I sigh even as I type the words "Tony Awards"—that everyone I know, even in an arts-obsessed workplace, chuckles every time I mention them says all you need to know about the place of Broadway theater in the larger cultural scene—but yesterday’s decision to ax journalists from the ranks of Tony voters has led to some of the most scabrous reviews of recent memory, and deservedly so.
People used to be warned not to pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel; in the age of the Web, it’s probably advisable not to piss off the people who make their living by distinguishing junk from genius.
The justification for the change was skimpy to say the least: "the Management Committee took into consideration the fact that certain publications and individual critics have historically pursued a policy of abstaining from voting on entertainment awards in general, to avoid any possible conflicts of interest in fulfilling their primary responsibilities as journalists." Huh? Broadway Stars’ Matthew Murray translated that into English: "It's a conflict of interest for journalists—who live by the standards through which their very jobs and statuses within their professional community exist, and don't work professionally on shows or with people they write about—to vote for the Tony Awards, because they might write about the shows they see. But it isn't a conflict of interest for hundreds of other people to vote for themselves, their friends, or the shows in which they have a vested, public, and frequently financial interest."
Time Out ’s Adam Feldman put it best in Upstaged, the magazine’s theater blog:
[The decision] represents another regrettable step toward the marginalization of critics within the New York theatrical community. It is true that critics do not vote for the Oscar or Emmy Awards; but theater is an inherently more local and personal industry, in which critics have historically played an important role. (Not for nothing are Broadway theaters named after Walter Kerr and Brooks Atkinson.) But critics, and indeed criticism, are inconvenient to the modern theater marketer: Old-fashioned in our insistence on quality, unreliable in our support for expensive projects and less necessary in light of the diffusion of information in the Internet Age. We can expect to see more such gestures of exclusion in the future, each chipping away, as intended, at the status of critics within the theater world.
Photograph of Liza Minnelli by BRYAN BEDDER/Getty Images.