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Bring In 'Da Tonys

What's with this year's awards? Upstarts get most of the attention, Julie Andrews turns down her nomination in protest. Maybe the real question is: What's with Broadway?

June 02, 1996|Patrick Pacheco | Patrick Pacheco is a frequent contributor to Calendar

NEW YORK — Nathan Lane couldn't help firing off zingers at the recent Tony annual nominees celebration at Sardi's--offering a preview of what he is likely to do as the host of the 50th-anniversary Tony Awards, to be telecast on CBS tonight from the Majestic Theatre.

"Look, there's Julie Andrews," he told a reporter. "And she's got a gun!"

Indeed, the absent Andrews had gone gunning for the Tony nominating committee shortly after this year's nominees were announced on May 3. At the end of a matinee performance of "Victor/Victoria," the star walked to the lip of the stage and announced that she could not accept her nomination for best performance by a leading actress in a musical because the nominating committee had chosen "to egregiously overlook" every one of her collaboratorsin the $8-million production. To add insult to injury, they had nominated instead two short-lived new musicals, "Chronicle of a Death Foretold" and "Swinging on a Star."

The media went crazy--"Mary Poppins Hoppin' Mad" headlined the New York Post--and soon everybody, to paraphrase Jimmy Durante, was gettin' inta 'da act. One of the producers of "Big"--the $10-million musical that won five nominations but not one in the best musical category--accused the committee of having "a myopic and elitist agenda." David Merrick, a producer of "State Fair," initiated a lawsuit against the Tonys because, although the Rodgers & Hammerstein score was nominated, voters had been instructed to consider only four of the songs because of some arcane rules. He lost the suit last week.

This year's Tony furor, however, was symptomatic of some of Broadway's deeper fault lines. In fact, the Tony uproar stemmed from a somewhat novel situation for the nominating committee. Unlike last season, when by default "Sunset Boulevard" walked away with most of the musical awards, this year the committee was not stretching to fill categories as it has so many times in the past. This season has been the most successful in recent history--both in terms of box-office dollars and critical reception.

Nonetheless, there appears to be anxiety over the fact that after the last gushing Tony acceptance speech, Broadway will still be mired in the intractable problems that have long plagued it: rising production costs and ticket prices, scarce investors and a demographic that tends to make Broadway the province of an aging economic elite.

"The fracas going on isn't really about the nominations but about the enormous changes going on in the New York theater," Andre Bishop, artistic director of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, said in an recent interview. "It has to do with generational change--the old Broadway turning into the new Broadway, about how we in theater are going to reflect the cultural changes around us at the end of the 20th century. Some people welcome change, some people are frightened of it, and some people don't even know it's happening."

Bishop added that what the Tony nominations primarily revealed this year was a phenomenon that had been developing over the past two decades: "the emergence of the nonprofit theater as an enormous force." Indeed, every one of the eight nominees for best musical or drama came out of the nonprofit arena, along with four of the eight shows nominated in the revival categories. Sam Shepard's "Buried Child" began as a production of Chicago's prestigious Steppenwolf Company, Terrence McNally's "Master Class" played the Kennedy Center and the Mark Taper Forum and August Wilson's "Seven Guitars" had listed among its producers some of the biggest of the nonprofit players: Los Angeles' Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre, Chicago's Goodman Theatre, San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater and the Manhattan Theatre Club.

Similarly, the two most acclaimed musical hits of the season, "Rent" and "Bring In 'Da Noise, Bring In 'Da Funk," were developed, respectively, at the New York Theatre Workshop and the Public Theater, while the Tony nominating committee seemed to be dissing "Big" and "Victor/Victoria" for the crass crime of commercialism. In short, this year's motto could well become, in the words of Gerald Schoenfeld, president of the Shubert Organization: "There's no profit like nonprofit."

"I said that tongue-in-cheek," said Schoenfeld, who is the head of an organization with a long history of producing partnerships with nonprofit theaters on Broadway. "But I have never liked the terms, 'commercial theater' as opposed to 'nonprofit,' because it implies that they're interested in doing art and we are not." Noting that he prefers the terms "taxpaying" and "non-taxpaying" theater, Schoenfeld added, "I think what the Tonys tell us is that there are going to be more and more interrelationships between the two and, as a result, more and more material will be developed in a manner that fits the economic realities of today."

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