Should the Tony Awards Reconsider Special Theatrical Event?

At the most recent meeting of the Tony Awards Administration Committee, Kathy Griffin's one woman show Kathy Griffin Wants a Tony was deemed ineligible for awards consideration. At an earlier meeting, Paul Reuben's updated The Pee-Wee Herman Show was deemed eligible for all the play categories. This Broadway season has also seen concerts like Donny & Marie: A Broadway Christmas, innovative mixed song/book/projection/special effects shows like Brief Encounter, and one-person shows like Ghetto Klown. From 1999 to 2009, The Tony Awards Administration Committee was given the option to categorize non-traditional shows as Special Theatrical Events. Some years, only one show was eligible and awarded, like Dame Edna: The Royal Tour or Sarah Jones' one-woman show Bridge and Tunnel. Some years, there would be multiple nominees; other years, no nominees. There was no requirement to include the category each year. It was designed to recognize outstanding theater outside of traditional plays and musicals.

After the 2008-2009 Tony Award season, the organization removed the Special Theatrical Event category altogether. There was no official explanation, just a statement saying as such. Part of the concern was that legitimate plays and musicals were lumped in with concerts and stand-up shows in a category that awarded unusual theater. What chance did something like You're Welcome, America--Will Ferrel's one-man play about George W. Bush's final address to America--have against Liza's At the Palace...!--a night of song and dance in tribute to people who influence Liza Minelli's career? Was it a fair fight and did these plays deserve special treatment?

I think the elimination of the category was a foolish mistake. Not every season has a true Special Theatrical Event, so to speak, but the ones that could be described as an event don't stand a chance against traditional book musicals and plays. Take the beautifully executed Soul of Shaolin in 2009. The martial arts extravaganza from China did have a book and characters. There was a definite narrative to the action onstage. However, it was not driven by dialog. It was driven by precision martial arts, costuming, and weapons. Had the production come out in 2010 or 2011, there is no way the Tony voters would have gone for such a non-traditional production even if it is a play. When you produce something that off-base from what everyone else is doing and it's that good, it deserves a chance to be recognized.

I do not think this needs to be a mandatory category each year. What the Tony Awards need to do is set up criteria to help define the difference between a special theatrical event and a more traditional play or musical. Once the criteria are established, the Tony Award Administration Committee needs to see the potential special theatrical events and evaluate them. If they reach a certain threshold of eligibility, they announce them as eligible in Special Theatrical Event. When nomination time comes, the voters have the option of choosing or not choosing to nominate the eligible productions. The potential award recipients would have to receive a certain percentage of nominations to be up for the award. If only one show is nominated, treat it like a special achievement Tony Award in the category of Special Theatrical Event. If more than one show is nominated, use the normal Tony Award procedures.

If the Academy Awards can get away with the crazy preferential balloting system to find ten nominees for Best Picture, the Tony Awards can take the time to make Special Theatrical Event work as a competitive prize. It wasn't a bad award. It was just poorly managed.