Confused about the digital Tony Awards this fall? You’re not alone.
The announcement of the upcoming ceremony put to rest the longstanding debate over what would happen with the 2020 Tonys after the COVID-19 pandemic brought Broadway to a screeching halt just before the season’s final push of eligible openings. But the news also raised a host of other questions — most of which have no definite answers yet.
More information should come after the Tony Awards Administration Committee meets Thursday. Until then, here’s what people are wondering, and the little we know now.
When will the virtual Tony Awards happen?
This fall, according to the Tonys news release, but exactly when is still up in the air. With September around the corner, October seems the earliest possible option. By that point, of course, the country will be consumed with the contentious presidential election, which would dash hopes that the Tonys might attract much national attention. Still, many in the industry are guessing the ceremony, whatever it looks like, will aim for late October; November, post-election and pre-Thanksgiving, also gets mentioned as a possibility.
Will the ceremony be broadcast on CBS?
The official word from both the Tonys and from CBS? We don’t know yet. That uncertainty seems to hold behind the scenes, too. For the digital ceremony, CBS, the network that has broadcast the awards every year since 1978, seems like a stretch, although it might be more likely to show up on streamer CBS All Access. Regardless, there’s talk that once Broadway has a firm plan to get back up and running (currently anticipated for spring 2021), CBS would air a special celebrating the 2019-20 season’s winners in the hopes of giving those shows some version of an awards-season sales bump — and offering all of Broadway a boost in profile just as the industry gets going again.
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Is the digital awards ceremony related to the Tonys celebration that the streaming service Broadway On Demand had previously planned for early June?
That virtual celebration of the season, for which Broadway on Demand had partnered with Tony organizers, had been scheduled for early June before it was postponed in the wake of the George Floyd uprisings. Whether the Broadway On Demand platform will be involved in this fall’s event isn’t clear.
What will the ceremony look like?
Great question! Will there be presenters? Will it be outdoors? Will it resemble the recent Democratic National Convention? Nobody knows yet.
A crucial element of the usual Tonycast is the performance segments, which serve as the closest thing to a national television advertisement that most new stage productions get. But there would be a host of complications for performances this fall, particularly in figuring out how to do them safely in the era of social distancing. With performers benched since March, cast members would need to be re-rehearsed. And it’s not clear producers will think it’s worth it to pay for the prep and execution on a full Tony number when no box offices are open to reap the benefits.
Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss, the Emmy-winning team behind the Tonys ceremony and telecast every year, are fresh off producing the recent DNC, which would seem to offer one model for what a virtual Tony ceremony might look like. Whether and how Kirshner and Weiss are involved in the upcoming event remains unclear.
What shows are eligible for awards?
Any of the season’s productions that opened before Feb. 19 — a date that knocks out “West Side Story” and “Girl From the North Country.” Both of those shows opened before Broadway shut down March 12, but not enough nominators had the chance to see them.
That leaves four contenders for new musical: “Jagged Little Pill,” “Moulin Rouge!,” “The Lightning Thief” and “Tina.” There’s a solid crop of ten new play contenders, including “Slave Play,” “The Inheritance” and “The Sound Inside,” plus four play revivals: “A Soldier’s Play,” “Betrayal,” “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” and “The Rose Tattoo.”
Among the likely nominees for acting awards are Adrienne Warren (“Tina”), Karen Olivo (“Moulin Rouge!”) and Elizabeth Stanley (“Jagged Little Pill”), all in the running for lead actress in a musical, and the pool of actors for plays includes Audra McDonald (“Frankie and Johnny”), Mary-Louise Parker (“Sound Inside”), Tom Hiddleston (“Betrayal”), Jake Gyllenhaal (“Sea Wall/A Life”) and Blair Underwood (“A Soldier’s Play”).
Will there be a category for new score this year? (And other nomination quandaries.)
In the truncated 2019-20 season, the only eligible new musical score — that is, a score written expressly for the stage rather than drawn from pre-existing tunes — is “The Lightning Thief,” a show that wasn’t exactly widely beloved. The category could be filled out with original music composed for plays — or administrators might choose to skip the award entirely.
Other categories could shift as well. As eligibility currently stands, there are only two actors up for lead actor in a musical: Aaron Tveit (“Moulin Rouge!”) and Chris McCarrell (“Lightning Thief”). How that will be reflected in the nominations — and whether such limitations might spur a more radical reimagining of this year’s categories and eligibility — is still up for debate.
There’s also the question of whether the Tonys will hand out their annual special awards and honors. One option on the table: The special awards will remain, to honor category-defying productions like “American Utopia” and “Freestyle Love Supreme,” but for trophies for things like lifetime achievement, organizers will defer until the next ceremony.
Most in the industry expect the time between the nominations and the ceremony to be much shorter than the usual six weeks. Few see the need to campaign, and with Broadway dark, voters won’t get the chance to catch up on what they’ve missed. They’ll just need time to vote for the categories for which they’re able to weigh in.
How many voters will determine the awards this year?
Officially, there are more than 850 Tony voters, but the number of people who’ll vote this year is likely to be smaller. Voters are only allowed to vote in categories in which they’ve seen every contender (with each voter’s attendance record logged in an online portal), and a chunk of voters traditionally play catch-up on nominated shows in May. Since that’s no longer an option, the people able to vote this year will be the ones who kept up with the season’s openings as they happened. That’ll probably knock at least a couple of hundred potential voters out of voting for many categories, but the severity of that impact remains to be seen.
After it became clear that COVID would make the usual Tony ceremony in June impossible, one of the broad possibilities discussed was the idea of holding off on the Tony Awards for a year and rolling the 2019-20 shows into the nominees for a 2021 ceremony. But with no firm date to resume performances, and lingering uncertainty about whether restarting would even be feasible without a vaccine, organizers have opted to honor 2019-20 shows now to avoid an overwhelming backlog of productions — many of which, particularly the plays, will have closed for good — competing for attention and recognition with newer shows that will be fresher in the minds of nominators and voters.
How will the industry-wide push for equity and social change be reflected?
Black Lives Matter and the George Floyd uprisings have brought fresh urgency to the movement for justice and social change in all spheres of American life. That includes Broadway, where organizations like Broadway Advocacy Coalition, Black Theatre United and We See You, White American Theater have mobilized to press for systemic changes that would make the Great White Way less white. With every production shut down, the digital Tonys will be the first real opportunity to show the world how the industry as a whole is responding, and how those shifts will be reflected in Broadway’s biggest night.