GUEST BLOG by Tim Donahue: What a strange 100 years it has been for theater prizes!

In 1918, the first Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama went to a forgotten—and forgettable—comedy entitled “Why Marry?” Two years later the prize went to a female playwright, because the Jury thought it would be a “handsome” thing to give the prize to a woman, although they wrote, “It is not a great play but it is original and interesting.”

The Pulitzer Drama Prize was so often laughable that in 1935 a group of Broadway reviewers formed the New York Drama Critics Circle expressly to give better awards. One of the founders, Brooks Atkinson, summed up the Circle’s accomplishment almost thirty years after its beginning, writing, “The average taste of the Critics Circle is no more discerning than the average taste of the Pulitzer judges. Neither the Circle nor the Pulitzer prizes can be intimidated by genius; both of them have on occasion preferred commonplace plays to classics.”

In the late 1940s, the Tony Awards began as a small event for the theater community sponsored by the American Theatre Wing, a charitable group from the war years. The presentation happened at a banquet with dancing in a hotel ballroom, with the prizes chosen by an ad hoc handful of people. In the first year, a Tony was given to Vincent Sardi, Sr., in thanks for Sardi’s Restaurant!

Twenty years later the Wing was in financial trouble and it joined with the Broadway League to continue the Tony Awards. Within a year, the ceremony morphed into a big television event. That changed everything about the Tonys and a lot about Broadway theater.

Still, being on television hasn’t prevented the Tony Awards from making major gaffes.

There have been past seasons when the resulting prizes, Tony Awards and others, can still provoke healthy argument. For example:

Harvey won over The Glass Menagerie
Hello, Dolly! won over Funny Girl
The Music Man won over West Side Story
Nine won over Dreamgirls
The Sound of Music won over Gypsy

These competitive years make one wonder what best play and best musical awards mean.

Today, there are six major, very different organizations giving best play and best musical awards, for diverse reasons, chosen by very unalike procedures. It feels great if your show gets one, but does it have any sure, lasting meaning?

In short: so many prizes; so little to celebrate. Even after 100 years.

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Tim Donahue is the author most recently of Playing for Prizes: America’s Awards for Best Play and Best Musical. He is the co-author of Stage Money: The Business of the Professional Theater and three other books on theater.

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  • As Tim mentions as Tim mentions there are numerous theater awards (Drama Desk, Outer Circle, etc.). However, there is only one that really “counts”, and that’s the Tony.
    This revolving bauble literally represents life or death, financial success or loss, to a Broadway production. Witness a few seasons back: “Gentlemen’s Guide To Love and Murder”, a wonderfully written show, was hanging on by their fingernails, barely keeping (financially) alive by virtue of its Lead Producer. Within 2 days of them winning the Tony for best musical, “Gentlemen’s Guide” saw their attendance record jump from 55% to almost 100%! And it sustained for another year and a half! There is no question; if they had not won the Tony, the show would of closed with losses on its books. Instead, they went on to recoup and made a lot of (initially extremely nervous) co-producers and investors very happy! This is but one example of what happens year after year to both Tony winners and losers.

    The reason for this phenomenon is fairly simple: not too long ago, two thirds of the (Broadway) theater-going public were locals (New York City & its outer boroughs, Long Island, and New Jersey). The remaining one third were tourists.

    Today, that number has completely reversed: two thirds of the theater-going public are tourists. When once, a visitor would plan to see three or more shows, with the escalating ticket prices, they now see one, or two, at best!

    And what do they use as their criteria?

    They will buy tickets to something familiar/branded (think anything Disney, Harry Potter, etc.) and/or; who won the Tony – not nominated – won!

    This is why (in my opinion) the method by which shows are nominated and voted upon, needs to be restructured.

    But that’s a column all its own.

    Here’s hoping that all your shows (and mine) win Tony’s!

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