Don't Tony Worship

Jonathan Fong

In light of the recent Tony Awards, I just thought I’d write something that has been on my mind for a while. I’ve seen this happening a lot, in both community and professional theatre, and I thought it should be addressed

No, it’s not about people judging whether what won should’ve won. There has been enough debate about The Band’s Visit winning everything already, as there always has been and will be when a show sweeps the Tonys, and I’m not going to open that can of worms. In fact, what I’m going to talk about isn’t really something specific to this year nor any year in the past.
I’m going to talk about something else. I call it Tony worship. No, I’m not talking about those who have shrines to Tony from West Side Story in their rooms. I neither confirm nor deny the presence of one in mine. I’m talking about people treating the Tony Awards, and everything associated with or related to them, as the entirety of theatre itself.


Every year, I see dozens of small-scale productions, some community/amateur and some professional, of musicals mimic the Tony-winning set or costume designs of that musical’s original Broadway production. Every year I see other productions attempt to copy the original choreography, with varying degrees of success, of the original Broadway production. Every year, I see, whether online or in person, dozens of performances of the same songs from the musical theatre canon sung in the exact same way - intonation, tone, delivery, you name it. 
And every year, when I ask the person in charge of set design or the performer why, they say the same variations of the same thing - ‘(insert-famous-theatre-person-here) did it and won a Tony for it’.


Let’s ignore for a second the copyright issues which come with copying things such as set designs or costume designs (you don’t get the rights to copy a production’s set design when you get the rights to a musical, in case you were unaware). Let’s also ignore the real risk of doing things like mimicking an actor’s vocal tone in a song without proper vocal training to do so, which can actually do harm to your voice.


Thing is, yes, they won a Tony for it. But do the Tonys define theatre? Do they define your production and what direction it should take? Do they define you as an actor?
Sutton Foster, Patti LuPone, Idina Menzel - they’re all incredibly talented actors. No one’s doubting that Andy Blankenbuehler or Christopher Gattelli are wonderful choreographers, neither is anyone doubting the amazing designs of David Zinn or Mimi Lien. They’re all clearly good at what they do and the fact that they won Tonys for their work is proof of that. But at the end of the day, what they did was take the material given to them - librettos, plot synopses, the like - and interpreted and developed it in their own unique ways. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what everyone’s supposed to do?


As actors, choreographers, directors, designers, or whatever role you might have in the theatre, isn’t it our job to make our own interpretations of what we’re given? To creatively stretch the boundaries and go beyond the text or the libretto? Why are we defining what we should do by what others have done, and not the limits of our own creativity? Why are we copying other’s creative work just to feel secure in what we do?


I’m not saying that you shouldn’t seek inspiration in any way from other sources. Inspiration from others is one of the most valuable things you can get in the arts - it can offer insights you might have never otherwise considered. And I most certainly would be lying if I said I’d never looked at what other artists have done as guidance.


But please, for crying out loud, don’t just copy Sutton Foster’s Tony-winning performance in Anything Goes for your recital, or the minimalist set design of the 2005 Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd (yes, that actually happened) for your local community theatre production of the show. Don’t just sing Defying Gravity ‘that way’ because ‘Idina Menzel did it’, and don’t light the stage or design your props ‘that way’ because ‘that Broadway show did it and won a Tony’. That’s not justification for a creative cop-out. Yes, they won a Tony for it, but they won it not for copying what someone else did, but because what they did was original and creative.
Be creative. Be brave. Be theatrical. Stretch the boundaries; don’t be content with being ‘safe’ with what others have successfully done. Make your work as an artist unique and your own, not a mere imitation of what someone won a Tony for.
Don’t let the Tonys alone define what theatre is for you.