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FROM THIS EPISODE

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

It’s no surprise that awards—and awards shows—are more arbitrary and less official than they would have you believe, but this year’s two biggest theater awards have shown just how imperfect and devalued these awards can be.

This week the Tony Award nominations were announced—and it seemed that the nominating committee went out of its way to show that the Tony’s are not about commerce but art.

Right.  

The Tony Awards, like most awards (even “Plumber of the year in Riverside County”) are about promoting business.  Sure, rewarding excellence is also nice, but excellence is much harder to honestly measure than dollar amounts.   

So why this year—as if to prove (and to whom?) that the Tony’s are not just about giving shows a boost at the box office, did the American Theatre Wing snub the most commercially successful new plays and musicals in favor of struggling shows—or even ones that had already closed?  Many of the snubs seem petty: if you’re a celebrity who does mediocre Shakespeare (Jude Law) we’ll nominate you, but if you’re a star who does mediocre new work (Hugh Jackman, Daniel Craig) we won’t.  And if you create an expensive, ambitious, but empty commercial musical with big names (The Addams Family), you get punished; whereas if you create a cheap, safe piece of musical junk with no names (Million Dollar Quartet) you do get nominated.
It’s really silly.  Why not just admit that the Tony’s exist to promote commercial theater?  Why punish names like Nathan Lane or Kristin Chenoweth (or even David Mamet) unless there really is work on Broadway that is better?  Get them on the Tony Awards Broadcast.  Enjoy the fact that theater is show business.  The awards don’t dictate artistic achievement.  The best plays and performances linger in our memory regardless of awards.

Which brings us to the Pulitzer Prize for Drama—which was is a big deal here in Los Angeles, because the odds-on favorite to win the 2010 prize was a piece commissioned and premiered here at Center Theatre Group: Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.
There’s been much gnashing of teeth over the fact that the committee that nominates plays to the Pulitzer board—which does the actual choosing—was ignored this year.  Instead of giving the award to the nominees like Bengal Tiger or Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (two plays that in my opinion are excellent, imaginative pieces by youngish writers—but to be honest, not exactly Pulitzer winners) the board decided to give it to the loud, ambitious suburban angst-fest, Next to Normal.   
Angelinos will get to decide for themselves which of these is the better evening of theater as In The Next Room comes to South Coast Rep in the fall, and Next to Normal comes to the Ahmanson in 2011.  But until then, let’s remember that it’s not awards or even critics (as it’s sometimes leveled) that make shows succeed or fail.  It’s producers who decide to green-light a new play or to pull the plug on a show that’s struggling.   

And the good news is that the producers of Bengal Tiger have trumped the Pulitzer board, because they decided (wisely) to revive the play after its short run last year at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.   

The fact that now more Angelinos can see Rajiv Joseph’s dreamy, poignant, haunting, if not perfect play (and see it before anyone else in the country) is more important for LA Theater than any Pulitzer award. (Note to the Geffen: you should really bring back last year’s Time Stands Still) What’s disappointing for Center Theatre Group is that the Pulitzer would have translated into more cash.  Again, awards are about money.  Theater is about the experience—and how that experience stays with us after the rest of the noise fades away.
Rajiv Joseph’s Pulitzer Prize-shortlisted play, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo continues its return engagement through May 30th at the Mark Taper Forum.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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