Okrent calls awards 'artistically meaningless,' 'culturally corrosive'

Broadway players weren’t just counting their Tony nominations, or lamenting the lack thereof, Monday morning. They also were scratching their heads over the New York Times’ Sunday broadside against the awards, written by the paper’s new “public editor,” Daniel Okrent.

In a blistering editorial that ran inside the front page of Sunday’s Week in Review section, Okrent called the Tonys an “artistically meaningless, blatantly commercial, shamefully exclusionary and culturally corrosive award competition.”

And that was just the first paragraph.

He went on to describe the awards as “a real estate promotion, restricted as they are to shows put on in the 31 houses owned or controlled by the Shuberts, the Nederlanders and Jujamcyn, plus another nine thrown in by accident of geography or affinity to the idea of the Big Musical.”

He also called into question the independence of the voters: “Like the theaters, the voters themselves are to a large degree controlled by the Big Three and the touring company operators.”

But chatter at Hudson Theater, where the Tony noms were announced Monday, tended to point out that Okrent’s take had its ingenuous aspects.

“The Okrent piece was naive,” said one. “Every award ceremony has its constituency. The Tonys never said it was to honor American theater. It is to honor Broadway. Period.”

And, while he seemed to suggest the Tonys were controlled by theater owners, Okrent failed to note that other orgs — namely the Broadway unions — have an equal interest in maintaining the exclusivity of the Broadway brand. If the Tonys were opened up to Off Broadway shows, the financial benefits that accrue to Tony winners and nominees would no longer exclusively benefit the unionized Broadway theaters.

Nor do Off Broadway players necessarily want to be invited to the party, for corollary reasons: As a member of the League of Off Broadway Theaters & Producers said, “Off Broadway wants nothing to do with the Tonys. It would invite the unions.”

Other financial burdens that would come with inclusion in the Tony race were cited: “Small theaters can’t afford having hundreds of Tony voters seeing their shows for free,” one observer said. “It is ridiculous.”

Jed Bernstein, chairman of the League of American Theaters & Producers, which produces the Tonys jointly with the American Theater Wing, said: “I think the suggestion that the Tonys have to apologize for the fact that they only cover Broadway is ill-considered. The Tonys have never pretended to be anything other than a Broadway award. This doesn’t suggest that only good work is being done on Broadway.”

He also took issue with Okrent’s suggestion that the voting was controlled by the theater owners: “The notion that the Tonys are dominated by theater owners and road presenters is unfounded. When you look at the structure of the administration committee, of 24 people maybe two or three represent those interests. The nominating committee has no theater owners or producers on it.”

Okrent’s piece suggested road interests control half the Tony voters: In fact, only 15% of voters represent road interests. While about half the voters are members of the League of American Theaters & Producers, most of those are producers not affiliated with the Big Three theater owners.

Bernstein also suggested that comparing productions produced in widely varied conditions was unfair. Keeping the Tonys exclusive to Broadway makes for “a pretty level playing field,” he said, with “plays and musicals produced on similar budgets on similar scales, opening under the same conditions.”

Critical of coverage

Much of Okrent’s piece was devoted to criticizing the Times’ coverage. Accusing the paper of doling out too much coverage to the Tonys (including what he called “a panting orgy of Tony worship presented in a special takeout produced by the editors of the Arts & Leisure section”), Okrent pointed out that the paper’s “financial interest” in the Tonys is “unquestioned,” quoting ad exec Nancy Coyne’s estimate that the legit industry spends $30 million-$40 million on ads in the paper, mostly Broadway ads.

Okrent was hired in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal to discuss and question aspects of the paper’s reporting in regular dispatches. This is the first time he’s turned his attention to theater.

While the industry is not likely to embark on an orgy of self-flagellation in the wake of his piece, producers no doubt will be wondering anxiously if Okrent’s screed will have a dampening effect on that other orgy. Producers look to the pre-Tony Arts & Leisure section as a way of obtaining column inches of coverage without having to chip in any more toward that $40 million.

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