Last night, the Tony Awards management committee announced that the so-called "First Night" critics -- the ones who (in theory) attend and review shows based on opening nights -- will no longer be eligible to vote in the Tony Awards process. The reason, according to a New York Times report, is that "...the committee concluded that it was a conflict of interest for journalists to vote on Tony contenders when they have a platform to champion a show in news and entertainment media."
So, who's left to vote for the Tonys? Producers, theater owners, publicists, actors, writers, designers, and other union and committee members. You know, the people who have absolutely no conflict of interest. As Robert Diamond, editor-in-chief of BroadwayWorld.com, tweeted last night shortly after the announcement, "As if voting for the Tony Awards needed to find a way to make the process even more insular/biased."
The Tony Awards have really never been more than a thin marketing ploy. (When was the last time the season's best musical actually won Best Musical?) However, as Diamond intimates, this decision brings the voting process in the wrong direction. There were only 800 or so people who voted for the Tonys before this decision, and now there will be only about 700, a reduction of about 13%. And one of the worst kept secrets in the industry is that many of those voters don't bother to see all the shows, although they are supposed to before voting in any particular category. Some shows in recent seasons have seen fewer than 1/3 of the eligible Tony voters show up to see the show. In addition, we're now even more likely to see skewed results: shows with larger casts and crew are even more likely to win because they have more people involved in them to vote, and fewer overall voters to offset that bias.
According to Adam Feldman, critic for Time Out New York, the idea that critics have a conflict of interest is "thin stuff indeed." He writes, "If anything, critics are among the voters least compromised by conflicts of interest, and most likely to vote objectively and fairly for the work they judge to be best." So why did the Tony committee really make this change? Feldman offers this rationale: "...[C]ritics, 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."
Cynical, to be sure, but I'm not so sure he's inaccurate. What do you think, dear reader? Is Feldman right? Is this part of a tacit marginalization of the critical mass? Or is this just sour grapes on the part of the slighted?