How America's playwrights saved the Tony Awards

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How America's playwrights saved the Tony Awards
Gregg Mozgala, left, and Kara Young perform a scene in “Cost of Living” at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater in New York, Sept. 15, 2022. “Cost of Living,” by Martyna Majok, is nominated for best new play. Majok joined other playwrights lobbying the writers’ union to allow the Tonys telecast to proceed. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Michael Paulson

NEW YORK, NY.- Martyna Majok, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, was revising her musical adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” after a long day in a developmental workshop when she heard the news: The union representing striking screenwriters was not going to grant a waiver for the Tony Awards, imperiling this year’s telecast.

So at 3 in the morning, she set aside her script to join a group of playwrights frantically writing emails and making phone calls to leaders of the Writers Guild of America, urging the union not to make the pandemic-hobbled theater industry collateral damage in a Hollywood dispute. “I had to try,” she said.

Surprising even themselves, the army of artists succeeded. The screenwriters’ union agreed to a compromise: it said it would not picket the ceremony as long as the show does not rely on a written script.

“Theater is having a very hard time coming back from the devastating effects of the pandemic — shows are struggling and nonprofit theaters are struggling terribly,” said Tony Kushner, who is widely regarded as one of America’s greatest living playwrights, and is, like many of his peers, also a screenwriter. “Ethically and morally, this felt like a recognition of the particular vulnerability of the theater industry. It’s the right thing to do, and costs us nothing.”

Kushner, who is best known for the Pulitzer-winning play “Angels in America,” is a fiery supporter of the strike who freely denounces the “unconscionable greed” of studio bosses and who showed up on a picket line as soon as it began. But he spent a weekend calling and writing union leaders in both New York and Los Angeles, urging them to find a way to let the Tony Awards happen, arguing that canceling them would have been far more damaging to theater artists than to CBS, which broadcasts the event.

He was among a number of acclaimed dramatists — including David Henry Hwang and Jeremy O. Harris — who spent a weekend phoning and emailing union leaders. At least a half-dozen Pulitzer winners joined the cause, including Lynn Nottage (“Sweat” and “Ruined”), Quiara Alegría Hudes (“Water by the Spoonful”), David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole”), Donald Margulies (“Dinner with Friends”) and Majok (“Cost of Living”).

Majok, who is a first-time Tony nominee herself this year for “Cost of Living,” said, “I approached them with respect and gratitude for all they have done for me,” she said, “but this decision was impacting so many of my colleagues and friends deeply, in an industry that is still financially struggling.”

Writers are never the main attraction at the Tony Awards. The annual ceremony centers around musical theater, hoping that razzle-dazzle song and dance numbers will inspire viewers to get up off their couches and come visit Broadway. The telecast often struggles with how to represent serious drama.

But playwrights say they treasure the Tonys, because the ceremony introduces new audiences to theater. “In one way or another, it’s all connected,” Kushner said.

And for once playwrights actually had power, because in recent years, as the number of scripted series on television and streaming services has exploded, many of them have also taken jobs working in film and television, which pays much better than the theater industry. Many of the playwrights concerned about the Tony Awards were also members of the Writers Guild — some quite successful, like Kushner, who wrote the scripts for Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” “Lincoln,” “West Side Story” and “The Fabelmans,” and Kenneth Lonergan, who wrote “The Waverly Gallery” for the stage and “Manchester by the Sea” for the screen.

“Most playwrights are WGA members because they have to make a living and get health insurance,” said Ralph Sevush, the executive director of business affairs for the Dramatists Guild of America, which is a trade association of theater writers. “And yes, there was a great deal of lobbying of the WGA by many of them to find a way to get the broadcast on.”

The screenwriters’ union was torn over whether to assist the Tony Awards, with its eastern branch, filled with playwright members more sympathetic than the affiliated western branch, which is more Hollywood-oriented. It did not go unnoticed that many theatrical workers have been vocally supporting the writers’ strike, including Kate Shindle, the president of the Actors’ Equity Association, who has brought members of her union to the picket lines and who spoke with the heads of both branches of the screenwriters’ guild.

“There was no master strategy involved — we were just standing up for the writers,” Shindle said. “But I’m happy with the way that it seems like a decision came about: writers talking to and debating with each other, which feels like the right thing.”

The Tonys seem likely to be a rare exception. In the days following the greenlighting of the theatrical awards, this year’s Peabody Awards, which honor storytelling in electronic media, were canceled, and the Daytime Emmy Awards, which honor work on television, were postponed.

Asked about the decision, Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, a vice president of the screenwriters’ guild’s eastern branch, offered an emailed statement that said, in part, “we recognize the devastating impact the absence of a Tonys would have on our New York theater community. Here in WGA East, we have many, many members who are playwrights, and we are deeply intertwined with our sister unions whose members work in the theater.”

Playwrights were not actually the first choice of Broadway boosters strategizing about how to save the Tonys — at first, industry leaders thought they might look to prominent politicians and famous actors to make their case. But they quickly realized that playwrights, because of their ties to the WGA, were better positioned to influence the discussion. Harris, who wrote “Slave Play,” and Gina Gionfriddo (“Rapture, Blister, Burn”) rallied writers to the cause, along with agent Joe Machota, who is the head of theater for Creative Artists Agency.

This year, they argued, would be an especially unfortunate time to downgrade the Tony Awards.

Broadway attendance and overall grosses remain well below pre-pandemic levels, and new musicals are struggling — four of the five nominated shows are losing money most weeks.

Unlike the Oscars, which generally take place after the theatrical runs of nominated films, the Tonys take place early in the run of most nominated musicals, so they can translate into ticket sales. The Tonys matter for plays in a different way: nominations and wins have an enormous impact on how often those works are staged, read and taught.

“People that don’t work in playwriting don’t always have a meaningful understanding of how important Broadway is to off-Broadway and to regional theaters — they’re really a beacon for the community at large, and even if you don’t care about the glitz and the glamour, if they start to lose money, it has impacts all over the country,” said Tanya Barfield, a playwright and television writer who is the co-director of the playwriting program at The Juilliard School.

After she heard her union had denied a waiver for the Tony Awards, a “heartbroken” Barfield joined a picket line with a homemade “I [heart] the Tony Awards” sticker on her WGA sign. And she wrote union leaders. “We wanted to make sure theaters did not become a casualty,” she said.

Another concern: this year’s Tony Awards feature an unusually diverse group of nominees, reflecting the increasingly diverse array of shows staged on Broadway since 2020. Five of this year’s nominated new plays and play revivals are by Black writers; four of the five nominees for best actor in a play are Black; the best score category for the first time includes an Asian American woman; and the acting nominees include two gender nonconforming performers as well as a woman who is a double amputee.

“We need to showcase what we’ve been seeing with the diverse talent and rich storytelling of the past few years,” Majok said.

The Tonys will be different this year. The event will take place, as planned, at the United Palace in Upper Manhattan, with a live audience, live performances of musical numbers from nominated shows, and the presentation and acceptance of awards. But there will be no scripted material (a draft script had been submitted, but will not be used) and no scripted opening number (Lin-Manuel Miranda had been planning to write one). Ariana DeBose, the Oscar-winning actress who had been named its host for the second year in a row, is still expected to take part, but it is not clear what role she will play.

One new element that is expected at this year’s ceremony? Shout-outs to the striking screenwriters. Hwang, a WGA member who called and emailed union leaders asking them to rethink their position on the Tonys, said, “I anticipate that there will be a lot of speeches that express our appreciation and support for the guild on Tony night.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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