Almost a week ago here in the Atlanta area, CBS cut off the Tony Awards seven minutes before the end just before announcing Best Musical, and supplanted them with the weather report (yup, still raining!) and the 11 o’clock news. From the ensuing social media uproar in response, you would have thought a harbinger of the apocalypse had just appeared, or, I don’t know, Mike Tyson bit off Neil Patrick Harris’s ear or something. CBS eventually issued a public apology attributing the abrupt cancellation of the program to “human error” (as opposed to malicious anti-thespian sentiment or act of God, I suppose) and re-airing the last seven minutes of the Tonys before all regular news broadcasts the next day. This did not, however, occur before every single theater person I know in the state of Georgia, with some enthusiastic support from theater people in Washington D.C. (shout-out to my hometown!), New York, L.A., and Chicago, commenced swearing, hand-wringing, writing letters to top-level CBS executives, and threatening to boycott CBS forever because they had to Google Cyndi Lauper’s win for Kinky Boots (which, frankly, I think was a sad day for musical theater, but that’s another opinion for another day).
Meanwhile, in my own little corner in my own little chair 100 miles south of Atlanta, my husband, an Army infantry officer with no particular allegiance to the theater community other than making a polite appearance at my opening night cast parties, was watching the Tonys with me. This in itself was an enormous concession for him (“Donna, come in here and watch with me, I turned on Dougie Houser and the weird singing dancing people for you.”) He was a bit perplexed by the commotion surrounding the aborted final seven minutes of the show. “It’s a theater awards ceremony for a small segment of professional theater in this country, taking place in a city 880 miles away that half the people in Georgia have never been to,” he said, with a blank stare directed first at me, then my newsfeed, then the TV, then back again.
“But it’s THE TONYS,” I said, as if that made everything clear. (I guess it did not, because he went to bed instead of signing my five hundred CBS IS THE GREAT SATAN petitions. It’s almost like people who get shot at for a living have a normal sense of perspective or something.)
To better answer his question, however: why on earth were these incensed throngs of theater people so upset? Because whether we admit it or not, every actor I know — from the high-power corporate executives by day who show up for two community theater auditions a year to fulfill their creative itch, to the working regional professional actors in various cities across the U.S. getting paid beans (and not magic ones) to do what they love — secretly dreams of taking his/her place on the Great White Way at least once in a career and landing a place in the hall of the immortals alongside Bernadette Peters, Terrence Mann, Tyne Daly, Patty LuPone, Sutton Foster, and Colm Wilkinson (if you think Hugh Jackman is Jean Valjean, we are not friends). So if you’ve ever wondered why the Tony acceptance speeches all feel so scripted, it’s because although we will mostly deny it if asked, most of us penned the first draft of our acceptance speech when we were about six. You can argue about the whys and wherefores of this phenomenon until you’re blue in the face, but it is what it is. (The Tonys themselves had some clever self-deprecatory humor this year at the expense of theater people and our exhibitionist streak and pathological need for approval. The general consensus is that none of us got enough love in our childhoods, or as stage and film legend Sir Laurence Olivier once observed, “…it is not quite the profession of an adult.”) We may not actually want to live in New York for any extended period of time — I for one actually quite like the regional theater scenes elsewhere and while I love New York, I have no plans of leaving the Captain and living in a shoebox anytime soon to make a long-term career there — we still drool over the bright lights of Broadway and 42nd Street and the prospect of headlining a marquee at the Majestic. So like it or lump it, the Tony Awards are the one day a year wherein the general public, the ones who own TV sets but may or may not ever darken the door of a theater, celebrates the 2500-year-old grand tradition of live theater and recognizes the People Who Made It in an increasingly competitive field that is largely viewed by contemporary culture as a quaint and somewhat baffling remnant of a bygone era, much like Stonehenge or John Stamos’s mullet in the first season of Full House.
As a part-time drama teacher in addition to my own acting/directing/writing gigs, in the state of Georgia alone I have seen an alarming number of public and private schools cut their arts programs entirely in the last year. And if I read my newsfeed rightly the night of the Great Tony Debacle, it was in particular the tweens and teens — the bright-eyed, stagestruck thespians from cities in Georgia ranging from upper-middle-class suburbia to rural small-town America, the ones who actually know that Wicked is not the only show ever written and who were glued to their TV sets that night entranced by a world of promise and possibility — who expressed the most unabashed outrage. And it wasn’t really about having to find out who won Best Musical from Twitter. It was the fact that if it had been the Super Bowl, the World Series, or even the Oscars, the TV networks would never have dreamed of not letting the damn show run over an extra seven minutes for the sake of their captivated viewership. These kids saw it as a fundamental injustice, a glaring inequity, a statement about which entertainment the world sees as valuable and which it does not. It is that kid — the one who might live next door to you — the one who sees the theater as a way of expressing their creative impulses, of telling the stories that change the world, of cultivating and expressing what it means to be human, of finding a community in which he/she belongs — to whom the Tony Awards most matter.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ll be 28 in six weeks, which marks 22 years in theater (which is like 154 years in human years), and I love the Tony Awards. I love seeing bedazzled numbers from shows I didn’t get to see this year because I no longer live a Megabus ride away from Manhattan (damn you, Army!) I have unrequited lust for Neil Patrick Harris like every other healthy red-blooded American female heterosexual. I cry happy tears when I see gifted actors like Jane Lynch making her Broadway debut at 52 and Cicely Tyson winning her first Tony Award at 79. But at the end of the day, I’m almost 30. I’m aging out of the ingenue roles, plugging along directing and auditioning, doing the occasional indie film (traitorous to the stage, I know), and laboring towards getting more consistent work on the regional professional stage. I will probably never perform on Broadway, and I have (mostly) come to terms with that fact. I actually went to bed not knowing who won Best Musical because after my initial outburst, I fell asleep with my head pillowed on the rehearsal schedule for the show I’m currently directing in a small town in Georgia. It’s not that the Tonys don’t matter to me anymore — it’s that we shouldn’t lose sight of why they matter.
Remember that for every Helen Hayes born in Washington, D.C. and Bernadette Peters born in New York City, there are thousands of other equally talented young people elsewhere in the country suffering from a real dearth of opportunities to express and hone their creative gifts.
William Shakespeare was a kid from a country village.
Thornton Wilder was born in Maple Bluff, Wisconsin.
Tennessee Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi.
Orson Welles was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Terrence Mann was born in Ashland, Kentucky.
Kristin Chenoweth was born in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.
Would anyone dare to say they were any less talented or less worthy of success than their more cosmopolitan counterparts? In a million and one non-New-York-City urban, suburban, and rural neighborhoods in America, the talent is there, the drive is there, the passion is there — but oftentimes, the opportunities are not. Everyone deserves the chance to make their dreams come true. The opportunity to shine is not the privilege or the province of the wealthy or the cosmopolitan; it is the birthright of the human person.
The televised Tony Awards matter most because they give every kid I’ve ever worked on a show with, every kid I’ve ever taught, every kid I’ve ever directed, every kid I’ve ever shared a stage with, and every other theater kid in every other town in America, something to dream about when they go to bed at night.
So thank you, CBS, for giving them back the last seven minutes of the Tony Awards. For they are the music makers, and they are the dreamers of dreams.