As the theatre community finds itself in the middle of Awards Season, The Ensemblist is often asked about the possibility of a Tony Award for Best Ensemble. So we wanted to hear from other actors about what Tony Award for ensembles would mean to THEM. Today, podcast guest and current star of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, F. Michael Haynie.
"It's that time again: TONY TIME! The season where I have an opinion and EVERYONE ELSE IS WRONG! So for a moment, let me join the fray with a mind-mauling dive into a topic that makes me stop what I'm doing and write this article. Say it with me now, 'WHY ISN'T THERE AN ENSEMBLE TONY?'"
"Before you stop reading and look at another Facebook article about which red panda picture matches your astrological sign, give me a chance. I have a case to make. What are the Tony Awards? Many things. A very long commercial for Broadway shows, a periscope to the parts of the country that don’t get to see Broadway shows, a preamble for touring houses trying to sell tickets a year down the road for touring Broadway shows, or as a celebration of the achievements of all the hard-working professionals who make Broadway shows possible."
"Let’s focus on this last one for a moment. A celebration of ALL the hard-working professionals who make Broadway shows possible. In the last few years the Tonys have had their share of controversial inclusions/exclusions: the peekaboo Sound Design category, the off-air presentation of best choreography, and (lest we forget) the live-stream of a decidedly NOT Tony-eligible cruise-ship production. Needless to say, we, the theatre community, have had some choice words for many of these decisions. Amid all this tumult and controversy, I’d like to address my initial question: Why does the American Theatre Wing not recognize a 'Best Ensemble' Tony Award?"
"Ok, before you pull out your best semanticist outfit, let’s get on the same page. What the heck does 'Best Ensemble' mean? Well… that’s another really excitingly divisive discussion, but I’ll try not to go too crazy. First, I’ll divide the award’s definition into three potential options. Since all Broadway shows are Equity (Actor’s Equity Association: the stage actor’s union) and every show is divided into Principal and Chorus contracts, we could define 'Best Ensemble' as representing all actors on these ensemble contracts. Alternatively, 'Best Ensemble' could be defined to mean the combination of all actors onstage and off creating the ensemble of the piece. The third option would be to honor casting directors in a similar fashion to the way the Golden Globes honor “casts'."
"Three options. *takes a breath* Let’s use this Broadway season as a litmus test for our conundrum. An 'Best Ensemble' award would require the addition of two new Tony categories: Ensemble of a Play and Ensemble of a Musical. Given the possibility of a new award, lets take the most concise option first: the 'Casting Director' angle. For the sake of this hypothetical let’s artificially nominate the best play and best musical nominees’ casting directors/offices for this new award."
"TADA! There they are. Congrats! I did all the work for you. A casting award! But wait… weren't we talking specifically about an acting award. Maybe not the answer for the Ensemble Tony Conundrum, but while we’re adding awards, let’s get those sexy CSA folks an award… and health care… but I digress."
"So, if my initial "'Casting Director Award' solution doesn’t sate your appetite, what about the 'chorus contract solution'? Using this season's shows you could breakdown what contracts every individual actor was on and toss a trophy at the 'best chorus-contracted ensembles'. There is a very cool tradition in the Broadway Musical world called the 'Gypsy Robe'. An honorary title and ceremonial robe given to the ensemble member of each Broadway musical with the most Broadway ensemble contracts. Put THAT on the Tonys! But in celebrating that specific part of the acting troupe, might we get ourselves into a sticky wicket of equity jargon, contract negotiation nuance, and paperwork that would muddy the entire aim of my point? Yes. SO DROP IT! But really, its more complicated than you might think. For example, some characters you are CERTAIN are principals… aren’t, and vice versa. Outside of some whole new AEA Award broadcast on 'Only 15% of the Equity Membership Even Voted in Our Election this Year .com', it might be hard to justify or even unpack this convoluted option. Giant Gypsy Robe Award... maybe not the answer."
"Ok, that’s two productive mental exercises down and one to go. 'But I’m tired, F!' 'SHUT UP, BRIAN! ONWARD' Let’s move onto the third (and probably the one I’m advocating for because I’m putting it last) 'Cast' option. There actually IS precedent for this. The 'Best Ensemble' awards given by SAG/AFTRA in their annual ceremony, of which there are five (Outstanding Performance by a 'Cast in a Motion Picture', 'Ensemble in a Comedy Series', 'Ensemble in a Drama Series', and two for 'Stunt Ensembles' in a motion picture and a drama/comedy respectively), deal with the idea of honoring a group of performers. Looking at the many television awards for casts or ensembles, we see that while they honor Leading, Featured, as well as Guest actors in their other categories, 'the bigger-picture award', if you will, represents the entire season of a show. A season with performances of all sizes and utility being considered as a single body of work. Cool, right? Yes, though that might not be the best parallel for our hypothetical new Tony Award. But hold onto your butts, dear reader, because Uncle F has one last card up his sleeve. If you look at the SAG/AFTRA model of 'Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture' we may just have our answer. This became a category in the SAG Awards in 1995 (the organization’s second annual awards) and nominates five casts each year (except 2004 with six). In the 22 years since its establishment that award carries with it some surprising statistics:"
- The size for “Outstanding Cast” nominees spans from 3-24
- In four separate years, all five Academy Award nominees for Best Picture were also nominated for this “Outstanding Cast” award.
- Only one of the 22 “Outstanding Cast” winners was not nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards (It was The Birdcage… and it should have been.)
- 11 of the 22 winners of the “Outstanding Cast” award went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
- Of the 111 movies nominated for the “Outstanding Cast” award only NINE were subsequently not nominated for any Academy Awards.
"So, what does this mean? The recognition of the casts in these films is both a great determiner of overall quality of the film and is NOT just a redundant award. I think we’re onto something. Chew on this: here’s the last three years of 'Outstanding Cast' nominees and how they fared at the Oscars."
"Two of the three SAG winners won both awards. But as you can see, some years the nominees didn’t get a shot at Best Picture. What if we took the nominees for the Tony Award for Best Musical the last few years? You have some of the craziest variety of ensemble acting I could have asked for to help my argument. In 2016, Hamilton (the hip-hop, fire-tongued juggernaut ensemble), Bright Star (Josh Rhodes’ beautiful choreography blossoming with an ensemble of North-Carolinian community), School of Rock - The Musical (with a MONSTER ensemble of wunderkind rock stars), Waitress (packed with hustling and bustling life and music), and Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed (whose cast was filled with as many stars as there were words in its verbose title). The years before that held the dancing feet of An American in Paris and Something Rotten alongside the stunning ensemble cast of the Tony-winning Fun Home. And don’t get me started on the 2014 winner A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (for which chameleon Jefferson Mays could have won an ensemble award for his multiple personality performance alone). This list doesn't even include the Michael Arden-helmed revival and ensemble-acting love letter Spring Awakening, sexy bloodsport of American Psycho, and spirit-stirring The Color Purple. Every ensemble of actors has its own flavor."
"So, where does this leave us? Could we justify a new award? The structure and precedent for the award are already out there. As for the question of populating the nomination base in different years, look at the 'Hatfields and McCoys' of musical theatre Wicked and Avenue Q: Capital B Broadway ensemble with its lavish costumes and choral powerhouses vs the versatile ensemble of puppeteers and comedians concocting gut-busting laughs. So nowadays with traditional ensembles like Hello, Dolly! and Cats along with shows like Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, Bandstand and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory continuing to push performers outside the box of what the 'ensemble'' of a Broadway musical does, isn’t it exciting to potentially recognize these wildly talented groups of artists working eight nights a week in the heart of Times Square? HOORAY WE WIN! But wait… just one last piece to this potential potent potpourri: 'The Tony Broadcast'! Bump bum BAAAAHHHHHH! There’s a lot about the Tonys that we all love, ooooooof course, but it’s also a business. Anyone who tells you otherwise… is allowed to believe that. They’re wrong, but let’s not tell them. Even if comparing art is like comparing Apples and Russian bears on unicycles, we’ve nonetheless decided to throw a trophy at our discomfort with the cohabitation of art. But when it comes to getting a new award on the slate, there’d be a LOT of crap far above my pay grade blocking the way. That being said, on a purely theoretical level… this is a no brainer. And for anyone who could make it happen, I already did some of the leg-work for you. You’re welcome."
"Alas, my friends, until the day we can all wake up to the upsetting news that 'I can’t believe BLANK didn’t get nominated for best ensemble' or 'Are you an idiot? How could you nominate BLANK for best ensemble cast?' (‘cause theatre people are always soooooo positive during award season), we should embrace the channels we DO have for recognizing the ensembles of Broadway shows. All I ask is that every stage door you go to, try to celebrate everyone who walks out of that door. It takes a village to make a Broadway show and every principal, feature, swing, standby, dance captain, ensemble member and STAGE MANAGER (oh, yea, Brian, they’re in our union too!) is a part of that. And the next time you see a slip in your Playbill, smile, cause you’re about to see something really special."
F. Michael Haynie