Union wants to cut ‘Contact’ eligibilty

Tony allows recorded music to qualify play as musical

Last week, the Tony Awards administration committee found the dance play “Contact” to be eligible for nomination as best musical.

This week, Local 802, the musicians union, expressed its objection to that eligibility. In a letter dated April 17, William Moriarity, president of the Associated Musicians of Greater New York, wrote to Roy Somlyo, prexy of the American Theater Wing, “to protest this decision in the strongest possible terms.”

No thrushes

“Contact” features recorded music ranging from Robert Palmer’s “Simply Irresistible” to Dean Martin’s rendition of “You’re Nobody Til Somebody Loves You.” There is much dancing, with choreography by Susan Stroman, and spoken dialogue, from a book by John Weidman — but no one onstage ever opens his or her mouth to sing.

To be or not to be considered a musical?

Moriarity said not.

“We would like to point out that in two crucial areas, this work does not even attempt to meet past criteria for consideration as a musical,” Moriarity wrote to Somlyo. “First, no music, vocal or instrumental, has been created for this production. To the best of my knowledge, no work has ever been considered for a Tony — an award ostensibly for creative merit — that contained no creative musical elements. Second, no newly created musical performance, whether instrumental or vocal, occurs in this production. Dancing, of course, takes place, but in our opinion, that alone is not sufficient to define musical theater. A musical must contain music as a creative element.”

A special nod

In his letter to Somlyo, Moriarity asked that the Tony administrative committee “recognize this unusual work in some unique way.” The union prexy recommended a possible special recognition citation.

Somlyo responded, “Once a decision has been made by the committee it cannot be changed. I can’t speak for the Tony administration committee. I am only one vote on that committee,” the Wing prexy said of the group, which comprises 10 American Theater Wing members, 10 League of American Theaters and Producers members and four members of the craft unions.

Somlyo also remarked that as of Tuesday afternoon, he had not received Moriarity’s letter.

Another member of the Tony administration committee offered the opinion that the two criteria for a musical in Moriarity’s letter were not listed in any bylaws or rules of Tony eligibility regarding the musical category. “What goes unmentioned is that there are no union musicians in ‘Contact,’ ” he said of the letter.

Fin de siecle fete

Bernard Gersten, executive producer of Lincoln Center Theater, which commissioned and produces “Contact,” said the Stroman-helmed show had been created as part of a series of four original tuners that celebrated the American musical at the end of the 20th century. The others were William Finn’s “A New Brain,” Jason Robert Brown’s “Parade” and Michael John LaChiusa’s “Marie Christine.”

Regarding the Tony eligibility of “Contact” as a musical, he remarked, “If you polled a thousand people, they would say (“Contact”) looks like a musical, smells like a musical, sounds like a musical, it is a musical! And the critics all said it was a musical.”

Different tuner tacks

Weidman, who is president of the Dramatist Guild, said of the controversy, “I understand, and I am sympathetic with, the issues ‘Contact’ raises for the musicians union, as a union. But I think musicals can, and should be, all kinds of different things. And in the case of ‘Contact,’ the emotive power of music and lyrics, ultimately expressed through dance, is what drives the show and tells the story. To me, that makes it a musical.”

Stroman could not be reached for comment.

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