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The Tonys: Secrets of the Campaign Trail With Bette Midler, ‘Evan Hansen’ and More

Variety logo Variety 6/8/2017 Gordon Cox
© Provided by Variety

On a Friday afternoon last month, Bette Midler stood on a dais in the ballroom of a Times Square Marriott and addressed a crowd of Broadway actors, producers, awards nominees, and — most importantly — voters for the 2017 Tony Awards.

She was there to accept the Drama League’s honor for distinguished achievement at the nonprofit’s annual fundraising event. “I’ll add it to my mantelpiece, even though it doesn’t help me spell ‘EGOT,’” she said of the statuette, and then singled out Sally Field in the crowd. “I turn and look at Sally because she has my Oscar,” she joked, and then addressed Glenn Close, also attending. “Glenn, did you ever win? F—, you’re in worse shape than me!”

It was a moment that perfectly encapsulated the starry surreality of the Broadway awards season in full swing. It was also a tongue-in-cheek sliver of transparency on the high-stakes Tony campaign trail, a rush of lunches, awards, galas, photo opps, parties and publicity over which producers can, in a competitive season like this one, easily shell out half a million dollars or more in pursuit of a major trophy.

Campaigns for the Tony Awards can be just as intense as the Oscar trail — if not more so, given the shorter time between the nominations and the ceremony and the fact that most of the acting nominees must make the rounds while keeping up with a demanding eight-show-a-week performance schedule. But whereas Hollywood is fairly frank about its awards pushes, Broadway doesn’t like to talk openly about such things.

Guy Shield for Variety

Take it from Justin Paul, the co-creator of Tony contender “Dear Evan Hansen” and the recent winner of a shared Oscar for the “La La Land” tune “City of Stars.” ““With the Oscars, you’re very aware of it,” he says. “There’s much more overt campaigning than there is for the Tonys.”

But there is still plenty of campaigning, done to win over a pool of voters that, at 850, is significantly smaller than the 6,700 who vote for the Oscars every year. Mostly but not entirely tri-state-based, it’s a group made up of producers, playwrights, actors, directors, designers, regional theater presenters and other industry pros and enthusiasts.

To woo them over, some shows go hard — this year, “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Hello, Dolly!” and “A Doll’s House, Part 2” — while others, like “Come From Away,” opt for the softer sell. Actors, too, take different tactics, with Midler making carefully strategized stops but Kevin Kline, nominated for best actor in a play for “Present Laughter,” snubbing the whole shebang.

But for any contender, these are the required stops — or at least the stops to think hard about before you skip.

The Drama League and New Dramatists Luncheons

Halfway between awards shows and fundraisers, these benefits, scheduled every year at the peak of Tony season in mid-May, are known in some circles as “the longest lunches of the year.” Each is a vital stop on the campaign trail, and a show of community spirit for a worthy organization (the development-focused League and the playwright-supporting New Dramatists). The League, which awards a small handful of season-specific trophies, manages to get a crowd of some 50 acting nominees together on a dais, all to single out just one of them for the season’s best performance. (This year it went to Ben Platt of “Dear Evan Hansen.”) Attendance at these events doesn’t come cheap, either: A table at some gala events can cost as much as $30,000.

The Drama Desks, the Outer Critics, the Obies, the Lortels, the New York Critics Circle, et al.

Every year, a flock of other theater awards ride the Tony wave, announcing nominations and winners between late April and early June. Some, like the Drama Desks, host a full-on awards show, while others hold a reception for pre-announced winners. These can be a drain on performers, but they’re important. “They’re a slog, but you want to be seen collecting all your awards,” says one veteran publicist.

The Broadway League Spring Road Conference

Each year, the League, the trade association of producers and presenters, gathers members from around the country for a week of industry seminars — a week that many of the 75 to 100 attending voters also use to catch up on as many nominated shows as they can. At the conference, most eligible productions host lunches, parties and panels with creatives. “Evan Hansen,” for example, stirred buzz with a panel hosted by Tina Fey — and also sponsored an ice cream truck; “Dolly!” threw a swank party at which Midler put in a brief appearance. The winner of the week might have been “Doll’s House,” which raised its hipness cred with a midnight performance benefiting the Actors’ Fund, cannily scheduled to allow harried road voters to squeeze in one more show before they left.

The pages of the New York Times

The Times’ annual Tony Awards section is often mentioned as an important influencer — and while producers can’t control coverage in editorial pages, they can take advantage of it in ad pages. This year, for instance, producers of “A Doll’s House, Part 2” seized on the boon that both of the paper’s major critics gave their play the “should win” spot (vs. the “will win” to frontrunner “Oslo”), and used it as the basis for headturning, expensive ad spreads. This year, “Doll’s House,” “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Hello, Dolly!” are all advertising aggressively, in the pages of the Times and beyond, as much to win over voters as ticketbuyers.

Late night and morning TV

Broadway productions and talent show up semi-regularly on morning TV and on late night — but if it happens in May, it’s probably part of a Tony strategy. Last month, for instance, Ben Platt performed a signature “Evan Hansen” number on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” last month, while “Come From Away” did a song on “Late Night With Seth Meyers.”

The swag train

The basics are a script, an original cast recording and a souvenir booklet. Some books, though, are clearly more elaborate and expensive than others (see: this year’s “Dear Evan Hansen” tome), and some shows traffic in a seeming deluge of supporting material, especially digitally, in the form of tubthumping emails and video messages.

Ancillary galas

Mondays nights in May are hotly contested on the calendar, with galas and benefits that, by dint of timing, end up as de-facto Tony campaign stops even if it’s not entirely clear exactly how many susceptible voters you’ll be reaching by attending or performing. The Manhattan Theater Club gala is one oft-cited shindig; the Family Equality Council’s benefit also gets mentioned. For many, the campaign effectiveness of these obligations is debatable. As one longtime producer cracks: “If I don’t have a show in the race, I don’t show up for any of these f—in’ events.”

Getting people in to see your show

If you’re a producer whose play or musical opened late in the season, you likely have to get the majority of those 850 voters into seats at your show within a speedy six-week period. It’s a challenge to accommodate — and even harder to track and police — but it is, for many in the game, the biggest influencer. “The most important thing is getting everyone in,” opines one producer. “That is, I swear, 75% of this, in any category.”

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