Thursday, January 22, 2015

Tony Game Change! What the Category Expansions Mean for This Year's Awards

An increase in the potential number of acting nominees certainly helps Jay Armstrong Johnson's and Alysha Umphress' Tony chances, not that On the Town's dynamic duo needed the boost.

Last week, the Tony Awards administration committee stealthily announced yet another rule change during their regularly scheduled eligibility decisions. Similar to last year's expansion of the maximum number of potential Best Musical, Play, and Revival nominees, this year's changes seem focused on spreading the love by increasing the slot count in several categories. Starting this season, the number of directing and acting nominees can be increased from their traditional caps as long as there are enough eligible productions. As last year's Tony races proved, just because the committee can select extra nominees doesn't mean they actually will, so we can't be sure any of these new powers will be exercised when the nominations are announced on April 28th.

That said, I would be shocked if the committee doesn't take advantage of their newfound ability to choose five nominees in the Director of a Play and Director of a Musical races. There only need to be seven qualifying productions to trigger the slot increase, a number Broadway has easily exceeded for the past several seasons. Since the direction categories make no distinction between new works and revivals, I can't imagine a year where the expansion isn't theoretically possible. And while the Tony committee opted to pass on selecting the maximum number of Best Musical nominees last year, there are so many talented and respected directors working on Broadway at the moment I suspect we'll be seeing five nominee races for the foreseeable future.

A similar allowance was made for the expansion of the Best Choreography category, although I find it unlikely the committee will use this option on a regular basis. If we're being blatantly honest, there has been a dearth of strong dance shows on Broadway in the past decade, although On the Town and the upcoming An American in Paris happily buck this trend. In recent years the nominations committee has used a Best Choreography nod as a way to honor director/choreographers who didn't make the directing list, as they did with Susan Stroman and Casey Nicholaw last year. With an extra slot available in the Best Director category, the committee will be able to focus on a smaller group of truly deserving choreographers.

The potential game changer lies in the acting categories now being able to expand to a possible seven(!) nominees under the right circumstances. While the idea of a seven-way race is certainly exciting - especially in the supporting categories, which often feature an abundance of deserving talent - I don't expect to see many seven nominee categories. The only way to nominate more than the traditional five performers is to have a tie for the fifth slot, something which is definitely possible but by no means guaranteed.

However, the relatively small number of Tony voters has many insiders convinced the competitive races are decided by a handful of votes. Since official tallies are never released we can't know for sure, but with the nominations committee comprised of only a fraction of the total number of voters I'm inclined to believe ties are not uncommon. The Theatre Wing's incredibly specific rules for tie breakers further supports the theory this issue comes up on at least a semi-regular basis. This new rule might shed some light on just how close Tony races are; if we see a lot of six and seven person acting races over the next few years, we'll know that ties are relatively common during the nominations process.

I certainly believe we'll see an increased number of nominees come May, but as last year proved the Tony committee is not interested in maxing out every category. They may not even have a ton of control over it, as everything is based on secret ballots and weighted votes to the point where even the nominators probably don't know the results until they're announced in late April. Also, while it would be awesome to give nominations to as many people as possible, keeping the number of honorees limited helps maintain the prestige of Broadway's highest honor.

So which specific shows and performers will benefit from these rule changes? Check back soon to see my extremely early predictions for this year's biggest races!

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