And the Tony for replacement thesp goes to…nobody

Pryce was generally thought to be front-runner for trophy

NEW YORK — Talk about your anticlimaxes.

Last fall, the Tonys launched a new category, best performance by an actor or actress in a re-created role, and producers and actors were all atwitter about a new way to nab some Tony glory.

The move followed a long and vocal campaign for a prize to honor actors — such as Reba McEntire in “Annie Get Your Gun” and Harvey Fierstein in “Fiddler on the Roof” — who distinguish themselves when stepping into parts originated by others.

On May 16, the results of that first, hotly anticipated competition were announced. And the winner is … nobody.

“We were disappointed,” says Marty Bell, one of the producers of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” whose new con man, Jonathan Pryce, was generally thought to be the front-runner for the trophy.

“Quite frankly, we were expecting it,” Bell adds. “A lot of people in the press said that he was deserving of the award, and we believed our press.”

Others also were disappointed, but not on Pryce’s account. “I think it has to be a standout performance, but I don’t see any way that Eileen Atkins (in “Doubt”) wasn’t a standout performance,” says Newsday critic Linda Winer. “It’s odd to me.”

But then, there’s a lot that’s odd about the new award. First and foremost, it’s not chosen by Tony voters but by the 24 members of the Tony Administration Committee, a group that determines eligibility in the awards categories.

And candidates are not selected by the Tony Nominating Committee, but by a three-person adjudicating body drawn from the administration ranks, to which producers are allowed to submit only two names from each long-running show. (Each candidate must be contracted to perform for six months.)

If two out of these three adjudicators, upon seeing a suggested performer’s act, deem him or her worthy, the actor is voted on in a secret ballot by the admin committee. Awards go to the thesp who wins the approval of 16 of the 24 committee members.

Producer Emanuel Azenberg, who sits on the admin committee, won’t say how many candidates were voted on this year, except that it was “more than one.” Regardless, none of the hopefuls received the needed 16 yeas.

But was that even possible? Bell says that, to his knowledge, only 16 of the 24 members had come to see Pryce, making it all but impossible for the actor to make the grade.

“I think they have to rethink things,” he says. “The rules are too complicated. It’s too difficult for someone to win.” Bell suggests re-created-role Tony duties be conferred on a special six-person commission.

Of course, everybody has an idea on how to fix the situation.

“Why don’t they just call it a special Tony for replacement and give it out when it’s deserving,” Winer offers. “Then they could do it just when there’s something that’s so extraordinary that it would be a shame not to acknowledge it.”

Even committee members, like producer Margo Lion — whose long-running “Hairspray” could one day benefit from the category — have their reservations. “I think we’re feeling our way,” Lion observes. “We need to define it a little more.”

“The mechanics of how we get there will have to be dealt with,” Azenberg says. Still, neither Lion nor Azenberg is ready to give up on the award.

“I think the idea of recognizing someone who comes in and does something wonderful is a good one,” Azenberg says. “I also think it’s a major-league attraction for a performer, to be eligible even though you’re replacing. … But you don’t want it to turn into an automatic (kudo) so that you have to give one every year because somebody says so.”

The new Tony category is in place only through the 2007-08 season, after which the admin committee will decide whether to continue with it.

For the record, a false start is not without precedent in the checkered annuls of theater awards. No less an honor than the Pulitzer Prize for Drama failed to find a worthy recipient in 1917, its first year of existence. The next year, however, the org crowned “Why Marry?” by Jesse Lynch Williams — not exactly high on the list of classic American dramas. Maybe waiting for a clear victor isn’t such a bad thing after all.

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