NEW YORK - Sets. Costumes. Lighting. They provide some of the most potent memories of Broadway shows. And now the Tony Awards are doubling their recognition.
Starting with this year's ceremony, awards in all three categories will be given for plays and for musicals. In the past, they competed against each other. It's an idea long overdue, say those in the theater community, particularly the designers themselves, who tend to be a pre-taped blur on the nationally televised show each June, and whose Tony triumphs are quickly announced between major awards and musical numbers.
"It seemed an opportunity to ensure that designers would be recognized for work which calls for different scale and different opportunities, as warranted by the material," says Howard Sherman, executive director of the American Theatre Wing, co-presenter of the Tonys.
That means big musicals won't necessarily dominate on Tony night June 5, as they have in the past.
Take the scenic design prize. Over the last 20 years, designers of sets for plays have taken the Tony only four times, most recently in 2002 when Tim Hatley won for his lavish art nouveau designs for a revival of Noel Coward's "Private Lives."
"Plays tend to get lost in the spectacle of the Broadway musical," says nominated lighting designer Donald Holder, pitted against himself this year for his work on two plays, August Wilson's "Gem of Ocean" and a revival of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire."
"It's very difficult for them to compete in the eyes of Tony voter. I can't imagine they are not swayed by all the spectacle and the huge lighting effects, the visual extravagance that you usually can find in a musical versus what you are doing in play, which has to not be as aggressive or overt."
Holder should know. He won the Tony Award for lighting in 1998 for Disney's elaborate stage version of "The Lion King."
And then there's the fabled Tony quest by veteran costume designer Jane Greenwood, who mostly has done costume designs for plays. Her nomination this year for the Kathleen Turner-Bill Irwin revival of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is her 15th over four decades, starting in 1965. Yet Greenwood has never won, even when she was nominated for musicals.
"There was one year (1994) when I was nominated for both 'Passion' and 'She Loves Me' - and the dancing tea cups won," she says with a laugh, referring to the crockery and cutlery costumes designed by Ann Hould-Ward for Disney's "Beauty and the Beast."
"Talking from the point of view of costume design, the difference between a musical and a play can be quite significant," Greenwood said. "Sometimes it is as difficult to design four costumes - clothes people are going to look at all evening - as it is to design 40 or 400. When you only have four characters on stage (as in 'Virginia Woolf'), people even look at their shoelaces. They have time to contemplate it all."
On the other end of the Tony costume-design spectrum is William Ivey Long, a four-time winner for such big musicals as "Nine," "Crazy for You," "The Producers" and "Hairspray." This year Long is nominated in both the play and musical costume categories - for the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" and the revival of the Jerry Herman musical "La Cage aux Folles."
"I have had the good luck of having done very showy musicals," Long said. "I often think that sometimes the amount of costumes overwhelm your eyes with variety and bright colors. A lot of stuff tends to blind people - sometimes.
"In 'La Cage,' they (the actors) wear costumes with a capital K. Costumes are almost a character in that show since it is about transforming one gender into another."
John Lee Beatty, a veteran set designer (a total of nine Tony nominations) and a winner for his work on the Lanford Wilson play "Talley's Folly," calls the new play-musical division "a little more realistic about how design challenges are met. I suppose though, in the long run, people are still going to go for the more spectacular design." Beatty is nominated this year for his work on "Doubt," John Patrick Shanley's drama about a parochial school nun and her suspicions about a parish priest.
"'Doubt' is a very complicated show - backstage. I know it looks serene on the face of it," Beatty said in describing how the set - featuring a courtyard setting as well as the nun's office - trundles on and off stage and slides up the side walls of the Walter Kerr Theatre.
One thing all these designers celebrate is the collaborative nature of the theater.
"Costumes are significant because they are there all evening, making that journey with a play or musical, while having to be right for the character and yet not take too much attention," Greenwood said.
"Over the years, I have been very rewarded by a leading actress or actor winning a Tony Award. The clothes may or may not have been nominated, but the performances have been extraordinary - Colleen Dewhurst in 'A Moon for the Misbegotten' or a Donna Murphy in 'Passion,' for example. It was wonderful. You feel in some way you have contributed to their Tonys."
List of design nominees for the 2005 Tony Awards
A list of design nominations for the 59th Annual Tony Awards:
-Best Scenic Design of a Play: John Lee Beatty, "Doubt"; David Gallo, "Gem of the Ocean"; Santo Loquasto, "Glengarry Glen Ross"; Scott Pask, "The Pillowman."
-Best Scenic Design of a Musical: Tim Hatley, "Monty Python's Spamalot"; Rumi Matsui, "Pacific Overtures"; Anthony Ward, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang"; Michael Yeargan, "The Light in the Piazza."
-Best Costume Design of a Play: Jess Goldstein, "The Rivals"; Jane Greenwood, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"; William Ivey Long, "A Streetcar Named Desire"; Constanza Romero, "Gem of the Ocean."
-Best Costume Design of a Musical: Tim Hatley, "Monty Python's Spamalot"; Junko Koshino, "Pacific Overtures"; William Ivey Long, "La Cage aux Folles"; Catherine Zuber, "The Light in the Piazza."
-Best Lighting Design of a Play: Pat Collins, "Doubt"; Donald Holder, "Gem of the Ocean"; Donald Holder, "A Streetcar Named Desire"; Brian MacDevitt, "The Pillowman."
-Best Lighting Design of a Musical: Christopher Akerlind, "The Light in the Piazza "; Mark Henderson, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang"; Kenneth Posner, "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels"; Hugh Vanstone, "Monty Python's Spamalot."
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