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Reviewing the Tony Situation by Matthew Murray

  • MatthewTony.jpgLesson number one: If you get journalists angry, be prepared for a media backlash. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Well, the folks behind the Tony Awards can't be too shocked that New York theatre critics are reacting poorly to being unceremoniously booted off the rolls of Tony voters. This drops the number of Tony voters from about 800 to about 700; in the interest of full disclosure, and for the purposes of context, this includes me.

    The letter sent out by the Tony Awards early last evening read, in relevant part:

    Dear Matthew,
    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.

    Please note that this change in no way affects your inclusion on the First Night Press List. As you know, a committee of Broadway press agents develops and administers the First Night Press List, and it does not fall under the purview of Tony Award Productions, The Broadway League, or the American Theatre Wing.

    In making this decision, the Tony Management Committee took into account that members of the First Night Press List will of course continue to have the opportunity to express their critical opinions in reviews and other coverage of the theatre season. In addition, the Management Committee took into consideration the fact that certain publications and individual critics have historically pursued a policy of abstaining from voting on entertainment awards in general, to avoid any possible conflicts of interest in fulfilling their primary responsibilities as journalists.

    What bothers me most about this is the lack of a real explanation for the change, which suggests there's no logic or reasoning behind it that the Tony Awards choose to make public. It's a difficult position for anyone to be in: Tell the truth and get crucified for it by the very people you're affecting, or obfuscate and look like you're making as much sense as populating the Tony Awards telecast with performances from the touring productions of Jersey Boys, Legally Blonde, and Mamma Mia!. The Tonys, in their infinite... theatricality, have opted for the latter.

    A New York Times ArtsBeat blog entry detailing all this contains the following intriguing paragraph:

    An official close to the committee, who was not authorized to discuss the committee's private deliberations and therefore spoke on condition of anonymity, said the change was made because the committee concluded that it was a conflict of interest for journalists to vote on Tony contenders when they have a platform to champion a show in news and entertainment media.

    So let me get this straight. It's a conflict of interest for journalists—who live by the standards through which their very jobs and statuses within their professional community exist, and don't work professionally on shows or with people they write about—to vote for the Tony Awards, because they might write about the shows they see. But it isn't a conflict of interest for hundreds of other people to vote for themselves, their friends, or the shows in which they have a vested, public, and frequently financial interest. In other words, that the critics possess and exercise objectivity is a problem for the Tony Awards, but that everyone else has a stake in what wins and loses is perfectly fine. This sort of logic could occur only in the theatre.

    By eliminating from the voting a considerable bloc of people who are not only actually disinterested parties in the purest sense of the term, but who also unequivocally see every show—something Tony voters are not required to do, and something a significant number, particularly those who operate primarily outside of New York, most likely do not—the Tonys are making a clear statement about the viewpoints that are of interest and importance to them.

    It's a sad, cynical state of affairs for any business to put itself in that position... but life goes on. For what it's worth, being stripped of my Tony voting status doesn't bother me that much—it doesn't impede my ability to see and review shows, which is really my primary concern. And we are going to get at least one, and quite possibly very many more, choice Michael Riedel columns out of this. And we will undoubtedly get some very different slates of Tony winners in the future—you can't cut away a full eighth of any population and not feel the effects somehow. I know the Tonys know this. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if they're counting on it.

    I'm going to give the last word on this subject to my friend and colleague Adam Feldman of Time Out New York who has written very eloquently about the bigger picture of what this means not just for critics, but for the New York theatre community:

    The excision of this voting block represents a step backward in the seriousness of the awards.... It also represents another regrettable step toward the marginalization of critics within the New York theatrical community. It is true that critics do not vote for the Oscar or Emmy Awards; but theater is an inherently more local and personal industry, in which critics have historically played an important role. (Not for nothing are Broadway theaters named after Walter Kerr and Brooks Atkinson.) But 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. 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.

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