The 2013 Tony Awards: Is this the best there is?

The State of American Theater, is this it?

The Tony Award

Excellence in theater

Every year the theatrical community of New York distributes awards for excellence. Just as their counterparts in the film industry do in L.A., actors are momentarily turned into race horses. At the end of each category announced, one lucky thoroughbred wins the roses.

Much like their west coast counter parts, the acceptance speeches are seldom memorable, except for their duration.

I am uncertain as to how the process works to select who actually is best. If there are great
performances all the way around, who is the best of the best? What is the criterion? It is one thing to separate the crap from the credible, exactly how does one choose one great performance versus another? The same holds true with a screen play or a stage play. If one is a comedy and the other a drama, what is the guideline that makes one better than the other.

Questions like these have been around since the first Oscar hit an eager actor’s hand. But one reason could very well be is that we all like a good “blood” sport. The thrill comes from pitting one strong contestant against the another. In the mix, a victor emerges. That could be part of the attraction of award shows.

The other possible explanation for their endurance may stem from reactions. When the camera pans the horses running the race, there is that anticipation that the serene faces will crack knowing they have not won. The sadistic side comes from knowing that those who thought they would win walk away empty handed. The loosers can’t complain. That would be unsportsmanlike. All they can is gracefully smile.

In some ways, the Tonys have a lot in common with the price is right. The fun of the show is not winning, it is watching greedy loosers walking away empty handed. With award shows it is not about winners, it is all about the loosers.

Naturally, no one wants to admit that these shows turn hard work into a petty horse race, or that they vulgarize the very thing they wish to celebrate. No one wants to admit the obvious. That would remove the fun. The sadistic thrill of seeing the elevated reduced to loosers at an awards show satiates certain human urges to make it clear you cannot have it all. We like to see our stars squirm a bit.

As for the winners, well they are almost anticlimactic compared to the empty handed second runs. Just as we collectively like to reduce high achievers to emotional messes, we have an innate desire to elevate other human beings. In order to raise someone so high, someone else has to bear the weight of it all.

The argument that awards shows and commercial ticket sales bring out the best just does not seem as true as it may have been in times long gone. There are those who feel the market place can distinguish between the worthwhile from the worthless. Instead, the market place and ticket prices are having an adverse impact on creativity.

What I noticed about this year’s Tonys, the large number of rivals. Plays that have been seen and performed are being exhumed at record pace. Serious drama is a breath of a presence. Dominating American theater are many musical works, but few dramatic pieces that attempt to tackle the human condition or the times in which we live.

Escapism is the rule of Broadway now. Give the public bright loud musicals and garish costumes and everything is fine.

Well, not so fine.

The big problems with Broadway are the costs. When production costs reach multiple millions, taking risks is not possible. Unless a production is guaranteed a good R.O.I. the work will become a D.O.A.

What this means is that everyone is playing it safe. What better way to ensure success than to regurgitate what has already been successful. Don’t change much, just bring it back to life and pray you have a good box office.

The dominance of heavy money has killed the creative spark of Broadway as it has professional sports and cinema. Everyone wants it bigger and larger. They do not want it deeper and better. Put in a few car crashes, flashing lights and a paper thin plot a five year old can follow and that is it. If there is any confusion, ask a focus group to fine tune the whole thing for you. The director, actor, production crew, cinematographer and the lighting crew are reduced to making template run productions that will be forgotten not long after they see the light of day.

The “Great White Way,” or as it should it be the “The Great Boring Way” claims superiority due to the higher intellectual ground serious theater requires. It also elevates itself because of the grind of turning out six performances, or more, every week. The claim of superiority to live theater is an argument hardly worth investigating. Both are hard work, both require talent and discipline. None are easy. If you think anyone can act, check out a Madonna film and you get the picture. Just because you can make hit single or two, never live with the illusion you will be a screen “sensation.”

Supremacy, either on the stag or screen can be debated. What cannot is the fact that as ticket prices and production costs have hurt contemporary film, high and mighty broadway has fallen as well.

Where are the serious in depth dramas? Who is continuing the canon of American Theater that has comprised great playwrights such as Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neal, Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller, Langston Hughes and August Wilson. There are many more. The reality of American Theater is the drive for bigger sales has all but exterminated new dramas from being created.

Is it possible we live in society where art is dead? Are we in a horrid end game where the best is behind us? People said much the same after the fall of Rome. Where is there to go but down. Funny, the age that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire created learning during the Middle Ages that would become the Renaissance. So much for saying the best is behind us. History has proven how wrong that actually is.


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