Tony Nominations: Are the Awards Elitist?

Sunset Boulevard Glenn Close
Joan Marcus

Glenn Close’s return to Broadway in “Sunset Boulevard” was one of the tentpoles of the theater season: A big star earning big raves in a big-selling show that has grossed more than $1 million a week since it began performances. But it was shut out entirely in the Tony nominations.

“Anastasia,” a commercially promising new offering for Broadway’s sizeable family demographic, was also left off the list for the major awards. Ditto “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Both those shows have started out strong at the box office and done well with spring-break tourist crowds, but were largely ignored by nominators.

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Given those omissions, and after seasons in which the Tonys anointed “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” over “Beautiful,” or “Avenue Q” over “Wicked,” it can look to outside observers like nominators are turning up their noses at popular crowdpleasers in favor of snob hits.

Which leads to the question: Are the Tonys elitist?

That critique will have a familiar ring for organizers of the Oscars, for whom the perception of elitism became such a concern that they decided to supersize the category for best picture, expanding the field to a possible 10 so that high-profile blockbusters could rub shoulders with the arthouse faves.

But when it comes to the Oscars vs. the Tonys, it’s not apples to apples.

For one thing, this year’s nomination frontrunners, from “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” to “Dear Evan Hansen” to “Hello, Dolly!,” were all box-office heavy hitters, too – often even stronger than shows like “Sunset Boulevard” and “Anastasia.” And there are plenty of seasons when Broadway’s biggest selling crowdpleaser is also the awards-season champion. Take last year’s “Hamilton,” for instance, or “Billy Elliot” or “The Lion King” in prior seasons.

In some ways, it’s not just the Tonys but all of Broadway that could be elitist. For one thing, it’s entirely localized, available to a relatively small number of New York City residents and city visitors. Beyond that, the number of those people who can actually get in to see a show is limited even further, because each Broadway show plays eight performances (or less) in just one theater with, at most, 2,000 seats (and often fewer).

For the biggest hits, high demand and limited availability drive ticket prices far higher than $15 a pop for a movie. With premium tickets hitting $849 for “Hamilton” and $748 for “Hello, Dolly!” — and top non-premium prices at most shows ranging between $150 and $200 — Broadway can seem far from affordable for the masses.

But while Broadway, and by extensions the Tonys, can seem insular, theater itself isn’t. For one thing, today’s biggest Broadway hits will soon hit the road in productions that can be seen across the country. Theater lovers who couldn’t catch “Hamilton” on Broadway, for instance, now have the chance to see it in Chicago, and soon in San Francisco and on the road. And even on Broadway, ultra-high prices are generally balanced by more affordable tickets for other shows, often during times of the year when overall demand is lower.

Besides all that, theater, as an art form, is the opposite of elitist: Anyone can put on a show, in a living room or in a college auditorium. It may be hard to get into “Hello, Dolly!” on Broadway right now, but a high school kid can get into their drama club’s production of the classic musical. And plays like “A Doll’s House, Part 2” and last year’s Tony winner “The Humans” are destined to be seen around the country in amateur and regional productions, allowing even broader access for both audiences and budding creatives.

So are the Tonys elitist? Probably, in that they honor work that’s only currently accessible to a small percentage of the general populace. But for nominated shows that become the next “Hello, Dolly!,” the Tonys are often the first step toward entering the canon — and thereby reaching the masses.

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  1. Patrick says:

    I feel like we have this same discussion every year between nominations and awards.

  2. John Marks says:

    Well, it’s the usual award approaching article that comes out for any award ceremony that approaches.
    Also what is elitist? is it because it appeals to a specific group or mind set? That in my book would make Here Comes Honey Boo elitist (and elitist group there that I was not a member of).

    Tony’s like many things are driven by–the Art, the Commerce and the Heart.. Avenue Q for instance , went for it as far as a campaign- and while Wicked might have been a HUGE blockbuster, Avenue Q was a hell of a lot better written, more clever, more fun and when you can care about profanity ridden puppets, that’s saying something-

    As to the assertion that it’s elitist because it localized that also is a fallacy — movies might be 15 bucks, but they are a one an done. Once it’s shot and edited, it can be mass produced and shown multiple times a day in multiple cities, states and countries– Broadway on the other hand can’t. Plus, people are clamoring all over the country to see these shows on tour, from Fun Home to Hamilton

    Hardly elitist.

  3. N says:

    In what universe is Avenue Q elitist? Really???

  4. Steven S. says:

    It’s not elitism, it’s pure business. Because so many Tony voters profit from touring shows, “Best Musical” should be renamed, “Best Musical That’s Cheap to Put on the Road.” That’s why shows like “Avenue Q” end up winning over “Wicked.” It’s also why “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” and “Come From Away” get nominated while “Anastasia” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” don’t. It’s not the only reason, but smaller shows that cost less to produce will always have the advantage.

  5. sunesta says:

    May sound stupid but….why is the printing so small??

    • Awaken says:

      Glenn Close is a obvious TRANNY——-Google:Glenn Close—(Images)——–Google/You Tube:Glenn Close Transvestigation……………..psssss Julie Andrews from The Sound of Music is also A TRANNY

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