Tony talk turns again to including Off B’way

Most still resist idea, fear costs and unions

NEW YORK — The New York Times’ recent essay critiquing the exclusionary nature of the Tony Awards raised an old issue that may have a new timeliness.

With new plays mostly flopping on Broadway this season, and several new Off Broadway theaters in the offing, the question of whether the Tonys should open up to include Off Broadway may be more germane than ever.

But the idea is still resisted by most of the players Variety spoke to.

“The Tonys were invented by the Broadway theater, which is a community. It might be dysfunctional, but it is a community,” says “Rent” producer Kevin McCollum. “The Tonys came out of that. If it tried to showcase all the wonderful theater, it would be a very different mission. It would also be an eight-hour show.”

Other producers with a foot in both camps are likewise unenthusiastic about Off Broadway being included in the Tonys.

“I hope it doesn’t happen,” says the Dodgers’ Michael David. His opinion hasn’t changed despite his org’s new Off Broadway complex opening this fall, Dodger Stages. “For those foolhardy to run the most dangerous, expensive, speculative theatrical gauntlet in America, it seems reasonable that gauntlet be celebrated. That’s the criteria. If you play in the Big Ten, you don’t play in the Super Bowl.”

It can be expensive to be a Tony contender. “You’re hanging by a thread Off Broadway,” says Robyn Goodman, who produced “Bat Boy” and “Tick, Tick…Boom” there. With her “Avenue Q” now on Broadway, she is very aware of those 750 Tony voters. “That means you have to give away 1,500 free tickets. It is a killer. Fair, schmair, the Tonys are a marketing tool for Broadway.”

Daryl Roth likes the idea of a special Tony category for Off Broadway. Otherwise, “You don’t have the tickets or the campaign dollars to compete,” she says.

One producer says the Off Broadway League debated the Tony question a few years ago. “Producers were afraid it would bring in the unions,” he says.

But at least one Off Broadway producer is in favor of getting in on the Tony action.

“The unions are already here!” counters Ben Sprecher. Sprecher said he dealt with the musicians on “The Joys of Sex” and the stagehands at the Little Shubert, which he manages. “The other ridiculous argument is all the free tickets to Tony voters. No Off Broadway show is selling out. Off Broadway is in the dumps. You mean to tell me a producer can’t find 700 seats in a month? Ridiculous!”

Second Stage’s Carole Rothman also thinks she could find a big block of tix for Tony voters. “For that kind of TV exposure, you’d find a way,” says the artistic director. Not that she would make every Second Stage production available. “If it could be selective, like August Wilson’s ‘Jitney.’ I wouldn’t do it for a riskier, experimental production.”