, was this a play or a musical? We decided it was a musical.”
Well, why not? It’s clear-they need to make up the numbers. It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues doesn’t have a book. It is therefore nominated for best book of a musical. They say it’s got a book, just as they say Marlene is a musical. They say lots of things.
Fosse can’t be nominated for best choreography because the choreography isn’t new. Rules are rules. The show is a re-creation of Bob Fosse’s choreography over his lifetime. How, then, can it be nominated for best new musical when the music isn’t new, either? “Because,” Mr. Sherman explained, “the sum of its parts creates a new musical.”
Maybe so. Let’s see: Fosse has no book, no plot, no characters. The choreography isn’t new; nor is the score. It isn’t a revival. It’s a new musical!
If an actor is billed above the title of a play, he’s eligible for the category leading actor in a play. Same for actresses. The excellent Elizabeth Franz is named above the title of Death of a Salesman . But Judi Dench is felt to be a shoo-in to take the Tony for leading actress. (If not her, then Zoë Wanamaker for the role of her career in Electra .) The producers of Death of a Salesman therefore asked the administration committee to make Ms. Franz a “featured actress.” She now qualifies for a Tony as best featured actress in a play, which she will win.
It could be worse. Not too long ago, Joan Rivers was nominated for best actress in a play. True to its longstanding tradition of reversing all logic, the nominating committee solemnly asked itself: “Who is an actress who isn’t an actress?” So they nominated Joan Rivers as leading actress in a play that wasn’t a play. Sally Marr … and Her Escorts -who could forget it?-was a monologue.
Incidentally, that’s why Jackie Mason returned his honorary Tony. Because he believed that his own Broadway monologue had been egregiously overlooked as best play.
Last season, Cabaret was ruled eligible for the Tony Awards in spite of being produced at the old Henry Miller Theater, which isn’t eligible for Tony Awards. ( Cabaret went on to win four Tonys.)
This season, another musical, Rollin’ on the T.O.B.A. , was produced at the same theater, but it was ruled ineligible for the Tonys. Why?
“They weren’t in an eligible house,” came the answer.
Nor, of course, was Cabaret .
And by now, you will believe, as I do, that the earth really is as flat as a mad pancake. I wouldn’t dream of hinting that the people who administer the Tony Awards have even the teensiest conflict of interest. Nor do I say that the nominating committee in its wisdom makes little or no sense even to those of us who are partially sane. No, siree. I say Swan Lake is a musical-and the envelope, please!
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