In the days leading up to the Oscars and Emmys, gossip magazines dish about who will be wearing what designer’s dress, what’s in the swag bag, and who’s inviting–or not inviting–whom. The days leading up to the Tonys are also full of gossip and speculation. People vy for votes and try to woo the out-of-town voters who are known as the Kings of the Road. Everyone, everywhere seems to be talking about the work.
“Theater is a much smaller community than film or television,” says Wendy Goldberg (A.B. 1995), a veteran theater director and the Artistic Director of the National Playwrights Conference and National Directors Fellowship. “I think on some level we all recognize how difficult it is to be working in the theater at all, so we’re good to each other. I think there is a generous spirit around all of it for the most part.”
This generosity of spirit is a good thing because the process for both nominating and choosing winners on Broadway’s big night requires a lot of togetherness. Around 50 theater professionals make Tony nominations after they have all physically attended every new production that runs at the 41 eligible theaters during that season. Once the nominations are announced, the spotlight turns to the Tony judges: all 850 of them.
Unlike Emmy and Oscar award judges who can watch the shows at home, Tony Award judges have to actually attend every nominated performance. If they haven’t seen all the nominations within a certain category, they’re not allowed to cast a vote there.
“I certainly try to see everything I possibly can,” says Goldberg. “Once the nominations come out in May, I typically streamline my viewing process and get to everything that has been nominated and is still running. I sometimes take notes on work so I don’t have to keep everything in my mind, but any serious theater professional sees work all year long, and thus it becomes second nature to take it in, to process it, and be mindful of what you are seeing.”
From Broadway to the Corner Bakery
Tony Award categories and designations have been evolving since the awards began. The Best Play category didn't exist when the awards were established in 1947, and there wasn’t a Best Musical award until 1949. Sometimes these changes have been a source of contention, such as whether a show should be considered new or revival, which in turn determines its eligibility for certain prizes. This year the Tonys reinstated the sound design award, which had been absent for two seasons. Goldberg is happy to see the category come back. Next she’s hoping the Tonys will raise the profile of the creative awards, like Best Lighting or Best Costume Design, by televising that part of the ceremony.
The Tony Awards are named for Antoinette Perry (pictured above, right), a stage actress and one of theater's first female producers and directors. Early on, Tony award winners were given scrolls, compacts, cigarette lighters, and bill clips. In 1967, award recipients received the Tony Award® Medallion (pictured above, left).
In addition to the shifting categories, the Tonys’s precise and cumbersome rules are the subjects of complaint, but Goldberg likes the approach because it requires the Tony voters to apply their different types of expertise to comprehensively evaluate a single production. As a director, the expertise Goldberg brings is broad.
“Directors oversee all areas of design, acting, etc.,” she explains. “The Broadway League who administers the awards sees us as uniquely qualified to see this work and to make recommendations.”
Goldberg’s directing chops come to the Tonys through her membership on the Executive Board of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, a board on which she has sat since 2005. Watching plays as a judge, she says, is a very different experience than watching a play as a regular audience member.
“Frankly,” she says, “seeing work where there is no award possibility attached is just more enjoyable overall to me.” But, she says, being a judge has made her savvier about the commercial influence on the theater world.
The first woman to lead the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, Goldberg is deeply involved in developing, directing, and producing new works from both major American playwrights and rising stars.
“We are always just looking for the most relevant storytellers,” Goldberg says. “Sometimes these stories do cross over into the commercial theater, but I don’t make decisions based on what a Broadway audience will think.”
Still, she says, “It’s good to keep an eye on writers who have that ability to cross into the commercial realm. I’m always so curious how a Broadway audience will receive work I’ve always felt is strong from writers I have always admired. When we think of Broadway, we are talking about a large tourist audience. It’s a very different audience than most companies play to, whether they’re here in NYC or in regional theaters.”
But there’s no shortage of work for Goldberg to feel excited about, especially some immersive theater projects, including one set in a downtown pie shop.
“The sort of world and experience this project provides an audience is really exciting,” she says. “I think the vision of that is tough to pull off, but I find anything that comes close compelling.”
Compelling enough to draw her Tony vote? Goldberg says you can ask her after the ceremony is over.