Elbowing Playwrights Out of the Way
One could be forgiven for thinking, when reading the New York Post's Michael Riedel, that he has it in for the Tony Awards -- or at least for the people who run them. More than once recently, in his usual unrestrained manner, he's called the Broadway League's Charlotte St. Martin and the American Theatre Wing's Howard Sherman "apparatchiks."
But Riedel makes an important and perfectly fair point in his column today: "As Broadway prepares to celebrate itself next month, many theater people are increasingly concerned that writers, especially writers of nonmusical plays, are getting the bum's rush at the Tonys." In great part, that's because when the Tony for best play or best musical is announced, the writers get lost in a swarm of producers -- some of whom are not producers in the true sense but merely backers, people who gave large chunks of cash. At least the writers of musicals have their shot at the spotlight in the best-book and best-score categories, but for writers of straight plays, this is the only recognition they'll get.
"Why doesn't the playwright accept the award by himself?" wonders composer and lyricist Maury Yeston, whose shows include "Nine" and "Grand Hotel."
"The bookwriter does, the lyricist does, the orchestrator does, even the person who runs the sound system does. One would think that the progenitor of an original piece of theater would be the person on whom the award would evolve."
No one with any understanding of what a producer does would suggest that the role is unimportant or undeserving of recognition. Neither is the role of backer. But it's evidence of warped priorities when the writers, without whom no one would be standing there on Tony night, are deemed less important than the money people. Some of them, Riedel suggests, are thinking of the Tony spotlight from the start:
Veteran producers say that many of their biggest investors now have it written into their contracts that if the play wins the Tony, they get to share the stage with the author.
These, no doubt, are the same crass individuals who'd also try to take credit for a playwright's Pulitzer, a prize that has nothing whatsoever to do with producers or backers (though that point is frequently lost on them).
Here's the thing. You can always get another producer; you can always find another investor -- and you'll probably have to, given the crowd it takes to finance a Broadway show these days. Only in the most artistically doomed, too-many-cooks circumstances, however, is switching out a writer even a possibility. That's not going to happen to an original, single-author straight play. In the grand collaboration that is theater, the playwright simply is not expendable.
Playwrights, the most successful of whom earn only a pittance from the stage, are fond of saying they prefer working in the theater to doing more lucrative TV and film writing because the theater treats them with so much more respect. A glaring exception to that rule seems to be the moment at the Tony Awards that ought to be theirs more than anyone else's to celebrate.