Nine burning questions about the 2020 Tony Awards

A deep dive into the unknowns of the 2020 Tony Awards

Adam Feldman
Written by
Adam Feldman
Theater and Dance Editor, Time Out USA
Moulin Rouge, Broadway 2019
Photograph: Matthew MurphyMoulin Rouge!

Since the beginning of the Broadway shutdown on March 12, two questions have been on every theater lover’s lips. To the first and most pressing one—when will theaters reopen?—we still have no firm answer, though several productions are optimistically selling tickets for performances in early 2021. To the second—what will become of the Tony Awards—we now have the very beginnings of an answer, but one that raises a host of smaller questions in its wake.

[Update: The final rules for the 2020 Tony Awards have been announced.] 

Since so many of this year's scheduled Broadway productions never got to open, there had been speculation that the Tonys would be scrapped entirely this year, and that potential nominees would be bundled in with next year’s crop. But on August 21, the Tonys announced that the 74th annual awards, honoring achievements in the abbreviated 2019–20 Broadway season, would indeed be presented in a digital ceremony this fall. That seems like the right decision; to do otherwise would have penalized shows that opened earlier this season. But where will this year’s Tonys take place? And when? And how? Those are things we don’t yet know. (“Additional information, including a date and platform for the awards ceremony, will be announced soon,” the press release promised.) 

The Tony Awards Administration Committee, which makes rulings about eligibility and other questions, is set to convene later this week for the third and final time this season. In terms of its normal work, the committee will be considering only three productions that opened since the last time it met: My Name is Lucy Barton, A Soldier’s Play and Grand Horizons. (The new cut-off date has been established as February 19, 2020; Girl from the North Country and the revival of West Side Story, which opened after that but before the March shutdown, have been deemed ineligible because not enough nominators were able to see them.) But this is no normal season. Will the unprecedented nature of the season lead to changes in the rules that ordinarily govern the Tony nominations? 

With that in mind, please join us in a deep dive into the weeds. Here are nine of the main questions that remain, as of now, unanswered.

1) What is the timeline for the 2020 Tony nominations and virtual ceremony?

As noted above, the Tonys timetable is still a mystery: All we know for sure is that the ceremony will be in the fall. But the Tony nominations usually follow closely on the heels of the final Administration Committee meeting, so those might be announced as soon as next week. Traditionally, there are about five weeks between the nominations and the ceremony—a period usually packed with lobbying from the nominated shows' producers—but this year's gap could easily be shorter or longer. 

2) What will happen to the Best Revival categories?

One answer to this question is clear: Since all three of the season’s scheduled musical revivals are ineligible (West Side Story, Company and Caroline, or Change), there will be no award this year for Best Revival of a Musical. Five scheduled revivals of plays also didn’t open, but that leaves four play revivals: enough, if only barely, to populate a category for Best Revival of a Play. Here’s where things get tricky: According to the Tony rules that govern the Best Show categories, if there are only four eligible nominees then the category automatically shrinks to three nominees—unless the difference in votes between the third-highest ranked show and the fourth-highest ranked show is ten percent or less. Will one of the four potential nominees (A Soldier’s Play, Betrayal, The Rose Tattoo or Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune) be left in the cold? Or will the committee decide to waive that rule this year?

David Alan Grier, Blair Underwood and Billy Eugene Jones in A SOLDIER'S PLAY
A Soldier's Play | Photograph: Joan Marcus

3) Will there be an award for Best Score?

Of the four new musicals that opened in 2019-2020, only one, the lukewarmly received The Lightning Thief, had an original score. But the Tonys permit nominations in this category for original music in straight plays as well, for which at least six productions this season would be eligible. Will the committee choose to err on the side of generosity and leave the category as is, at the risk of harming the awards’ reputation? Will it decide to give the award to one of the potential nominees by acclimation, as it did when Sunset Boulevard had the sole new book and score in the shockingly thin 1994-1995 season? Or will it eliminate the category entirely, as it did in the 1988–89 season when faced with the alternative of nominating the scores for the flops Starmites, Chu Chem, Welcome to the Club and Legs Diamond? If we were betting folk, we’d put our chips on the last option.

4) What will become of Best Actor in a Musical?

As things stand, only two nominees are eligible: Moulin Rouge!’s Aaron Tveit and The Lightning Thief’s Chris McCarrell. As with Best Score, this leaves the nominators with a decision. They could have a category of two, like the Best Actress in a Musical category in 1995. They could just give the award to one of the two (read: Tveit) outright; they could also reverse course on an earlier decision and fill out the category by bumping Tina’s Daniel J. Watts and/or Jagged Little Pill's Sean Allan Krill up to the leading actor category. (Both of these options would ordinarily be against the rules, but the rules can be flexible in an emergency if the Administration Committee’s oversight group, the Management Committee, decides there is “good cause” to do so.) Or they could drop the category, as they did for both Best Actress and Best Actor in a Musical back in the weak 1984-1985 season—and perhaps make Tveit and McCarrell eligible for Best Featured Actor (which is what happened to many leads in 1985, and which is the category they would be in anyhow if they hadn’t been bumped up to leading status in an earlier rules decision).

5) Will the non-performance categories be narrowed or combined?

Ordinarily, the categories for Costumes, Set, Lighting and Sound of a Musical have at least four or five nominees. This year, however, there are only four eligible musical productions, which would mean automatic nominations for everyone—somewhat defeating the prestige involved. The administration committee could leave that in place, which would be great news for, say, The Lightning Thief. Alternatively, it could thin the lanes to two or three nominees in each race. Another option might be to drop the split, for this season alone, between musicals and plays—a split that has only existed since 2005, after all—and put all the productions in one category. (The same logic might apply for Best Director, though in that case the split dates back to 1960.)

6) What about David Byrne’s American Utopia?

David Byrne’s concert show was not submitted by its producers for Tony contention, though it has been widely expected to receive a Special Tony Award for merit. Given the situation, however—and if enough of the nominators and voters saw it anyhow—might the Tonys decide it’s an eligible musical after all? The answer here is: almost certainly not. But it would make several of the categories more interesting if they did.  

American Utopia
David Byrne's American Utopia | Photograph: Courtesy American Utopia

7) Which categories will probably not be affected? 

If the Tonys hew to their ordinary rules, then the race for Best Play will be the most straightforward, since ten new plays are eligible and only four that had been scheduled to open are not. That translates into fine, fat categories of five nominees for Best Play, its attendant acting awards and—if the nonperformance categories are not combined (see above)—Best Costumes, Set, Lighting and Sound of a Play. Expect big hauls for Slave Play and The Inheritance. (The categories for featured performances in musicals, which usually have more than enough candidates, may end up with only four nominees apiece this year.)

8) Will the portal system for Tony voters be maintained?

Now we move into a very tricky area for the Tonys: not the nominators and administrators, but the voters. Two years ago, the Tonys instituted a new system to ensure that the pool of more than 800 Tony voters had actually seen all of the nominated productions; voters had to visit a special portal and provide proof of attendance for each show. That system might prove very exclusive this year, however, since a larger proportion of the voters might not have seen all of the nominees in many of the categories. (They might have been putting off seeing Jagged Little Pill, for instance, on the assumption that they would have plenty of time to do so before voting in May.) Enforcing the existing standards strictly might limit the voting pool significantly; dropping it, on the other hand, would tacitly acknowledge that the voters were judging work they hadn’t seen. 

9) What will the Tony Awards actually look like this year?

For many theater lovers, who rarely get to see Broadway theater except on the annual Tonys telecast on CBS, this is the really important question. It’s also, unfortunately, the question we have the least information about. Giving out the awards themselves is easy enough: Other awards shows—the Obies, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle, the Lucille Lortel Awards, the Drama Desk Awards, the new Antonyo Awards—have already given out their prizes online, and you can watch those ceremonies here. But the most exciting moments of the Tonys, for many viewers, are the musical numbers from nominated shows. It’s hard to know how that part would be accomplished in a satisfying way. First of all, there are only four potential musical nominees this year (plus American Utopia). Yes, the broadcast could easily also include numbers from shows that were supposed to open this year and will instead be part of next season’s crop. But assembling such numbers in a way that would showcase them at their best would be extremely difficult: A number like Moulin Rouge!’s “Bad Romance” simply doesn’t fit in Zoom boxes. In theory, casts could be gathered, quarantined, rehearsed and filmed on stage—but the logistics would be a nightmare and the expense would be prohibitive, especially since the numbers would not be fulfilling their usual function of trying to generate ticket sales for the shows in question. Under the circumstances, we lean toward expecting a relatively modest virtual ceremony in October or November—jazzed up with numbers that can be performed more or less solo and pre-recorded effectively—with a larger Broadway special of some kind to follow, months down the road, once the Street is open for business again.

As we await the answers to these questions and others, it is worth remembering what Broadway did manage to offer this season: ten new plays, four new musicals, four play revivals, a memorable theatrical concert and many glimpses of exciting things to come. There’s a lot to celebrate, and we look forward to doing just that with this year’s Tony Awards, in whatever new forms they assume.  

RECOMMENDED: Our day-by-day roundup of the best theater, opera and dance to stream online 

Jagged Little Pill
Jagged Little Pill | Photograph: Matthew Murphy

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