The Tonys : An Immodest Proposal

My buddies over at The Ensemblist wrote:

As the theatre community finds itself in the middle of awards season, we've been asked about the possibility of a Tony Awards for Best Ensemble in a Musical. To us, the reality of this seems far off, if not unlikely. However, it makes me think about my favorite ensemblists and what an award like this would mean to THEM.

We would really love to hear "What would it mean to you to have a Best Ensemble Tony Award?" Would you be willing to scribe a blog post for us about that?

My response:

I squirm under this question. Here’s why:

photo credit : Curtis & Cort

photo credit : Curtis & Cort

Different productions use ensembles in different ways. Some use them as the world or container or context of the main story. Some as a group protagonist. Some, let’s be frank, as wallpaper or set decoration (or set movers) behind the main story or stars. Some shows don’t have them at all. 

If I were tasked with helping the Tony awards craft a way of honoring the ensemble element on Broadway I’d pitch two things. The first, radical, the second, semantic.

1) Ditch the individual performance awards entirely and only give awards for Best Performance by a Cast in a Musical and Best Performance by a Cast in a Play

2) Create an award for Best Use of an Ensemble (Musical and Play)

Option one appeals to my understanding of and commitment to theatre-making as a team sport. It is my preferred option. Option two might, by rewarding excellence in storytelling through ensemble, encourage excellence in storytelling through ensemble. 

Truth? I’ve got to say, I’m not sure I’d trust the Tony voters with option two. 

I’d like to retract option two. I’m going with my radical pitch: Best Performance by a Cast, full stop.

To truly, truly honor how the actors’ contribution to a production works, it is only right to honor the cast as a whole. 

This will never happen. It is not how Broadway thinks and works. It is not how the American mind thinks and works. 

Disagree? I’m available for pints and discussion most nights after the curtain falls at the Neil Simon. Give me a shout.

Christopher Gurr
Washington Heights
May 18, 2017


Post Script

After I wrote the above and handed it off to Mo and Nikka, that very night, I saw Indecent at the Cort Theater. Talk about an ensemble play! The success of that piece was the sum of many, many beautifully realized parts but all stemming from the responsibility for the story being born equally by the entire company. 

After the show, I walked back towards the A train past several other Broadway theaters. “Apple and oranges,” was all I kept thinking. “Apple and oranges and bananas and broccoli and beets and, and, and, and…”

How can we award any “best”?

The best of Broadway (the best of theatre, the best of art) is—among other things—a result of content finding it’s best possible form and, yes, the form informing the content. The very best, to my taste, doesn’t background that dynamic, it celebrates it. The musical that is a star vehicle finds its iconic moment(s) on a passerelle or at the top of a grand staircase, saying, “you can almost touch her,” or “she is so much more than we!” An ensemble musical invades the auditorium saying, “we are the audience, the audience is us!” An intimate story may be a 1, 2, 3 or 4-hander, no ensemble needed or wanted.

I suppose what I’m saying is that that walk through our theatre district last night softened me a bit on the proposition of eliminating the individual performance awards in favor of cast awards. A bit. If we can set aside the marketing aspect of the Tonys (with full knowledge that that is a huge part of their raison d’etre) and look at them as forms of recognition and celebration of great—even inspiring—work, then surely there is a place for Best Performance by a Cast alongside Best Performance by an Actor, Actress, Featured, etc. 

Surely.