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Tonys to Off-Broadway: Drop Dead (Or Join Our Club): Commentary

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June 9 (Bloomberg) -- Warning: Don’t confuse the Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Musical with the best play and the best musical of the season.

When the Tonys are announced Sunday evening at Broadway’s annual salute to, you know, Broadway, keep in mind that it’s celebrating a system that ignores much of the best theater in New York, the theater capital of the U.S.

Why? Because the Tonys continue to exclude off-Broadway. If your show ran in one of the 40 designated Broadway theaters, you’re golden.

If not, you’re nobody.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Broadway producers pay an enormous premium to present a show in one of those theaters. The union contracts are the most expensive, the rent is the highest and the cost of promotion is insane. Broadway musicals rarely come in for under $15 million these days, and a play can run you $3 million.

But it’s nonsense to suggest that the Tony brand automatically represents the best. The best musicals of this past season? With all due respect to the worthy “Memphis” and “American Idiot,” I’d call it a toss-up between “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” presented by the non-profit Public Theater, and “Scottsboro Boys,” the final effort by “Chicago” composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, presented by the non-profit Vineyard Theater.

Horton Foote

The best play of the season?

Broadway’s “Red” and “Next Fall” are first-rate competitors -- but does anyone doubt that the most enthralling play of the season was “The Orphans’ Home Cycle,” the condensed nonalogy of plays by the late Horton Foote? Please. The three unforgettable evenings were presented by off-Broadway’s Signature Theater in a co-production with the non-profit Hartford Stage.

In the past, the Broadway League -- the cartel that co-presents the Tony Awards with the American Theatre Wing, a service organization that owns the name -- argued that off-Broadway shows can’t accommodate the 700 to 800 Tony voters. Guess what? “The Orphans’ Home Cycle” ran for more than six months and was easily the most acclaimed show of the year. Because of a smart sponsorship deal with Time Warner, the tickets were $20.

Get Real

There would be no Broadway without the non-profit theaters, and yet this apartheid system survives. London’s top awards, the Oliviers, don’t make that distinction. Other local awards, such as the New York Drama Critics Circle and the Drama Desk, do include off-Broadway, but they lack the brand recognition of the Tonys, which producers count on to goose the box office.

Off-Broadway will be represented this year, but only in an off-hand way: The winners for lifetime achievement in the theater are both eminences who made their careers in the non-profit theater: British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, whose shows begin life at a small non-profit before the inevitable move to London’s West End and Broadway, and Marian Seldes, who truly is a special case.

Seldes will be 82 in August and is, unsurprisingly, frailer than she was when we first met, 32 years ago, during her run in Ira Levin’s boulevard thriller “Deathtrap.” She earned a place in the “Guinness Book of World Records” -- and the annoyance of understudies everywhere -- for playing every last one of the show’s 1,809 performances.

No More Nurses

Seldes made her Broadway debut in 1947 as a nurse-attendant to Dame Judith Anderson in Robinson Jeffers’s adaptation of “Medea.” In her most recent appearance, in 2007, she starred with Angela Lansbury in Terrence McNally’s trifle, “Deuce.”

In between, however, Seldes played the poet Anne Sexton and the dancer Isadora Duncan, acted in plays by Tennessee Williams and Tina Howe and performed in several of Edward Albee’s plays, mostly outside the real estate fiefdom of Broadway. Off-Broadway is where that lifetime of achievement flourished.

“I’d had a career of playing supporting parts,” she told me, while resting in her Central Park South aerie after a strenuous series of Tony-related promotional activities.

Off-Broadway made her a star.

“I played the central parts,” she said of her experiences at non-profits like the American Place Theatre, “and I just have to say to you, I prefer playing the part that the play is about.”

Off-Broadway has been playing the supporting role for way too long. It’s time for the Tony Awards to invite everyone into the tent and give real meaning to the phrase “outstanding achievement in the theater.”

(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Jeremy Gerard in New York at jgerard2@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.