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Why the Music Department Isn’t Eligible for Tony Awards

June 8, 2015

What makes for a successful Broadway musical?

  • Money
  • Fancy costumes
  • Epic lighting
  • Creative set design
  • Entertaining choreography
  • Inspired direction
  • Advertising
  • Money
  • Money

It turns out costume designer, lighting designers, set designers, choreographers, and directors are all eligible to win Tony awards.

Don’t get me wrong. All nominations in these categories are well deserved, and I have the utmost respect for these artists.

Did you know music plays a huge role in musical theatre? In fact, a musical wouldn’t be a musical without music. Yeah, it’s pretty important.

The music department on a typical new Broadway musical can be pretty big. Orchestrators and composers are eligible to win Tony Awards for their respective work. This is a great start! How about everyone else?

Music director, music supervisor, music coordinator, music contractor, orchestrator, electronic music designer, conductor, associate conductor, copyist, music assistants, and musicians.

Why don’t these brilliant people get recognized?

First of all, it’s hard to visually quantify musical excellence, or sound in general. It’s easy to judge a spectacular looking set design or a mesmerizing lighting design. Good direction and choreography is also easy to see.

I’m just going to say it. A majority of people, Tony Awards Adminstration committee included, don’t have the necessary experience to critique music on a purely sonic level. Thus, it gets ignored along with all the brilliant people in charge of making music happen in a musical.

This is likely also why the Sound Design Tony has been discontinued. The committee and voters have absolutely no idea how to judge sound on a technical level, thus the obvious solution is to drop the whole category instead of bringing in a few consultants to, well, consult with.

It’s no secret. The Tony Awards are designed with two goals in mind.

In order of importance…

  1. Sell tickets.
  2. Recognize and reward brilliant work from some of the most influential artists in the world.

Celebrities and fame sell tickets. Flashy costumes, sets, and lighting sell tickets. Music and sound don’t sell tickets.

Just think about it. When was the last time someone said…

Dude! Go see An American In Paris. The sound design was sick!

Or…

Wow, I definitely recommend Something Rotten. The vocal arrangements were top notch.

Unless your circle of friends mostly consists of musicians and sound people, show recommendations are usually based on other things.

So, we’ve established the Tony Awards is Broadway’s annual night to sell lots of tickets. We know this statement is true because, historically, shows that don’t win any awards usually end up closing due to a stormy ticket sales forecast. The 2015 Tony Awards were last night. This morning, The Visit gave its closing notice.

Most of the time, music and sound don’t sell tickets. This is why the music department and sound designers don’t get recognized for their work.

This is sort of a chicken and egg situation.

It’s easy for someone to talk about why something looks good. It’s much more difficult to express why something sounds good.

I think it’s impossible to teach people, on a large scale, what to listen for in order to make educated judgements on how something sounds. It’s an unrealistic goal because most people simply don’t care.

Why don’t people care? Because it’s not relevant. Why is it not relevant? Because no one knows about it. Why doesn’t anyone know about it? Because it’s not recognized. Why is not recognized? Because it doesn’t sell tickets. Why doesn’t it sell tickets? Because people don’t care.

So, the only way out of this situation is for the people in charge to come to their senses and enact change. Sadly, that probably won’t happen in our lifetime because progress, when its for the better, is always slow.

How would one judge the quality of a music department?

In the past, I’ve heard one particularly interesting argument for the exclusion of a music director Tony Award. On a Broadway show, the music director is one of a few positions that aren’t permanent. During a show’s lifetime, the music director may choose to move on to a different gig after finding a suitable replacement. If a show were to win a Tony Award for Best Musical Direction, would it only apply to the original music director?

I think the lack of permanency in the music director world is definitely something to consider, and this is why I think an award given to the original music department would be more suitable and meaningful.

Over the past few years, I’ve worked as a member of the music department on a number of shows here in New York City, and they’ve all had their ups and downs. The mere presence of “ups and downs” implies there is some competitive ranking aspect involved, so there’s no reason why that can’t translate to a recognized award from the industry.

There are many musical aspects of a show that can be taken into competitive consideration, and I tend to think of them in two different categories. Visible to the public and invisible to the public.

An example of a visible aspect would be the quality of musicianship from the conductor and his or her musicians. The standard of musical excellence on Broadway is indeed very high, but we’d be kidding ourselves if we honestly think there’s no room for improvement.

The invisible aspects are way more interesting. I think the rapport and interaction between music director and actor can have a profound effect on a production’s success. I don’t see why this can’t be taken into account for a music department award. More often than not, the relationship a music director has with actors can affect everyone involved on the show.

Another invisible aspect is the quality of collaboration between composer, music director, orchestrator, and electronic music designer. I recently worked on Clinton The Musical, and the quality of the collaboration was the best I’ve ever experienced on a show in New York City.

The music department’s rapport was great, and this led to me and Tom Xi devising custom software scripts (this hasn’t been done before) to accomplish very niche needs requested by the orchestrator and music director. On another show with a less spectacular music department, this level of collaboration may never have happened.

Copyists are very important. They make everyone’s music legible. Poorly copied scores are a nightmare to read from. When musicians have to decipher what’s written on a page, musicality decreases by default. This actively affects the show’s musical excellence. A good copyist is a blessing.

I understand that these examples are super detailed. However, when you consider all these aspects, it’s easy to see the correlation between a show’s perceived production value and the competency of the music department.

So, where are we now?

Well, the Tony Awards Administration committee is arguably clueless. This is evident from the removal of the Sound Design award last year.

Here’s what they should do.

The first step is to acquire knowledge.

Consult with music supervisors, music directors, copyists, orchestrators, composers, actors, musicians, etc. Understand the inner workings of a music department, and what everyone’s job is. After that, brainstorm about what separates a good music department from a great one. Finally, bask in the glory of knowing you had a hand in true progress in this industry.

Two more things.

  1. Reinstate the sound design award.
  2. When a historical event like Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron winning the award for Best Musical Score happens… BROADCAST IT LIVE.

When it comes down to it, the end product supplied by a show’s music department is only seen as a contribution to something else that people care about. Due to the lack of visual spectacle, the presence of celebrity influence, and the lack of potential to boost ticket sales a significant amount, this contribution is deemed not important enough to be recognized for any sort of award. Honestly, it’s ironic. I guess whoever is in charge doesn’t understand a musical can’t exist without music.

Producers, actors, and other eligible winners, you can help the cause by remembering to thank the music department during your acceptance speeches. We appreciate it!


Questions?

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