How Do You Solve a Problem Like the 2023 Tony Awards?

The Writers Guild of America is allowing the previously canceled broadcast to go on… with caveats.

Writers Guild Of American Holds Rally Outside NBCUniversal In New York
Writers Guild of America (WGA) East members participate in a “Rally at the Rock” strike event outside of the NBCUniversal offices on May 23. Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

The Writer’s Guild of America does not usually affect the Broadway world directly. However, the Tony Awards, the televised CBS broadcast and Paramount + streaming event that crowns the winners of the American theater, is governed by the WGA. Someone has to script the show. When the WGA went on strike early this month, the Tonys asked for an exception in the hopes they could still go on as scheduled on June 11. They were denied initially, but last week were granted permission to broadcast according to a WGA statement because “they are altering this year’s show to conform with specific requests from the WGA.”

These specific requests are not yet made public besides that the broadcast cannot use the previously-written script. Oscar Winner Ariana DeBose is still slated to host, but with the changes, we don’t yet know in what capacity. Even with the WGA’s blessing, the Tonys and by extension, Broadway, still face a huge issue caused by the strike: how to publicize shows without the annual award show.

Better than nothing

Broadway insiders are overall happy with how this year’s Tony Awards will be held. In solidarity with the WGA, Actor’s Equity, which covers stage actors and stage managers, and the Dramatists Guild, which covers stage writers, many of whom make most of their income from film and TV projects, support the strike, as do many other related unions.

While there is no official word yet, the rumors are that there will still be live performances of the nominated shows, either live streamed or pre-recorded. “It’s the right way to go,” Douglas Lyons, an actor, playwright, and WGA member who has his feet in both Broadway and TV/film, told Observer. Lyons is a writer for Apple TV’s Fraggle Rock, as well as a Broadway playwright (Chicken and Biscuits) and actor, currently in Parade, which is nominated for six Tonys, including Best Revival.

Lyons says, “I think Broadway is in desperate need of the Tony Awards. It’s tradition. It’s the one intersection of the WGA and Broadway. The WGA not participating but also making space for the Broadway community to have this very important night is the perfect way forward.”

Without scripted material and host-led intro and closing performances, the broadcast on June 11 might be more of a  “press conference” style, which names the winners and lets them give acceptance speeches. This could be a boon for the WGA if winners mention the strike in their speeches and would not require any “writing” from anyone.

However, the lack of a fully-scripted broadcast may affect viewership and future ticket sales. “Viewers are used to pre-recorded comedy shows, variety hours, etc—and the thrill of live acceptance speeches remains,” says Katharine Quinn, New York-based theater creative and writing associate on Shucked on Broadway, which is nominated for nine Tony awards including Best Musical. She also partnered and worked with Marathon Digital, the digital marketing team working on Shucked and other Broadway productions.

These showcases provide the additional publicity to the shows currently running to keep the lights on. “It’s a big commercial,” says Lyons.

In the best revival category, Into the Woods is a front-runner. Yet this production is no longer on Broadway, so a win would potentially increase tour ticket sales but do nothing for New York theater. However, if the other revival shows were able to perform, even if they didn’t win, viewers deciding on what shows to buy tickets for this season would have a better idea if they’re up for Sweeney Todd’s dark parable, Parade’s heartbreaking historical drama or Camelot’s romantic classic. Lyons said this happened in 2014 when he was in the Original Cast of Beautiful. The show didn’t take home Best Musical but, “won the night as far as the amount of ticket sales that came out of that performance.”

The problem of marketing Broadway

The Tonys remain the primary way shows advertise to tourists and anyone who isn’t a theater insider. The live performances and spectacle of the Tonys, and the announcement of the year’s winners, dictate much of the summer tourist season and beyond. Shows can shutter without the publicity and acclaim of a Tony, as evidenced by the closing dates of Bad Cinderella and Bob Fosse Dancin’ being announced shortly after they failed to receive nominations.

However, much of the theater-going population doesn’t actually watch the Tonys, which had an all-time low viewership following the pandemic. Lately, shows like Moulin Rouge, Shucked and Parade have seen increased engagement with potential audiences after successful social media campaigns.

“Musical theater has infiltrated pop culture in a material way that it hasn’t since the 1960s and prior; we should capitalize on that,” says Quinn. “Hopefully, audiences will start trending younger as a result.”

The strike and its influence on the Broadway community might be a good thing in the long run.

“Times are a-changin’, and I think Broadway might want to catch up so the Tony Awards aren’t the end-all-be-all of people knowing about the new work in New York,” says Lyons. He predicts this year’s shake up will ultimately change and “expand the way we commercialize Broadway and how we reach out to people.”

In a season still failing to meet (much less exceed) financial gains in pre-pandemic years, Broadway can use all the help it can get. There is no perfect solution, but all parties hope for an end to the WGA strike. Unfortunately, studios and networks haven’t yet budged in their negotiations, and writers are nowhere closer to getting paid fairly for their work. As long as that’s the case, the ripples of the strike will continue to spread beyond the realm of TV and film. How Do You Solve a Problem Like the 2023 Tony Awards?