(Andrew’s Bookshelf 7/18): Tonys 2021: Will the Artists take Center-Stage?

Andrew Reads (and Laughs along with) New York Times Theater Critic Jesse Green

For this Sunday’s bookshelf feature, I want to discuss my reading of Jesse Green’s “A Chance to Fix the Tonys, and So Many Things to Fix” (released on June 2nd as a Critic’s Notebook feature). 

I’m still trying to feel my feet touch the ground after having had the opportunity to interview Jesse, with Adam for the podcast, and I’m quite the fan since I’ve featured many of Jesse’s articles in my classroom, as examples of how to write a theater critique. Though not a play review or musical review, this feature-article of Jesse’s is a call to action where he asks whether or not the Tonys (happening on September 26th, 27 months since the last ceremony) have questioned “Broadway…traditionally favor[ing] the financiers over the artists in its shotgun wedding of art and commerce.” (Oh, Jesse, what a phrase!) For those not in the know, basically, the financiers of a Broadway show are like the administrators of a university: they have inflated budgets and salaries, while exploiting the creatives. And Jesse uses the example of the overwhelming number of producers who run onstage to claim the Best Musical award, while the audience can barely pick out the cast and creative team. As a fellow Broadway enthusiast (I’m listening to the Sirius XM Broadway channel as I’m writing this–72 for other enthusiasts!) and I completely relate to Jesse’s desire for a Tony Award ceremony that privileges the actual artists over the financial backers. He asks another hard hitting question which is: “Why should the best show people somehow keep making the dullest, tackiest hodgepodge of a show?” Yes, Jesse doesn’t mince words, which is what is so refreshing about his writing, and there are so many layers that must be addressed, Jesse writes, in order for equity to exist during the night of the Tonys. 

For example, not only did the Broadway community lose so many of its members from the pandemic, but the community is also reckoning with “the racism long built into the theatrical ecosystem.” As with so many institutions in America, the theater community is not without its systemic racist legacy. Many BIPOC artists, especially in the Broadway community, have been speaking out about the need to air this racist history and about what must be done to end this racist legacy. The playwright Lydia R. Diamond explains that with so many intellects present in the theater community that if they can “figure…out how to make people buy seats at between $150 to $500” then they “…can figure out how to not be racist.” The problem, Diamond says, is “there’s not a real investment in it [ending systemic racism]. There just isn’t. And that’s how our country has functioned. We talk a good game about it. All of the institutions are writing letters about how they stand in solidarity. But until you show me institutional change, I don’t want to hear it.” 

I’m in complete agreement with Jesse that having two hours dedicated to three awards may actually be the inertia needed to center the artists, and actually let them be in charge of directing the theatrical segments of the Tonys (excerpts from the honored plays and musicals). I hope that Jesse is right that this year can be a major turning point where Broadway uplifts its artists, instead of needing to appeal to investors and favor “…the commercial side so fawningly” (Green). Oh how wonderful it would be to have either Billy Porter or Meryl Streep host the Tonys this year (may I enter Audra McDonald’s name in the hat?). Jesse’s writing has a magical aura of manifestation that I’m onboard with; it feels as if, as I’m reading the article, his words are becoming reality before my eyes, and I truly hope that his wish comes true: that this year’s Tonys, allow for “drop-dead production numbers and quieter, more intimate moments to create rhythm more like the experience you actually get on Broadway.” As the saying goes…from Jesse’s mouth to God’s ears…or something like that.

If you haven’t yet, have a listen to our interview with Jesse Green.

(Radio City Music Hall)

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