Tony speeches we may never hear again

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Playwright Edward Albee holds his Tony Award for

Playwright Edward Albee holds his Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater at the 2005 Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall in New York. ( June 5, 2005) Photo Credit: AP Photo/Tina Fineberg

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This all started with thinking about Arthur Miller. Before long, I was thinking about Edward Albee. Then Harold Prince, Stephen Sondheim, Carol Channing . . .

What began with a yearning to get Miller's opinion about the latest revival of "Death of a Salesman" stretched into wishing to hear Miller, who died in 2005, expound on just about anything.

Then I remembered that he was given a lifetime achievement Tony Award in 1999 and I wished I could watch a video of that speech. Miller, deeply cranky about the state of the commercial theater and the indifference to so many of his later plays, must have had something pithy to say.

Whether he said it, I don't remember. Nor do I recall Albee's acceptance speech for his lifetime Tony in 2005. Or Prince's in 2006 or Sondheim's in 2008, and I suspect few, except maybe Channing, remember hers in 1995 -- the first year my favorite special award was given. (Something called the Lawrence Langer Award appears to have been comparable in the '70s.)

Awards are silly. We all know that. And I'm more than a little embarrassed to hop onto the Tony-speculation float so early in the parade. (The Tony deadline is April 26, the nominations come May 1 and CBS' telecast happens June 10.)

But these lifetime Tonys are real honors, recognition of a body of work in a small but far-reaching world with its own strange alchemy of commerce and art.

Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of The Broadway League, the producers' association, seems amused at my desire for a DVD of the speeches. I understand. The increasingly terrific Tony telecast, despite those deserved Emmys for four of the past five shows, still struggles for ratings. Realistically, how many of us would rush to get the DVD of speeches that, most years, aren't considered mainstream enough to get on the broadcast?

"When it's a person the country would recognize," she explains, "we like to put them on the air. Otherwise, it's not good television."

We know, we know. Much of the theater community is still in mourning for PBS' splendid pre-Tony telecast that, from 1997 through 2003, showcased the first hour -- the 10 awards considered not worthy of prime time. This often included directors and other, you know, minor players -- such as most lifetime achievers.

St. Martin says she appreciates the hunger for a companion show for less glitzy artists. "We have talked about it several times," she says, referring to the Tony Administration Committee (more on this later). "It would depend on lots of things coming together. Maybe a show on NY1. Really, it's the money thing that keeps getting in the way."

OK. If not TV and not a DVD, what about the Web? One would assume, in these days of archival fascination and infinite Internet space, that we could just click on some magic address and bask in the inspirational wisdom and/or spitefulness from the best of our best.

Well, just barely. The spokeswoman for the Tonys tells me that some of those speeches are online at But Miller isn't up because his award "was long before the website was even created, so that is not content that we currently have available online."

The one speech I can easily find is Athol Fugard's from last year. The visionary South African playwright said, simply, "All of my thinking about this incredible occasion has boiled down to two simple but huge thank yous. Thank you, South Africa. Thank you, America."

This is gracious, but hardly the revelatory insight we seek from these giants of the theater. I can't help attributing his brevity to Marian Seldes' singular acceptance speech after a standing ovation for Lifetime Achievement in 2010. She didn't say a word. When asked why, she wickedly said, "They told us, 'Keep it short, keep it short, keep it short.' So I decided I would just say nothing."

Later this month, the Tony Administration Committee will meet to decide who, if anyone, deserves to give a short speech for what I consider the biggest prize Broadway gives.



The committee meets four times a season to decide the often-controversial eligibility issues and to choose other honorary Tonys. The group comprises 10 people from each of the co-producing American Theatre Wing and The Broadway League, plus one from each of the unions.

Eligibility issues may sound dry, but these can draw blood. For example, at the Nov. 3 meeting, it was decided that Julie Taymor -- famously fired and replaced in "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" months before the long-delayed June 14 opening and currently embroiled in lawsuits with the producers -- is the eligible director of the show. (Yes, Spidey postponed his opening so many times last year that he's eligible this year.)

The Feb. 9 meeting mostly sorted out specific lead actor from the featured actor qualifications for people not listed above the title on the opening-night credits. Probably the most contentious -- though not to me -- decision was to make playwright Peter Parnell eligible for his new book for the old musical "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever."

The March 29 gathering doesn't look too exciting from here. But as I see it, the committee will have to decide at its April 27 meeting whether "Peter and the Starcatcher" and, I suspect, "End of the Rainbow" can be considered plays with music, as their producers prefer, or pushed into the musical category.

And when the season and the show are all over, St. Martin assures me the committee will be trying "everything in our power" to keep Broadway openings from being booked on the same night, the way four of them are on two dates in the week before the Tony cutoff. She says the crunch isn't fair to "our nominators and administrators." It also isn't fair to the theater.

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