Spring showers

Late-season glut the norm, but longevity key

Call it Tony-time gridlock: the assumption that he (or she) opening last gets a nomination first. That explains the phenomenon whereby half the Broadway year’s annual output gets crammed into the last two months of the season. Just as with the Academy Awards, or so the reasoning goes, in this age of the diminished attention span you’re best off entering the race late.

So what if this year’s Oscar-winning pic, “Gladiator,” actually opened last May? Or if “Proof,” the odds-on favorite to snare the Tonys for best play and best actress in a play, has itself been around for a year? (The Pulitzer Prize winner’s first incarnation began last spring at the Manhattan Theatre Club and has continued with its Tony-qualifying run at the Walter Kerr Theater beginning in late October.)

Open at the eleventh hour, and you take the town — to wit the 15 nods snared by “The Producers,” which bowed April 19 and a sensation that most likely would have shaken up Broadway whatever time of year it had opened.

On the other hand, with six nods including recognition for its entire cast of four, “Proof” didn’t do too badly either, which leads co-producer Carole Shorenstein Hays to argue that quality will out.

“I think good is good,” says Shorenstein Hays, who collected the Tony in 1987 as sole producer of “Fences” (those were the days when a play could be produced by one person and not by committee) and was repped this past season among the consortium for both “Proof” and fellow best-play nominee, “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.” “I don’t think I’ve ever done anything with an eye towards any timing beyond what’s right for the production,” adds Shorenstein Hays, whose competing plays both opened last fall following successful Off Broadway stands. Otherwise, she argues, “you’re counting your chickens before they’re hatched, when there are so many delicacies and fragilities in just getting the curtain up.”

Scott Rudin, the theater and film producer who has been repped by such Tony-winning productions as “Passion” and “Amy’s View,” says late-season openings matter most if your show is a limited run — as “Amy’s View” two seasons ago was. (The David Hare play scooped a best actress prize for Judi Dench.)

The Tony panel, says Rudin, “tends not to reward shows that have closed, like Michael Gambon in ‘Skylight,'” another Hare-Rudin-Robert Fox partnership. “If you have a play that opens in October for 16 weeks, then you’re not going to get the Tony.” (To that end, Rudin and co-producer Fox are leaning toward a spring bow next year for their Broadway revival of Harold Pinter’s “The Caretaker,” starring Gambon.)

And so it was that Zoe Wanamaker in “Electra,” which opened in December 1998, was blanked at the 1999 Tonys even as another David Leveaux production, “The Real Thing,” more or less swept the revival categories last June with three awards. That show was still on the boards at Tony time whereas “Electra” the previous season was history by June.

“Certainly, if a show has closed, it has less of a chance of nominations,” says Todd Haimes, artistic director of the Roundabout Theatre Co., which produces four Broadway shows a season and a further three Off Broadway. “There is a certain ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality,” he adds, pointing to the absence of a best actor nod in 1996 for Frank Langella in Roundabout’s “The Father” — even though it was among the most acclaimed performances of that season. Or the absence from this year’s list of Liev Schreiber in the long-departed “Betrayal” in favor of five best actor nominees still treading the boards.

Speaking before the May 7 Tony nods, one nominator professed to be unswayed by timing: “I make notes per show on programs and then refer to them at the end of the season. This year, actually, it wasn’t the same glut of plays at the end of the season as it was last year. And at least we had had things like ‘The Full Monty’ and ‘Proof’ early on.” Besides, how much did late preems really benefit “Gershwin Alone” and “The Gathering” — both ignored — or even “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which fared surprisingly poorly, garnering two nods?

Getting in early, argues Scott Rudin, can even be a help if you want the critics at their best — or, for that matter, a first-tier critic such as the New York Times’ Ben Brantley or the New York Magazine’s John Simon. Late in the season, says Rudin, “I think the level of criticism suffers, so, yes, I think the shows suffer — if, that is, you believe that criticism has an effect on how shows do, of course.”

In March and April, he continues, “there are Broadway shows that second- and third-string critics are covering. So if you have a Broadway show opening during that period and you really care about getting the first-string critics, unless you have an A-entry, you’re not going to get it.”

The 2000-01 season, in any case, is likely to be thought of as somewhat anomalous. It has been years since any one show dominated the season as “The Producers” has. “It’s the vacuum-cleaner effect,” says Shorenstein Hays, acknowledging a rare theatrical juggernaut in what otherwise remains a crapshoot.

Take 1999, for instance: Martin McDonagh’s “The Lonesome West” got four nods, won none and promptly closed while Conor McPherson’s “The Weir” got no nods at all and outlasted every straight play that season.

Says Shorenstein Hays: “There’s always a reason things don’t win, and you can always say, ‘well, it was snowing outside,’ or whatever. To start trying to play any of those odds is, I think, for Las Vegas. It’s not for producing plays.”