Four-time tony award nominee Tovah Feldshuh—no longer in the grandmotherly costume that she wears in her one-woman show, Golda’s Balcony, with stockings built specially to make one leg appear thicker than the other—leaned closer, digging lustily with her left hand into the bowl of peanuts on the bar of the Broadway clubhouse Angus McIndoe. She’s up for Best Leading Actress in a Play this year.
“I’ve been in this community over half my life,” says Feldshuh. “I’ve never won. I certainly know very well how to be nominated and not to get up.”
Unlike the character she plays, Feldshuh possesses no “secret nukes” to fend off the other nominees—who include the better-known Anne Heche and Phylicia Rashad. There’s only an intense and charming actress, still coming down from the endorphins of her vigorously Zionistic performance earlier that evening, in a short, white, off-the-shoulder Helmut Lang dress, an actress who’s never missed one of the show’s 400 performances (there is no understudy), trolling for votes.
A Broadway veteran, Feldshuh understands that it’s part of her job to put on this hard sell. In the past several years, such offstage seductions have become a required performance during Broadway’s Tony season, that once-decorous, formerly gentlemanly sport that has become as glitzy and grinding as any Oscar race, albeit on a much smaller scale. Indeed, the party we’re attending—supposedly a celebration of the play’s 400th performance—is more of a campaign rally. And everyone knows it, including the numerous Broadway types who surround us: Mel Brooks! Anne Bancroft! Swoosie Kurtz! The woman who currently plays Tracy in Hairspray!
These machers have gathered to hammer home the message to the Tony voters in attendance: Tovah for Best Actress in a Play. At the climax of the evening, Stephen Schwartz, the father of the show’s 29-year-old director, Scott Schwartz, got up on a chair and toasted the Little Show That Could: “When I heard Scott was going to do this, I thought, That’s nice; it’ll be a nice little show. Some Jews will come. And then when I found out who would play Golda . . .” Five days later, Liz Smith plugged the event in her column, gushing that Feldshuh “looks barely 30.”
In the nostalgic memory of Broadway, the Antoinette Perry Awards—first given out at a banquet in 1947 thrown by the lofty thespian association the American Theatre Wing—were once something sweet and a little fusty: an earnest, insular event in which nobody got particularly incensed, and everyone agreed that it was all about quality. Not anymore. Indeed, this year may mark the first season the Tony competition has truly veered into Hollywood tactics, with nominees adopting the philosophy Miramax pioneered to win film awards in the nineties, complete with planned campaigns and favor-trading—although in the case of Broadway, it’s a gladiator battle among people who can barely afford the armor.
The Feldshuh campaign is just one of the sweaty tap dances punctuating what one veteran theater publicist calls “the desperate month.” “It gets a little bizarre this time of year,” says Bob Hofler, the Broadway beat reporter for Variety. “The producers probably spend more money taking out the ads in the New York Times advertising for these awards than they get in receipts.”
May is a marathon of advertising, freebies, press manipulation, and branding, all leading up to the perennially low-rated CBS broadcast (an average 5.4 rating, compared with the Oscars’ 26). This politicking possesses a strangely contradictory quality: While the feelings run high, and the show is televised nationally, the world involved is exceedingly small—with a duopoly of advertising agencies, only three major theater owners, and a handful of press agents who handle everything. The nominations themselves are confined to 40 midtown theaters. Still, this year the battle has reached a fever pitch. “People have gotten very aggressive,” says a longtime publicist of the Tonys. “The Tonys used to be very high-flown. In the last few years, it’s all about the broadcast time.”
The typical campaign starts long before the ceremony. Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change moved uptown from the Public Theater partly to qualify. (It worked: The show got six nominations.) Another Off Broadway play, Frozen, was rushed to the Circle in a Square just before the May 5 cutoff date to be considered. (The show’s star, Swoosie Kurtz, is up against Feldshuh for Best Actress.) Then come the nominations, for which much of the politicking consists of an intensive, round-the-clock, semi-coordinated series of one-on-ones, an incestuous buzz in which the 26 members of the nominating committee—mostly veteran producers, journalists, and casting directors—are love-bombed with guilt-tripping phone calls, free tickets, scripts, and cast albums. Taboo, the now-defunct Rosie O’Donnell musical starring Boy George, sent out half-hour promotional DVDs; Golda’s Balcony distributed a documentary about the show’s title character, Golda Meir.
For the nominees, this process can feel like a massive sorority rush. “There are so many luncheons and ceremonies. You wanted to not miss anything,” says Marissa Jaret Winokur, who won Best Actress in a Musical last year for her performance as Tracy in Hairspray. “I worked so hard. You know, if you piss off 5 of the 26 . . . You hang around for an hour after every show while voters come around to the dressing room introducing you to their granddaughter.”
“I was thrilled to be nominated,” says Essie Davis, who’s from Australia and was thrust into the middle of the annual vote-getting cocktail marathon when she was nominated for Best Featured Actress for Jumpers this year. Much to her surprise, she was handed a list of upcoming events by her publicist, a list that gets updated daily. “This, and then tomorrow this, and then if you can fit it in, this photo op,” she says. “I knew there would be a nominees’ lunch, and then I thought there would be the awards. But it seems like every day at eleven o’clock in the morning, you have to be somewhere.”