Tonys Nix Crix

Last week, the Tony Awards Management Committee announced that it had revoked the voting privileges of critics and journalists, including Back Stage's first-string critic, David Sheward. This reduced the voting body for the Tony Awards from about 800 to 700. The winners will now be chosen by members of the board of directors and designated members of the advisory committee of the American Theatre Wing, voting members of the Broadway League (the trade organization for Broadway producers), the Theatrical Council of the Casting Society of America, and the governing boards of various theatrical unions, including Actors' Equity Association, the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, the Dramatists Guild, and the United Scenic Artists.

In other words, the only totally impartial judges have been booted out. All the remaining electors have a personal stake in the outcome, because their shows or those of their colleagues will be in competition. Plus, the journalists were the only voters whose job it was to see every Broadway production. In fact, complaints have often been lodged against voting road producers who come to New York only at the end of the season and just see the big hits.

The committee offered no explanation for the scribblers' dumping, except to say that "certain publications and individual critics have historically pursued a policy of abstaining from voting on entertainment awards in general, in order to avoid any possible conflicts of interest in fulfilling their primary responsibilities as journalists." The only publication we know of with such a policy is The New York Times. Why penalize every other reviewer and reporter for the policy of one paper? Critics make their living by rendering judgments, so how would voting for a favorite play, actor, or design be a conflict of interest? And it's not as if the critics were flooded with swag, as the Oscar, Emmy, and Golden Globe voters are. A new rule precludes producers from sending out anything more than a CD or a souvenir program.

There has been much speculation on theater-related websites and in the press on the motives for this controversial move. Some have posited that Broadway producers want greater control over the outcome of the Tonys, so that more-commercial shows can triumph over audience-challenged critics' darlings. Another theory is that producers want to save money by reducing the number of free tickets they have to shell out. But the press will still be admitted free of charge to write its reviews and features, so where is the savings? Perhaps the producers are looking to eliminate what they see as the necessity to invite critics back to shows that opened earlier in the season. (How about ruling that Tony voters get just one pair of tickets and let them rely on their memories?) Or, as Adam Feldman of Time Out New York pointed out in a blog post, it could just be part of the growing trend to marginalize the traditional press in this age of instant and pervasive opining, where anyone can set him- or herself up as a reviewer by starting a website.

The critics have no legal recourse for reinstatement. The Tonys are administered by the Wing and the Broadway League, and they can run them however they want. And it's true that the Tonys were the only major peer-dispensed show business award to include the press among its voters. The Oscars, Emmys, and Grammys are handed out by their respective academies of industry insiders. The press was first invited to vote on the Tonys in 1964, to give the awards a broader perspective and an air of impartiality. This eviction after 45 years is a giant step backward.

Actors should care about this change in the Tony electorate because without the unbiased voices of the press, quirky, unconventional musicals such as Rent, Spring Awakening, and Avenue Q will be less likely to win the award for best musical—the only prize that results in a longer run for a worthy production with a shaky box office. 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.