An Open Letter to Howard Sherman, Executive Director of the American Theatre Wing

First, congratulations on a terrific Tonys telecast. It was fast, bright and funny.

Second, please put the award for Best Original Score back in the middle of the evening, where it belongs.

I believe I know the main arguments against reinstating this award, and I think they’re all inadequate. Here they are:

1. Nobody cares about original showtunes any more. Audiences want songs they already know.

In the last five years, four of the Tonys for Best Musical have gone to the show that also won the Tony for Best Original Score. Four times in five years, and in all those years there were a healthy four nominees for Best Original Score. Do you know how far back you have to go to see that again, four out of five, all in years with four nominees?

1964-1968.

Yes, you have to go back to the end of the musical’s so-called Golden Age, to the seasons that began with Fiddler on the Roof and ended with the arrival of Hair. Granted, there’s been some help from the American Theatre Wing and The Broadway League themselves, nominating Enron and Fences last year for Best Original Score, but you can’t argue that the jukebox musical is the dominant force on Broadway today. I know it’s hard to believe, but we are in the middle of a minor Golden Era for original scores on Broadway, and the Tonys don’t seem to know it.

The success of these doubly-awarded shows indicates that audiences do care about original showtunes, that they want songs they don’t already know, and they want them in award-winning hit musicals. The American Theatre Wing should be trumpeting this news every year, and instead everyone is behaving as if original showtunes are endangered, and too thin on the ground to celebrate.

2. It’s the performances that rate well on Award night. The writers aren’t good TV.

Except that this year, some of the finest moments of the telecast were courtesy of writers of showtunes. An original opening number, by Tony Award-nominated songwriters? A closing number, edited to suit the evening’s events, by a Tony Award-winning songwriter? No other Awards show can make use of this kind of talent, but the talent goes un-named. Here’s what should happen:

Two men approach the podium.

Man 1: Hi. We’re David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger.
Man 2: And we wrote that opening number for tonight’s show.

Applause.

Man 1 (David): The nominees for Best Original Score are …

3. There isn’t time.

Yes there is, if songwriters matter to musicals. If there is time to repeat a number from a show that already won last year, and if there is time for a number from a high-profile production that has yet to open, then there is time to award songwriters who have a) not already been awarded and b) wrote shows that have actually opened.

4. The telecast is primarily about attracting tourists, and only secondarily about rewarding talent.

If this cynical view is an accurate one, it is even more important to reinstate the writers – all the writers, whether they write revues, jukebox shows, special events, book, music or lyrics. If they are not celebrated they will move elsewhere, and without their new shows what will the tourists come and see?

5. But there were several songwriters featured in the telecast!

There were, and here’s who they were:

Paul Schaffer
Bono and The Edge
Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez

The message to would-be theatre songwriters is clear: be already famous. Be rock stars or be television-famous. Or be the winners – two of whom are already television-famous.

Here’s a sobering thought: if Cole Porter and Frank Loesser were still alive, they would not have been seen last night, even though their work was featured. Can I be sure of this? Yes, because John Kander, who is still alive, was named but not shown in any way. On a night when the (almost certainly) last Broadway Kander and Ebb score was nominated, John Kander was not shown, but non-nominees Bono and The Edge were.

5. Every award can be seen on the web.

Indeed, and soon a telecast and a webcast will be the same thing. I reckon you’ve got five years – ten, if all the TV networks really drag their feet. Once the two join together into one live-tweeted/blogged/webcasted/TV event, anything that’s not included in the main portion of the evening will be sought out only by completists and buffs willing to search archived videos. In other words, the songwriters will become even more obscure than they already are, and we’ll still only see the winners, rather than all the nominees.

6. So if the whole thing’s going online, who cares where the awards are placed?

It matters because the placement emphasises the award’s importance. The award for Best Musical is right at the end of the night. Clearly, musicals matter to the evening, commercially and artistically. And note that, while they are called musicals, we do not see who writes the scores  unless they win something else later. We see actors, directors and producers. We see presenters with a tenuous connection to the production. But we don’t see most of those who make musicals, well, musical.

The opportunity is here, and it is now. Put the writers back in the centre of the action, a place their efforts have earned. Do it before the whole business moves online. Do it while musical theatre still has the internet’s attention. Don’t demonstrate that the musical theatre is a thriving form that apparently writes itself; instead, demonstrate that the form is thriving, and celebrate the writers who are making it thrive.

7. I suppose you’d also like to see a reinstatement of Best Choreography?

Yes, I would. But first things first.

Regards,

Peter J. Casey
A writer of showtunes

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4 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Howard Sherman, Executive Director of the American Theatre Wing

  1. Well said! I was astonished to see the Original Score was an off-broadcast award – original scores are the heart of what Broadway is about.

    I loved the way the event was a show-case, but the two songs you cite as being extraneous to the proceedings were that and then some – whatever buzz the producers felt about these two numbers simply did not translate through the screen (these numbers were simply fast-forwarded through in my house); meantime, around the world how many people would have been watching the Tonys precisely to see who had won the best Original Score award? Hundreds of thousands would be no exaggeration…..

    • Yeah, I haven’t found anyone who thinks the numbers from Memphis or Spider-Man were highlights of the broadcast.

      I have now spent my idle moments thinking of people we wouldn’t have seen, had similar broadcasts occurred in other years:

      1967 – no Kander and Ebb in the year that Cabaret won 8 awards.
      1971 – no Sondheim in the year he won two (separate music and lyrics awards) for Company.
      1980 – no Lloyd Webber in the year that Evita won 7 awards.
      1992 – no-one at all for Falsettos, because William Finn and James Lapine only won Best Original Score and Best Book.

        • I only saw that one in an “earlier this evening” precis. That is to say, no announcement of the nominees, and no speech by the winners.

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