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Tony Awards rulings add to confusion of category placement

February 12, 2010 | 10:02 am

Earlier this week, the administration committee for the Tony Awards convened for the second of four times this theater season. The committee is made up of two dozen theater folk, with 10 apiece from the Broadway League and the American Theater Wing -- which jointly host these top theater kudos -- and one each from the Dramatists Guild, Actors' Equity Assn., United Scenic Artists and the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers.

They rule on category placement -- usually only those performers listed above the title are eligible to contend in the lead categories at the Tony Awards. However, with the increase in equal billing for all, there is a need to separate out the true star turns from the supporting players.

Although the committee's decisions about the nature of the roles in new works are debatable, past Tony nominations should guide them when deciding placement for performers in revivals. Yet this is not always the case -- Jessica Hecht is playing the same role in a revival of "A View From the Bridge" that netted Allison Janney a lead Tony Awards nomination back in 1998, but the committee bumped her down to the featured race. That puts her in direct competition with co-star Scarlett Johansson, who impressed the critics with her performance as a nubile niece lusted after by her uncle. 

At the first meeting of the committee in December, it was decided that both David Mamet's "Oleanna" and Patrick Marber's "After Miss Juile" would contend as play revivals rather than as new works. David Ng delivered a detailed analysis of the flaws of that finding in this must-read report.

Catherine Zeta Jones Angela Lansbury Tony Awards The other rulings of the committee this time around are consistent with past Tony placement of performers. Of particular note is the decision to keep Angela Lansbury in the featured actress race for her turn in the tuner "A Little Night Music." Although the role's originator, Hermione Gingold, also competed in that category back in 1973 (losing to co-star Patricia Elliott), it must have been tempting to move Lansbury up to lead, where she has won four Tony Awards already.

Of course, that would have pitted her against Catherine Zeta-Jones, who is making her Broadway debut in the role that won Glynis Johns the Tony back in 1973. But Zeta-Jones couldn't have complained given the successful switcheroo she pulled at the Oscars in 2002, winning the supporting actress award for her work in "Chicago" as Velma Kelly. The Golden Globes had nominated her in lead, where she lost to co-star Renee Zellwegger. The Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. had followed the Tony Awards precedents -- role originator Chita Rivera had contended in the lead race for the original 1976 Broadway production and as the vampy Velma, Bebe Neuwirth had won the lead actress Tony for the 1997 revival. 

Savvy category placement won Lansbury a record-tying fifth Tony last year for her performance as the over-the-top medium Madame Arcati in a revival of the play "Blithe Spirit." While the original 1941 run of "Blithe Spirit" predated the Tony Awards by six years, Geraldine Page had contended as lead actress for playing the same part in the 1987 revival --- she lost to Linda Lavin in Neil Simon's "Broadway Bound."

Photo: Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones in "A Little Night Music." Credit: Walter Kerr Theater

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