The Tony awards, to be announced tonight in New York, have fallen on fallow ground, but about 18 months ago a seed of hope was planted. That was the announcement that the League of New York Theatres and Producers had changed its name to the League of American Theatres and Producers.
The league governs Tony rules for eligibility. Only productions that play certain New York theaters may be nominated for what has come to be a nationally recognized honor. Automatically out of the running are the less expensive to produce off-Broadway and regional productions.
From that one-word shift, a more comprehensive listing of potential Tony nominees could follow.
In a quiet way this has been happening with the Pulitzer drama awards. Until very recently, the Pulitzer choices came from works produced in New York for the not unsensible reason that most plays in America have originated in New York. Generally, the theater critics who formed the Columbia University trustees' jury were New York-based.
Gradually, over the past 20 years or so, it's been realized that some worthy prospects were being ignored by the Pulitzer jury simply because they'd not played New York. Arena Stage has had two such possibilities, "The Great White Hope" and one-third of "A Texas Trilogy" ("The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia"). ("Hope," after its Broadway production, was eligible and won, but "Knights' " regional allusions baffled the burghers of Manhattan.)
As if to reflect the increasingly tangled and geometrically ballooned awards business, the Pulitzer jury this year recommended Robert Wilson's "The CIVIL warS." Presented last year by the Cambridge, Mass., American Repertory Theater, this was a 2 1/2-hour excerpt from a work not yet performed in its reported eight-hour entirety. Only the so-called "Cologne" section of "The CIVIL warS" was presented. One neglected aspect of the jury's choice was that Wilson's collaborator on "Cologne," Heinter Muller, happens to be a citizen of East Germany. Didn't the jury know the rules? The Pulitzers define its choices as "American."
But it seems to me that there is one even more pertinent aspect. Wilson's works are less dramas than they are musical and visual concepts. Text is vital to drama, not its dressings. American theater has been wandering more into style than content. Small wonder its audiences drift away.
Erratic as that Pulitzer feint was, Tony eligibility this year also proved quixotic. The "Best Play" category has four nominations: Michael Frayn's "Benefactors," Herb Gardner's "I'm Not Rappaport," Athol Fugard's "The Blood Knot" and John Guare's "The House of Blue Leaves."
Frayn's play originated in London and Gardner's in Seattle. "The Blood Knot" reached off-Broadway 25 years ago from South Africa and London. "The House of Blue Leaves" was new 15 years ago off-Broadway.
For a brief time this spring, both "Knot" and "Leaves" were ineligible for Tony notice. But the Tony administration committee ruled that since neither had been eligible in their first incarnations, they could be ranked as officially "new" this season.
A task as frustrating as the "Best Play" category faced the nominators when it came to choosing the four "Best Musicals." Of the 10 eligible, only "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" had received anything like a respectable consensus. The other nominees are Bob Fosse's "Big Deal," inspired by an old Italian film, "Big Deal on Madonna Street"; "Song and Dance," which has Bernadette Peters singing and acting in Act 1 and a loosely related ballad as Act 2; and "Tango Argentino," an appealing but hardly original vaudeville of Argentine dance. Whether or not these musicals could be credited with legitimate "books" by the eligibility committee provided murky discussions.
The neglected musicals, which cost up to $5 million or $6 million to produce these days, ranged from two parades of their old songs by Jerome Kern and Jerry Herman and a transference of the screen's zestier "Singin' in the Rain"; an adaptation of "The Wind in the Willows," which also had disappointed in its earlier Folger version; a Harlem musical that had the benefit of Maurice Hines' "Uptown . . . It's Hot"; and a dismal newspaper yarn, "The News."
The problem of categorizing happens in every city that has its own awards. When Washington's Helen Hayes Awards eligibility committee labeled "The Iceman Cometh" in its "prior to New York" category, American National Theater director Peter Sellars claimed foul. He declared that it had been mounted for ANT's Eisenhower stage, only subsequently considered for New York. The Hayes Committee's John Neville Andrews and Howard Shalwitz properly turned down Sellars' claim. But there's no doubt about it, categorizing is a tricky thing to do.
That all this makes for a fairly unpromising Tony night is offset somewhat by the performance categories. Here the nominating committee had rich choices, though baffling indeed was the lack of votes for Jason Robards' superb performance as Hickey in "The Iceman Cometh," which had won him the Hayes award here.
In all, the performance and technical categories this season produced strikingly fine work.
The nominations for best actor include Jack Lemmon's masterful new look at James Tyrone in O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night"; the stirring anger of Ed Harris in "Precious Sons"; the virtuosity of Hume Cronyn in "The Petition"; and the superb skills of Judd Hirsch in "I'm Not Rappaport" (though can that rightly be separated from Cleavon Little's partnering of Hirsch in the other major role?).
Another partnering, though less successful, was of George C. Scott and John Cullum in "The Boys in Autumn," about Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in late middle age. Here was a case of two skilled actors in a flat, unimaginative script.
In the leading actress category, Mary Beth Hurt won out for a nomination over her "Benefactors" associate, Glenn Close; Rosemary Harris for "Hay Fever," which brightened the Eisenhower after a dreary, often empty year; Jessica Tandy in "The Petition," the part Harris soon will be playing for Britain's National Theater, and Lily Tomlin, whose performance captured the only mention of the season's major box office hit, Jane Wagner's "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe."
There were, literally, scores of other fine performances, notably the confirmation of a true musical comedy star in Debbie Allen of "Sweet Charity" in the "reproduction" category; Stockard Channing and Swoosie Kurtz in "The House of Blue Leaves"; Bethel Leslie's Mary Tyrone of "Long Day's Journey"; and two Zoes, Caldwell of "Lillian" and Wanamaker of "Loot."
Those "reproductions" and the thin list of new plays illustrate one irrefutable fact. Those capable of putting dialogue into story form find other fields more rewarding -- film and TV -- just at a time when our players are more skilled than they have been in years.
This bleakness of material has prompted again the question of why Tony is confined to the theaters of "Broadway" -- a thin mile north from 41st Street to Lincoln Center.
Off-Broadway's Obies, the Pulitzer, Drama Critics' Circle and the Outer Circle awards have wider scope. People, not illogically, complain that Broadway is not all of the American theater and that most of its theaters amount to real estate owned by two dominant firms, the Shubert Organization and the Nederlander family's holdings.
It should, however, not be forgotten that the most lasting plays of all were produced by a real estate firm known as Shakespeare and his colleagues, who turned the unfashionable side of the Thames into the place to go in the late 16th century. And while audiences and theaters across the country are wondrously heartening, Broadway remains the prime desideratum of our theater, for all the provincial boastings.
If the league actually could extend its boundaries from "New York" to "American," Tony night might regain its earlier gleam. Don't hold your breath, but that small word change could widen that narrow place called Broadway.