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Tony Nominations: Are the Awards Elitist?

Variety logo Variety 5/2/2017 Gordon Cox
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Glenn Close’s return to Broadway in “Sunset Boulevard” was one of the tentpoles of the theater season: A big star earning big raves in a big-selling show that has grossed more than $1 million a week since it began performances. But it was shut out entirely in the Tony nominations.

“Anastasia,” a commercially promising new offering for Broadway’s sizeable family demographic, was also left off the list for the major awards. Ditto “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Both those shows have started out strong at the box office and done well with spring-break tourist crowds, but were largely ignored by nominators.

Given those omissions, and after seasons in which the Tonys anointed “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” over “Beautiful,” or “Avenue Q” over “Wicked,” it can look to outside observers like nominators are turning up their noses at popular crowdpleasers in favor of snob hits.

Which leads to the question: Are the Tonys elitist?

That critique will have a familiar ring for organizers of the Oscars, for whom the perception of elitism became such a concern that they decided to supersize the category for best picture, expanding the field to a possible 10 so that high-profile blockbusters could rub shoulders with the arthouse faves.

But when it comes to the Oscars vs. the Tonys, it’s not apples to apples.

For one thing, this year’s nomination frontrunners, from “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” to “Dear Evan Hansen” to “Hello, Dolly!,” were all box-office heavy hitters, too – often even stronger than shows like “Sunset Boulevard” and “Anastasia.” And there are plenty of seasons when Broadway’s biggest selling crowdpleaser is also the awards-season champion. Take last year’s “Hamilton,” for instance, or “Billy Elliot” or “The Lion King” in prior seasons.

In some ways, it’s not just the Tonys but all of Broadway that could be elitist. For one thing, it’s entirely localized, available to a relatively small number of New York City residents and city visitors. Beyond that, the number of those people who can actually get in to see a show is limited even further, because each Broadway show plays eight performances (or less) in just one theater with, at most, 2,000 seats (and often fewer).

For the biggest hits, high demand and limited availability drive ticket prices far higher than $15 a pop for a movie. With premium tickets hitting $849 for “Hamilton” and $748 for “Hello, Dolly!” — and top non-premium prices at most shows ranging between $150 and $200 — Broadway can seem far from affordable for the masses.

But while Broadway, and by extensions the Tonys, can seem insular, theater itself isn’t. For one thing, today’s biggest Broadway hits will soon hit the road in productions that can be seen across the country. Theater lovers who couldn’t catch “Hamilton” on Broadway, for instance, now have the chance to see it in Chicago, and soon in San Francisco and on the road. And even on Broadway, ultra-high prices are generally balanced by more affordable tickets for other shows, often during times of the year when overall demand is lower.

Besides all that, theater, as an art form, is the opposite of elitist: Anyone can put on a show, in a living room or in a college auditorium. It may be hard to get into “Hello, Dolly!” on Broadway right now, but a high school kid can get into their drama club’s production of the classic musical. And plays like “A Doll’s House, Part 2” and last year’s Tony winner “The Humans” are destined to be seen around the country in amateur and regional productions, allowing even broader access for both audiences and budding creatives.

So are the Tonys elitist? Probably, in that they honor work that’s only currently accessible to a small percentage of the general populace. But for nominated shows that become the next “Hello, Dolly!,” the Tonys are often the first step toward entering the canon — and thereby reaching the masses.

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