Before the dust settles on the Tony Award nominations, there's a window of opportunity to discuss a possible new category. Before Broadway obsessions turn exclusively to nonstop speculation about winners and losers at the June 7 Tony telecast, I'd like to make a suggestion for next year.
Why not create a new category for best ensemble? Why can't Broadway recognize productions that impress most as a whole, as a company, in contrast with shows that are star-driven or performance- driven? Wouldn't it be more fair -- more healthy, even, dare I say it, more honorable -- to consider all the actors in a total experience rather than splintering it up with individual nominations?
As I see it, the new category would not damage contests for lead and featured actors/actresses. Instead, by separating out productions that live and breathe as a unit, this would clear the others from being overrun by multiple nominations that cancel one another out.
Take "Fun Home." This wonderful, innovative, disturbing new musical has just five major roles. And all five have been justly nominated -- two in the lead category, three among the five slots in the featured category. Obviously, they can't all win, which means some -- perhaps, I hope not, all -- will lose.
I've picked out four other productions this season that might have been best acknowledged for their ensembles. Unlike categories that separate musicals and plays, this new category would embrace both.
The Royal Shakespeare Company's huge six-hour, no-star historical pageant, "Wolf Hall: Parts One & Two," is most impressive as an entity. Similarly, "Airline Highway," the Steppenwolf Theatre production presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club, has disappointments as a play -- but not as an acting company. Aside from Sting's haunting score, didn't "The Last Ship" deserve to be remembered for its big passionate cast? And wouldn't it have been right to celebrate the revival of "You Can't Take it With You" as showcase for comic virtuosos?
Not surprisingly, I am not the first genius to propose an ensemble Tony. Ted Chapin, president-executive director of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Foundation and a longtime member of the Tony administration committee, tells me this is "one of the various ideas floating around the Tonys for many years."
Chapin, a former chair of that decision-making committee, is in favor of the idea. "The goal is to be receptive to how the theater changes. This is one of the conversations that have gotten confused from time to time." Then nothing happens.
Elizabeth McCann, straight-talking veteran producer of eight Tony-winning shows and former managing producer of the Tony show, also likes the idea of an ensemble prize. "Someone would have to figure out a way to honor a production as a group," she says reasonably, then warns, "but the Tony administration is very leery of making changes."
She remembers many "clear cases" when an ensemble category "would have freed up a lot of nominations." Her examples go back to her 1980 revival of Paul Osborn's "Morning's at Seven," which included major performances by four starring women. "Who in God's name would they nominate?" she remembers asking at the time. One was nominated and none won. "That's a classic case."
She also mentions the 2009 revival of "The Norman Conquests," Alan Ayckbourn's trilogy of full-length plays, each with the same six characters on the same weekend in different parts of a house. "There's no way to separate one actor out of that group," she remembers. Four of the six were nominated as featured actors. None won.
And Chapin lists last season's remarkable all-male Shakespeare double-bill from London's Globe Theatre as an event that, despite the Tony-winning star turn by Mark Rylance, should really have been acknowledged for its ensemble.
But are we perhaps being too idealistic about the ensemble prize? As ugly as it may seem to imagine actors from a tight company competing with one another, might actors really prefer a group award to being considered in the sexier best-actor categories?
Chapin is realistic. He says performers might prefer the way things are, "if they think they have a shot of winning as individuals. But if they have no chance of winning . . ."
Without an ensemble category, McCann finds that "the worst time to go the theater" is between the nominations and the awards. "When some actors get nominated, they figure the house is full of Tony voters," she says from experience. "The Tonys have a funny way of kind of breaking up a company."
She means funny in a sad way. With an ensemble category, the competition would be a team sport.