jakub | May 15, 2023

AMERICAN THEATRE | Tony Nominators: You Missed a Step in Ignoring ‘Dancin’’

Manuel Herrera, Yeman Brown, and Jōvan Dansberry in “Dancin'” on Broadway. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

In The New York Times on May 10, chief theatre critic Jesse Green named Dancin’ as the show that the Tony Awards nominating committee should have nominated in the Best Revival of a Musical Category. Alas, they didn’t.

But the nominators didn’t just overlook Dancin’ in the Best Revival of a Musical category; they completely ignored it, failing to give it a single nod. This raises the question: Why would this production, which the most important theatre critic in the U.S. deems worthy of recognition, find itself excluded from the Tony Awards? I believe it’s because the system the Tony nominators use is inherently flawed. (Full disclosure: I produced this current revival of Dancin’, and my father, Bob Fosse, created the original in 1978.)

Between 2001 and 2009, the Tonys annually bestowed an award for “Best Special Theatrical Event.” This category served as a catch-all for all shows that didn’t fit neatly into the binary “play” or “musical” categorization. Since retiring this award, the Tonys have tended to overlook shows like Dancin’ in a competitive category. Dancin’ is essentially plotless. It has music and dancing, but it lacks a central storyline. If one aspires to win a Tony, it seems one must have a traditional narrative structure.

To better understand this bias against non-traditionally formatted shows among the Tony nominators, it’s instructive to examine how the Tony Awards categorizes eligible shows. What separates a play from a musical isn’t just the presence of musical numbers, as one might expect. End of the Rainbow, starring Tracie Bennett, and Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, starring Audra McDonald, both featured plenty of musical numbers, but were categorized as “plays” by the Tony administrators. Generally, for a show to be considered a musical, its music must be integral to the storytelling and character development—it must advance the plot. By this standard, Dancin’ isn’t quite a musical. Yet it certainly isn’t a play either. It seems, though technically eligible, Dancin’ managed to slip through the cracks of an outdated rubric.

Nicole Fosse.

Why does this matter? Who cares if a show like Dancin’ can’t compete against traditional book musicals for the theatre world’s most coveted prize? This is where art and commerce converge. By sidelining a uniquely dance-driven show like Dancin’, the Tony Awards are signaling to the world that it’s not a worthy theatrical experience—that it isn’t worth your time or your money. Hours after the nominations were announced, we made the difficult decision to close. Without the box-office boost that the media attention and bragging rights a nomination could have provided, there was no viable path forward. This Sunday, May 14, will be our revival’s final performance.

Producers and investors pay attention when a particular style of show falls out of favor. I have no doubt that the next time a visionary director or choreographer wants to create a show that defies categorization, it will be that much more difficult to get it off the ground. The Tony Awards are punishing the very thing that makes art vibrant: non-conformity. Without non-conformists, art forms don’t progress. Hilma af Klint was playing with radical abstraction years before the so-called pioneers of abstract art (all men) were on the scene. Contemporary literature would look very different had Virginia Woolf not been brave enough to eschew traditional narrative structures and delve deeper into her characters’ subconscious minds. Even Beethoven was revolutionary in his day, ushering in the Romantic era with his raw emotionality and innovative compositional techniques. We must start celebrating, not banishing, those who choose to color outside the lines. If not, we will very quickly lose access to the work of some of our greatest and groundbreaking artists.

In a 1986 television interview with Gene Shalit my father said, “They [the producers and critics] are all after this big major hit all the time…I have nothing against hits…But the pressure on you to have an enormous hit, it does a bad thing. What it does is it makes you not take as many risks as you should.”

How deeply disheartening and sad it would be for Broadway to fall further into a formulaic state because only conformity is financially rewarded. I worry that if we don’t find new ways to reward risk-taking, we’ll be risking something much greater: the fate of Broadway itself.

Nicole Fosse is the daughter of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, and the founder and artistic director of the Verdon Fosse Legacy.

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