No Tonys In the Pit!

By Freya Meredith (A.K.A. Australia’s Ally to Broadway)

It is a well-established fact that the Tony Awards celebrates excellent in theatre. In the lead-up to the nominations, many theatre practitioners, including actors, writers, composers, producers, choreographers, directors and so many more, anxiously hope for their name to be announced as a cut above the rest. These people have dedicated months, most likely years, into making their production the best it can be. And while they are proud to be a part of that show and have already experienced the gratitude of audiences and critics, many say that to be recognized by the American Theatre Wing is the icing on the cake. What an honour it must be to be “a Tony nominee!” Many people in theatre have endless dreams about this - but unfortunately, for some people, this dream may never come true.

Musical Directors and Conductors have been an essential part of theatre since the invention of “the performing arts”. With the help of the rise of orchestras and operas, it is unlikely that you will now go to a musical theatre production that is not accompanied with a musical director and/or a conductor. The role of a musical director/conductor, whose job is to shape and lead a musical performance, is a vital role on the production team. In my personal opinion, this role is just as important (sometimes even more depending on the show) as the choreographer. So my question is: why is there no longer an award recognizing the work of a Musical Director?

The Tony Award for Best Conductor and Musical Director began being presented at the 2nd Annual Tony Awards ceremony in 1948 (the first award being given to Milton Rosenstock for his work on Finian’s Rainbow). The last of this award was presented in 1964 to Shepard Coleman for his “vocal arrangements” (or so it is said) on the original production of Hello Dolly! As Joseph Church writes in his book Music Direction for the Stage: A View from the Podium; “In truth, Mr Coleman had been let go early in the production, and his position was taken over… three months after the show opened.” It is thought that Coleman received the award because it was Hello Dolly! and voters were unaware of his actual contribution to the production. Because of the supposed difficulty of analyzing the work of a musical director/conductor (as opposed to the very evident work of a director and a choreographer), the Award was retired. 30 years later, a committee of music directors (in which A View from the Podium’s author was a founder of) presented a case to bring back the Best Conductor and Musical Director award and to create an award for orchestrations to the Tony committee members. The committee rejected their motion for the Musical Director award, but were compliant in creating the Tony Award for Best Orchestrations. And nothing has really happened since.

Photo by Furtseff/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Furtseff/iStock / Getty Images

Now, I kind of understand why the Award was dumped. I have to agree (sorry musical directors) that it is a little hard to track how a musical director creatively contributes to a production. Other than doing their job and relaying the composer’s intentions from the score, they creatively aren’t giving as much as the director or the choreographer or the costume and set designers and so on. A lot of the time, you don’t see someone’s musical direction live on through other productions of that same show like someone’s direction or choreography does (ala Michael Bennett’s A Chorus Line). It’s also known that audiences aren’t as aware of someone’s musical direction as they are with direction or costume design (which is unfortunate).

But besides all these complications, musical direction and conducting is tough work, and the American Theatre Wing should recognize it in an Award. Musical directors, especially in the case of a brand new show, have to take everything that the composers, lyricist and orchestrators have put together and make it work! They are responsible for every aspect of the preparation and the performance of the music. Musical directors have to coordinate with the creative team and designers to make sure that what audiences are hearing is telling the story just as much as what they are seeing. They have to hire and work with different musical personnel to complete scores, and also work with different voice types and vocal skills to achieve a clean and almost perfect sound (which, as a singing teacher, I know can be a nightmare to do). Musical directors have to lead rehearsals with both the cast and the orchestra (double the work) and are the link between both groups. Most musical directors are also the conductor in these productions, and having the ability to lead an entire orchestra AND cast 8 shows a week is astounding. If something goes wrong, they have to immediately improvise and coordinate sometimes over 60 people (example: West Side Story can have 31 orchestra members and 40 cast members on stage) all at once, and they can do that without missing a beat - literally. It is remarkable how much of a genius of music you need to be to become a successful musical director and conductor, especially in musical theatre.

I believe that when good work is presented, it should be awarded. Yes, the job description for a musical director can mean a lot of things and it can be hard for the American Theatre Wing to keep track of, but it is also one of the hardest jobs on Broadway (don’t even get me started on stage technicians and managers. The Tony Award for Best Stage Technician needs to be a thing again). Like I said, I think you need to be a genius (and a little bit insane) to be a musical director, and while this role is obviously very fulfilling, a little recognition on the biggest night for theatre wouldn’t go astray. If my local theatre awards can manage to do it (shout out to the City of Newcastle Drama Association Awards), the Tony’s can too!