When Tony Met Oscar

John Tartaglia (with Rod) and Stephanie D'Abruzzo (with Lucy T. Slut) arrive in style.Photo: R. Jerome Ferraro

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.”

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Best Lead Actress in a Musical nominee Donna Murphy in Wonderful Town.Photo: Andrew Eccles.

“You [tell your clients], these are the people who will decide,” explains one warhorse chaperone. “And this is where you have to go. ‘Be nice to this person as they stuff cheese in their face.’ ”

The entertainment media provide their own hard sell. Two weeks before the nominations were announced, weekly Variety gave the musical Wicked the sheen of inevitability by publishing an eighteen-page special tribute section to the show. Called “A Profile in Excellence,” it was the trade paper’s second annual Broadway-kingmaking homage—a new advertorial tradition motivated in part by a show’s Tony possibilities and in part by its marketing budget. “Last year, we did Hairspray because everybody knew it was waiting in the wings and was going to win,” says Dade Hayes, the managing editor of the special section. An adaptation of a movie, Hairspray also had a pragmatic Hollywood connection: New Line was onboard. Wicked (which was repped by the same ad agency as Hairspray) came equipped with a similarly golden California glow, since it was backed by Universal Pictures and produced by Marc Platt, executive producer of Legally Blonde. Choosing Wicked was “a win-win on both coasts,” says Hayes. The decision did ruffle some feathers, he admits. “We got a few calls from other nominees saying, ‘You know, this isn’t the only musical out there.’ But I think the nominations bore us out. And the box office, which is Variety’s métier, has been extremely strong.”

And then there are the behind-the-scenes campaigns. This year, the strategic question was whether Assassins—the Stephen Sondheim musical briefly produced Off Broadway in 1991—should be judged as a revival. Barry Weissler, a producer of the sagging Wonderful Town revival, called the members of the committee to lobby against the move, but he lost out to the interests of the new musicals. Political missteps can have major repercussions. Ned Beatty was denied a Best Actor nomination after he complained to the New York Times about his co-stars in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Ashley Judd and Jason Patric.

As with the Golden Globes, the series of awards that precede the Tonys act as a kind of early warning system, triggering the conventional wisdom. “People like to back a winner,” shrugs one publicist. This year, Wicked won the Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk, and the Drama League awards; Caroline, or Change grabbed the Lucille Lortel; and the New York Drama Critics Circle snootily preferred not to award anybody Best Musical. The classier reaches of print coverage can lend a winner’s glow to a show, as when Wonderful Town’s Donna Murphy, up for Best Actress in a Musical, got her Richard Avedon portrait in the May 24 New Yorker. Her producers also nudged Murphy onto this week’s Time Out cover about divas, which had featured only her competition in Wicked. (Caroline’s Tonya Pinkins was also elbowed in, whereas Avenue Q’s Stephanie D’Abruzzo was left in the cold.)

The press can sting as well: Murphy has been castigated by the Post’s Michael Riedel for the deadly sin of skipping too many performances: “If this were high school, Murphy would be held back a year because of poor attendance,” he wrote.

Avenue Q sent out a CD to Tony voters. Sample lyric: “Even if you don’tcare/You can bet the candidates do.”

Like the Oscar fight for Best Picture, the Tonys have one central clash of the titans: the fight for Best Musical—the only award where there is real money at stake. A win not only helps sell tickets now, it builds momentum for success on the road. Of the thirteen Broadway musicals currently on tour, eight won the top award.

One of the biggest accusations against the Tonys is that they’re decided by the money people, often the out-of-town producers who make up 20 percent of the voters. This cabal is motivated not by which show is best but by which will make for the best touring company. “The Tony winner is likely to be a very popular show,” explains Nancy Coyne, a 30-year veteran advertising guru who runs Serino Coyne, one of two agencies used on Broadway (among her clients this year: Wicked, Caroline, and The Boy From Oz). “And a popular show is likely to tour.” It’s a tautology that maddens those rooting for the less-commercial outliers.

A nomination is almost, but not quite, as good as winning: Because it allows the musicals a showcase, the televised ceremony amounts to a coveted commercial, a precious opportunity to tout one’s show for a national audience. Backers for the goofy Andrew Lloyd Webber–produced musical Bombay Dreams were gnashing their teeth when their show lost its chance in favor of The Boy From Oz, starring Tonys host Hugh Jackman (himself a shoo-in for Best Actor in a Musical).

This year, the musical bout has centered on the slugfest between the edgy and parodic Avenue Q and the slightly less edgy and parodic (though still somewhat edgy and parodic) Wicked. Each show has touring plans, but because Wicked is incrementally less out-there, it is considered the favored choice to win the award—in large part because Wicked’s ugly-duckling saga will go over better in the heartland than Avenue Q’s more urban plot. “Wicked is aggressively spending and courting,” says one publicist, who admired the Variety advertorial.

In response, Avenue Q has done something no other show has done before: It attempted to get beyond the filter of media groupthink by creating its own outsider ad campaign (although the campaign was created by Spotco, one of the two insider ad agencies). After the nominations were announced, the show’s producers ringed their marquee in red-white-and-blue bunting in a tongue-in-cheek faux political campaign, running full-page ads in the Times (“Q ’04! Helping you find a purpose”), and sending out a CD to the voters with a song whose chorus was “Vote Your Heart.” (Sample lyric: “Even if you don’t care / You can bet the candidates do.”) They printed up buttons reading DON’T SUCK. VOTE Q.

The musical’s young composers, Jeff Marx and Bobby Lopez, have it all planned out. “On the one hand, the Tonys don’t really matter. Tony or no Tony, the show is doing great,” says Marx. Still, he cracks, “better us than the guys down the street.”

The campaign kicked off at a lunch at John’s Pizza for the road producers, who were in town a few days after the nominees were announced. “We brought them all in and put on a little performance where we gently parodied the other shows of the season,” says Marx. “The whole place was decked out in red-white-and-blue tablecloths, plates, napkins, balloons.”

Avenue Q sort of ripped the mask off the whole genteel Tony campaign,” says Variety’s Hofler. Which has led to a certain amount of tut-tutting in the theater world. “They invited the press to [the John’s Pizza event] and not just the road managers, which is sort of not done,” says one publicist, who allowed that it was, at least, on-message for the brand: “They want the perception to be that they’re renegade, upstarty.” (And while they’re at it, to remind everyone that renegade and upstarty are winning qualities.)

Whether Avenue Q’s snarky campaign, with its cunning mixture of bratty satire and genuine self-promotion, will pay off—as Miramax’s brazen pursuit of the Academy Awards did when it garnered gold for movies like Shakespeare in Love—remains to be seen. Certainly, the Broadway buzz continues to suggest that this is “the year of Wicked,” as one voter puts it. “Which is really unfortunate for Avenue Q. They put together a good campaign.” In the short run, Avenue Q’s efforts have paid off: The show got six nominations, and a coveted three-minute performance slot.

According to observers, the race could swing a few different ways. There’s the possibility of a befuddling Solomonic split like the one that happened two years ago, when the more-conventional Thoroughly Modern Millie won for Best Musical and the up–from–Off Broadway Gen-X operetta Urinetown was given the consolation prizes of Best Score and Best Book. Alternately, the hipster vote could split between Avenue Q and its smart competition, Caroline, or Change. Moreover, since Avenue Q’s contender for Best Actress in a Musical, puppeteer Stephanie D’Abruzzo, is up against stiff competition—the two Wicked witches, Donna Murphy, and the gloriously solemn Tonya Pinkins of Caroline (who the Times has predicted will win)—the grapevine suggests that Q might get shut out altogether.

“Recognizing excellence has always been the prime rationale for the Tonys,” says Jed Bernstein, a former advertising executive who took over at the League of American Theatres and Producers in 1995 and was given the task of “branding Broadway” to do battle for America’s entertainment dollar against professional sports and the latest Madonna tour. “The TV show has been about that, but also about showing Broadway to a great many people.”

Of course, there’s an upside to all this competition: Isn’t it good to have the race be more competitive, more aboveboard, more fun? In case of emergency, Broadway can always—like Eve Harrington of yore—store that shiny award where its heart ought to be.

When Tony Met Oscar