How American playwrights saved the Tony Awards

How American playwrights saved the Tony Awards

Martyna Majok, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, was revising her musical adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” after a long day in a development workshop when she heard the news: the union representing striking screenwriters was not going to grant waiver for the Tony Awards, jeopardizing this year’s telecast.

So at three in the morning, she put aside her screenplay to join a group of playwrights frantically writing emails and phoning the leaders of the Writers Guild of America, urging the union not to make the industry of theater hampered by the collateral damage pandemic in a Hollywood dispute. “I had to try,” she said.

Surprising even themselves, the army of artists succeeded. The writers’ union agreed to a compromise: it said it would not picket the ceremony until the show relied on a written script.

“Theatre is struggling to recover from the devastating effects of the pandemic – shows are struggling and non-profit theaters are struggling terribly,” said Tony Kushner, who is widely regarded as one of the most great living playwrights of America, and is, like many of his peers, also a screenwriter. “Ethically and morally, it felt like an acknowledgment of the particular vulnerability of the theater industry. It’s the right thing to do and it costs us nothing.

Kushner, who is best known for the Pulitzer-winning piece “Angels in America,” is a strong strike supporter who freely denounces the “unreasonable greed” of studio bosses and showed up on a picket line as soon as ‘she began. But he spent a weekend calling and writing to labor leaders in New York and Los Angeles, urging them to find a way to let the Tony Awards go ahead, arguing that canceling them would have been far more damaging to workers. theater artists than for CBS, which broadcasts the event.

He was among a number of acclaimed playwrights – including David Henry Hwang and Jeremy O. Harris – who spent a weekend phoning and emailing union leaders. At least half a dozen Pulitzer winners have joined the cause, including Lynn Nottage (“Sweat” and “Ruined”), Quiara Alegría Hudes (“Water by the Spoonful”), David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole”) , Donald Margulies (“Dinner with friends”) and Majok (“Cost of living”).

Majok, who herself is a first-time Tony nominee this year for ‘Cost of Living’, said, “I approached them with respect and gratitude for all they have done for me,” a- she said, “but this decision has impacted so many people. of my colleagues and friends deeply, in an industry that is still in financial difficulty.

Writers are never the main attraction at the Tony Awards. The annual ceremony is centered around musical theatre, hoping the dazzling song and dance numbers will inspire viewers to rise from their couches and come visit Broadway. Broadcasting often struggles to portray serious drama.

But playwrights say they treasure the Tonys because the ceremony introduces new audiences to the theater. “One way or another, it’s all connected,” Kushner said.

And for once, playwrights did indeed have the power, because in recent years, as the number of scripted series on TV and streaming services has exploded, many of them have also taken jobs in film and television, which are much more profitable than the theater industry. Many Tony Award-preoccupied playwrights were also members of the Writers Guild — some quite successful, like Kushner, who penned the screenplays for Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” “Lincoln,” “West Side Story” and “The Fabelmans.” . and Kenneth Lonergan, who wrote ‘The Waverly Gallery’ for the stage and ‘Manchester by the Sea’ for the screen.

“Most playwrights are members of the WGA because they have to make a living and have health insurance,” said Ralph Sevush, executive director of business affairs for the Dramatists Guild of America, which is a professional association of writers in theater. “And yes, a lot of them did a lot of lobbying with the WGA to find a way to get the broadcast out.”

The screenwriters’ union was torn about whether to help the Tony Awards, with its Eastern branch filled with more sympathetic playwright members than the affiliated Western branch, which is more Hollywood-oriented. It has not gone unnoticed that many theater workers have supported the writers’ strike, including Actors’ Equity Association President Kate Shindle, who has brought members of her union to the picket lines and spoke with the heads of the two branches of the screenwriters’ guild.

“There was no master strategy involved – we were just defending the writers,” Shindle said. “But I’m happy with the way it seems a decision has been made: the writers are talking to each other and debating among themselves, which seems like the right thing to do.”

The Tonys seem to be a rare exception. In the days after the theatrical awards were given the green light, this year’s Peabody Awards, which recognize storytelling in electronic media, were canceled, and the Daytime Emmy Awards, which recognize work in television, were postponed. .

Asked about the decision, Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, vice president of the Eastern Branch of the Screenwriters Guild, issued an emailed statement that said, in part, “we recognize the devastating impact that the lack of a Tonys would have on our New York theater community.Here at WGA East, we have many, many members who are playwrights, and we are deeply connected to our sister unions whose members work in theater.

Playwrights weren’t actually Broadway boosters’ first choice to strategize on how to save the Tonys – at first, industry executives thought they could turn to prominent politicians and actors famous for defending their cause. But they quickly realized that the playwrights, because of their ties to the WGA, were in a better position to influence the discussion. Harris, who wrote “Slave Play,” and Gina Gionfriddo (“Rapture, Blister, Burn”) rallied the writers to the cause, along with agent Joe Machota, who is the head of theater for Creative Artists Agency.

This year, they argued, would be a particularly unfortunate time to downgrade the Tony Awards.

Broadway attendance and overall receipts remain well below pre-pandemic levels, and new musicals are struggling — four of the five nominated shows are losing money most weeks.

Unlike the Oscars, which usually take place after the theatrical releases of the nominated films, the Tonys take place early in the run of most nominated musicals, so they can translate into ticket sales. Tonys matter to plays in a different way: nominations and wins have a huge impact on how often these works are staged, read, and taught.

“People who don’t work in playwriting don’t always have a meaningful understanding of Broadway’s importance to Off Broadway and to regional theaters – they really are a beacon for the community as a whole, and even if you don’t care about the glitz and glamour, if they start losing money, it ripples all over the country,” said Tanya Barfield, a TV playwright and screenwriter who is co-director of the program in playwriting at Juilliard.

After hearing that her union had refused a waiver for the Tony Awards, a “heartbroken” Barfield joined a picket line with a homemade “I ❤️ the Tony Awards” sticker on her WGA sign. And she wrote to the union leaders. “We wanted to make sure theaters didn’t become a victim,” she said.

Another concern: This year’s Tony Awards feature an unusually diverse group of nominees, reflecting the increasingly diverse range of shows staged on Broadway since 2020. Five of this year’s nominated new and revival plays are from black writers; four of the five nominees for best actor in a play are black; the high score category includes an Asian American woman for the first time; and the acting nominees include two gender nonconforming performers as well as a female double amputee.

“We need to show what we’ve seen with the diverse talent and rich storytelling of the past few years,” Majok said.

The Tonys will be different this year. The event will take place, as scheduled, at the United Palace in Upper Manhattan, featuring a live audience, live performances of musical numbers from nominated shows, and the presentation and acceptance of awards. But there will be no scripted material (a draft script has been submitted, but will not be used) and no scripted opening number (Lin-Manuel Miranda had planned to write one). Ariana DeBose, the Oscar-winning actress who was named host for the second year in a row, is still expected to take part, but it’s unclear what role she’ll be playing.

A novelty expected at this year’s ceremony? Congratulations to the scriptwriters on strike. Hwang, a WGA member who called and emailed union leaders asking them to reconsider their stance on the Tonys, said, “I anticipate there will be a lot of speeches expressing our appreciation and support. at the guild on Tony’s night.

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