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Sacrificing ‘Mary’ Turns Tony Voting Into Farce: Comment

'The Testament of Mary'
Fiona Shaw in "The Testament of Mary," a monologue by Colm Toibin that imagines the life of Jesus as recounted by his Mother. The show closed a week after Shaw was passed over for a Tony Award nomination. Photographer: Paul Kolnik/Philip Rinaldi Publicity via Bloomberg

May 18 (Bloomberg) -- It’s time for the annual spring follies known as Tony voting. Good luck to anyone trying to make sense of it.

Shortly after the Tony nominations were announced on April 30, the producers of “The Testament of Mary,” one of four best-play nominees, said it would close the following weekend.

The brilliant, bleak show, in which the mother of Jesus gives her account of His life and crucifixion, played 16 performances after previews.

It was hardly a surprise, and I write as one who gave this drama and its commanding star, Fiona Shaw, five stars. I hated seeing “Testament” close.

Would staying open another week have helped “Testament’s” chances of winning the award for best play? Probably not. But a couple of thousand more people might have been able to see it.

Significantly, more Tony voters might have seen it, and therein lies the greater problem.

Lead producer Scott Rudin decided to shut down when it became clear that Shaw was unlikely to be nominated. He declined to discuss it with me, yet he surely knew that Colm Toibin’s play had little chance of winning on its own. Other producers might throw investors’ good money after bad. Not Rudin.

At the same time, the ramifications of that decision go far beyond the disappearance of one solo show with 15 above-the-title producers and an on-stage vulture. It underscores the farce I’ll call Phony Tony Voting.

Bloc Party

Here’s how it works. The 26 Tonys are decided by 868 voters. They include representatives from the awards’ co-sponsor, the American Theatre Wing; Broadway’s unions and craft guilds; and the 25 members of the New York Drama Critics Circle (of which I’m one).

The biggest voting contingent comes from the Broadway League, the trade association of theater owners and producers, and co-sponsor of the awards. Many of its far-flung members visit New York only sporadically.

So if a show closes in the fall, or after a short run, the out-of-towners are unlikely to have seen it. That’s a key reason why so many Broadway openings are funneled into the weeks before the Tony nominations deadline.

And yet here’s my Tony ballot, which instructs us to certify that we voted only in categories in which we’ve seen every nominee.

Just Asking

I asked Philip Rinaldi, the press agent for “The Testament of Mary,” how many had seen the show. He replied that “a real effort was made to get Tony voters into the final week of the run,” but he couldn’t give me a figure.

So I called around.

I phoned 15 League members, chosen at random from across the country, one-third of them from New York. Four of the five New Yorkers saw “Testament.” Two of the remaining 10 had. After being reassured that I would not reveal their names, all nine of the non-attendees said they had every intention of voting for a best play.

They weren’t about to give up an opportunity to get on the bandwagon for one of the other contenders, “Lucky Guy,” “The Assembled Parties” or “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”

While I had them on the horn, I asked my sample how many had seen “Bring It On: The Musical,” which ran from August through December, and “A Christmas Story: The Musical,” a holiday show. They’re competing against the favorites, “Matilda” and “Kinky Boots.”

The results were nominally better: Eleven had seen “A Christmas Story” and 13 had seen “Bring It On.” All were planning to vote for one of the front-runners.

The awards are announced June 9 in a ceremony that CBS will broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall. It’s rotten enough that, after 67 years, the Tonys still exclude off-Broadway while claiming to celebrate the best of American theater.

Worse still, however, is that even on its own limited terms, Broadway’s producers refuse to clean up their voting act.

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include New York Weekend and Lewis Lapham on books.

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.

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