EXCLUSIVE: Deadline’s Jeremy Gerard and Jujamcyn Theatres majority owner and president Jordan Roth talk about the state of the industry (and whatever else might be on their minds), the only stipulation being no holds barred.
GERARD: This week saw the debut of Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, after a campaign that I thought was as long-winded and self-important as the Presidential nominees that the former Daily Show star and her colleagues have been dining on since forever. The critics who weighed in on Bee’s first outing were mostly complimentary and supportive. But after reading all the reviews, one point in particular struck me: The male critics — myself included — found it necessary to point out that Full Frontal‘s 10:30 P.M. time slot on TBS isn’t really late night. It’s prime time. None of the female critics felt so compelled. The guys had some subliminal need to say she’s not quite in the club! In our Neanderthal defense, I’d argue that Bee herself made this an issue by campaigning — there’s that word again — on the First Female Late-Night Host ticket. But like Bernie Sanders (to steal one of Bee’s perfect images), we responded with lots of finger-wagging, as though we needed to summon a waitress. How’s that for a sexist message?
ROTH: Whoa, that is fascinating — and yes, sexist. You need to write about that!
GERARD: Next subject. Normal human beings see robins nesting and forsythia blooming as signs of spring, but not us. The true sign that spring is nigh is Broadway theater lobbies filled with large black trunks and masses of gear awaiting load-in as the District comes back to life and dark houses are re-lit. Two dramas — Blackbird and The Humans — already have entered the fray and there are more to come in both the new play and play revival categories. Yet for all the advances in making musicals look great on TV, plays are hard to contextualize. Is it too early to begin prodding the folks running the Tony Awards to show the TV audience that plays matter too?
ROTH: Amen to those beautiful Broadway signs of spring, especially welcome after these few weeks of Super Snow and Super Bowled-over grosses. I used to always love and look forward to the snow, but now I can only see it bringing inconvenienced ticket holders and team members and bad box office. Ugh.
You said it: Plays are hard to contextualize in a short clip. In most cases, drop into the middle of a scene you know nothing about and it’ll just feel like some people talking. That’s neither helpful to the production nor representative of the artists’ work, and its not enticing to viewers. But it’s not fair to jump from that real challenge to an assumption that anyone involved in the Tonys thinks plays don’t matter, especially when half the awards given out are for plays. For years, different ideas have been tried to best spotlight plays — pre-taped clips, montages, live segments, even a mashup reading of different lines from different plays (OK, that really didn’t work, but at least they were open to an out-of-the-box idea). I think the solution in recent years has been quite successful: a presenter or even the playwright walking us through the ideas and characters of the play as images and elements of the set come to life, creating a visual landscape. But if you have another idea how to do it — or if our readers have an idea to share in comments — I’d love to hear it.
And before we move on from sexism, another example of self-awareness and self-correction occurred this week: In announcing his new season as the new director of the National Theatre in London, Rufus Norris committed to achieving 50/50 gender equity in terms of directors and living playwrights employed at the theatre by 2021. A great example to all us of an institution acknowledging its past as well as its power and responsibility to change its future. Amen.
GERARD: Speaking of the Tonys, I can see some battles over categories (new plays/musicals versus revivals) on the near horizon. The Tony Administration Committee, which decides these things, comprises folks with horses in these races and their proxies. That’s not unusual — the same conflicts apply to awards as dissimilar as the Oscars and the Pulitzers. But that doesn’t minimize the fact that the conflicts do exist and ought to be addressed, and this season I see some particularly bitter showdowns brewing over these issues.
ROTH: Most of these decisions are clear-cut, but yes a few each year are more complicated. The new-vs-revival decision used to be much easier — if it hasn’t been on Broadway before, it’s new, case closed. The only caveat to that was for “classics.” But in 2002, that allowed Fortune’s Fool, a 19th-Century Ivan Turgenev play, to be nominated as a new play. Development can take a long time, but 150 years? So the revival rule was adjusted to include works in the “historical or popular repertoire” that may not have ever appeared on Broadway before. And there’s the gray that the committee must turn black and white. Easy for a 150 year-old play, slightly less easy for a show like Hedwig And The Angry Inch, which, though never on Broadway, was still correctly deemed a revival after 17 years of world-wide productions and a feature film.
This year, the committee will face the same kind of decision with Blackbird, which though never on Broadway, has played all over the world since 2005, including a West End run and off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club (with Jeff Daniels, who’s reprising on Broadway). And the flip-side of this decision with Shuffle Along, which was a hit on Broadway in 1921, but to which George C. Wolfe has added some new material exploring the backstage story of presenting that musical. I think both will be deemed revivals.
The committee also has to distinguish leading from featured performances. Again in most cases this is clear, but there are always a few that aren’t. Where the strategy comes into play is when producers want an actor to be in what they perceive to be a less competitive category or when a show has several great performances and they want to pick up as many nominations as possible or don’t want their actors to split the vote. But that’s only possible in those few gray zones. Sure a show can petition for the central character who’s in every scene to be in the featured category, but it’s not going to work.
The committee is made up of professionals working in the business — writers, directors, designers, producers, theatre owners — which is why they are qualified to make these decisions. And also why they’ll have conflicts. The rules are clear on this. If a committee member has any interest in a production, that member must abstain from any votes relating to that production.
GERARD: Leaving those who will depend on the abstainers to fill their dance cards in coming seasons to make completely disinterested choices, yes? Of course, a few years back, the Administration Committee uninvited the only bloc of Tony voters with no horses in any race — the critics. Then they relented and re-invited the 25 or so members of the New York Drama Critics Circle (I’m a member). And while the Tony Nominating Committee comprises a broad range of interests, the Administration Committee does everything it can to control the outcome, even precluding discussion of nominees. All of this should be reconsidered.