Ins & Outs of the Tony Rules

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The accountants from Grant Thorton at last year’s Tony Awards with host James Corden. Image via Zimbio.

I love award shows, and I love trying to predict them. I feel like there’s a science behind getting it right. However, I’ve never looked at the science behind those who pick the nominees and award winners in the first place – until now, that is.

On a lazy afternoon, I read through the 2016-2017 Tony Award guidelines (exciting!) and I figured out exactly what the process was, and I’m here to break it down for you.

Before I went in, I had basically one major question: what differentiates a revival from a transfer? I had always wondered this after Hedwig and the Angry Inch won Best Revival in 2014 even though it was the show’s Broadway premiere.

I also knew that there were separate processes for nominating and then for voting (i.e., the nominees weren’t a shortlist), and that the voters were generally kept a secret. The latter is not necessarily true, but I’ll explain all that now too. Come along, fellow data nerds, and let’s decipher this jargon together.

A Broadway House
For a theatre to be considered “on Broadway” and the shows inside to be eligible for awards, it has to meet the following criteria:
• Be located in the Borough of Manhattan
• Have 500+ seats
• Be used mainly for “legitimate theatrical productions”
• Or be deemed otherwise qualified by the Tony Awards Administration Committee

A list of currently eligible theatres is on page 21 of the rulebook.

Opening Night
The Tony Committee set a cutoff date every year (generally late April), and you have to have your opening night on or before that date. You have to all members of the nomination committee to “professional” performances (i.e., not the invited dress rehearsal, but previews and regular performances are fine) before the cutoff date.

In order for any actor to be eligible to be nominated in acting categories, they have to perform in that role on opening night (which is why it was such a big deal when Andy Karl got injured near opening). If the committee determines that the role you’re playing now is too similar to a role you’ve played before, you won’t be eligible – sorry, Glenn Close. Can’t win it twice.

Revivals vs. Transfers
There’s only a Best Revival of a Musical category and a Best Revival of a Play category if there are three or more eligible shows of each to choose from.

A revival is the following:
• Complies with the above rules about a Broadway house and opening night
• A show that’s deemed a “classic”
• Or has not been performed within three years of the eligibility date

That’s the difference between a revival and a transfer. Fun Home, Hamilton, Great Comet, and Dear Evan Hansen, in recent memory, all played Off-Broadway and then transferred. Shows like Hedwig died for years before coming to Broadway.

The Nominating Committee
The nominating committee is made up of anywhere between 15 and 51 people of the theatre community. They must meet the following criteria:

• Have worked in the theatre/theatre education before
• Represent a “range of expertise” in the theatre community, have knowledge of productions past and present
• See every show of the season
• Not be a working member of the press

These people are randomly divided into three groups, and serve for one, two, or three seasons.

Picking the Nominees
A date is picked after the opening night cutoff, and the nomination committee has a meeting (officially titled the “Tony Nomination Meeting”). The members of the committee have two hours to discuss the eligible performances, but they can’t take any informal straw polls or anything like that.

The committee then privately and secretly votes for the nominees. Each member of the committee gets the number of votes that there are nominees. For example, if there are four slots for Best Musical, then each member can give four musicals a checkmark for a Best Musical nomination.

If you’re related to someone in any category, you can’t vote in that category. Duh.

Picking the Winners
Members of the boards from each the Actors’ Equity Association, The Dramatists Guild, Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, and United Scenic Artists are all voting members. The nomination committee are also voting members. The following organizations also have voting members:

• Board of Directors and the Advisory Board of the American Theatre Wing (up to 75 people)
• Voting Members of The Broadway League
• Theatrical Council of the Casting Society of America (up to 16 people)
• Officers or Executive Board members of Musicians’ Local 802 (up to five people)
• Current governing board of the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers (up to 15 people)
• New York Drama Critics Circle (up to 25 people)
• Board/Council of the National Association of Talent Representatives (up to 10 people)

These people get free tickets to every show. They get a mail ballot from the accountants 14 days before the Tonys (at the latest), and can vote up to 50 hours before the Tonys. Nobody knows, except the accountants, who wins until the telecast.

Eligible productions can not campaign for votes. Anymore. This is most likely thanks to Avenue Q’s genius marketing in 2003 – and they won over Wicked. (Both shows are still running, albeit one show Off-Broadway and one show in one of the Broadway largest houses with still some of the highest ticket prices 14 years later, but there were no losers here). Eligible shows also can’t mention the names of other eligible shows in marketing campaigns (e.g., putting a quote like “I loved it more than [this other eligible show]!” on the marquee).

There are a lot more nitpicky rules – like tiebreakers, ho boy – that I’ve highlighted and you can review in the Tony Awards Rules PDF. There are also a lot of rules with the producers – they have to offer free tickets to the voters, sign agreements of eligibility, etc., etc., which you can also read about in the PDF.

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