The Tony Awards: Who Will Get to Vote Anyways???
Right now, as I’m typing this, there are roughly 846 people across the country that are waiting to receive their ballot for the Antoinette Perry Award for Excellence in Theatre, more commonly known as the Tony Award. Just a few days ago, May 3rd, the Tony Award Nominating Committee’s decision was announced, with the smash hit Hamilton setting a record for most nominations ever, with 16. Over the next month, voters will be rushing off to theaters to see the nominated works, as they are not allowed to vote in any category that they haven’t seen all of the nominees for. The ballots must be filled out and sent back soon; the ceremony is June 12th and the resulted must be counted and confirmed. When all is said and done, those bringing home the trophies may feel like the only winners of the night, but their moments wouldn’t be possible without the network of voters across the country. And in my quest to take the magic out of everything by learning how it works, I wanted to know exactly how a show goes from nomination to Tony Award winner.
I started my search for the truth in the logical place, the rules and regulations page of tonyawards.com. This didn’t yield many results as the most specific detail about the voters was the number in the first sentence of this piece and even that was said to fluctuate. The official list of eligible voters, according to the Tony’s own website is a 93-word laundry list of groups that may have eligible voters. Talk about clear and concise; am I right? It is simultaneously highly specific and incredibly broad, defying linguistic conventions. I did some more searching using high-level google fu. Everything led me back to the same page. I never imagined this level of secrecy was possible for something that, in the long run, is pretty inconsequential. These are Tony voters, not jurors in a murder trial. What are they afraid of, intimidation through dance? I was ready to give up and just assume that Tony winners were decided in a Jets-versus-Sharks dance battle, when fate intervened.
I was talking to a regular, let’s call him Tom (his name has been changed per his request) at a coffee shop I’m always at and I happened to be wearing my beat-up RENT T-shirt, the white screen-printed logo crackling on the black cotton after years of washing and wearing. Tom commented on the vintage Broadway shirt and I replied that it was one of my favorites, as I had seen the show several times. Then he said the words that put me back on my quest: “Really, you’re a musical fan? Me too, I’m actually a Tony voter.” Not only did Tom become the coolest regular, in my opinion, but also I knew I had found my way in. We talked and I asked if I could contact him with some questions I had about the process of voting and he agreed.
We emailed back and forth, I found out Tom had been acting across three decades and was asked to be a voter about four years ago. He warned me that he might not be able to answer everything, presumably due to the clandestine nature of the Tony voting process. Eventually, I sent him my questions and waited with bated breath. When his response arrived, I was delirious with the thought of being so close to all the answers, all I had to do was click one little button and I would have caught my white whale.
Well, almost. Because of the multiple moving parts that make up the Tony Awards voting bloc, the individual voter involvement with the overall institution that is the Tony’s varies greatly across the board. “The Tony process is a nice honor—it’s also very subjective,” this voter Tom said, “There’s so much great stage work, in many cities across the US—some that end up making it to NY, others that don’t have any reason to. It’s really the icing on an already beautiful cake.” He also acknowledged that some voters regard it as a “singular duty” and that voters come from literally every corner of the live theater world, “directors, designers, actors, producers, presenters, etc.”
Tom was able to give me a few details on the actual process, such as the fact that the ballots usually have two to three week turnaround time. Because of this, many voters just try to see as many shows as possible before the ballots are sent out, so they don’t have to fit several shows into two weeks. Additionally, voters are able to choose which categories to vote for; if one voter is an actor, but knows nothing about lighting design, they vote in the acting categories and skip the lighting awards. And finally, voters are not guaranteed an invitation to the telecast, and while this may seem like a snub the real reason in logistical. The Tony Awards take place in a theater, not a stadium; With about 850 voters scattered across the country, reserving nearly a third of the Beacon Theatre’s 2894 seats for people who may not make it to the show isn’t really feasible, especially when you consider they have to have seats for all the nominees and their loved ones. Most voters will have to tune in just like the rest of us on June 12th to find out if their picks are the ones to bring home the Tony. On that night, they won’t be Tony voters, just theater fans like the rest of us.