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Tony Awards postponement is a first, historians say

The postponement of the 2020 Tony Awards is a first in the 73 years of the ceremony, according to theater historians.  This year’s Tony Awards ceremony has been postponed indefinitely as Broadway theaters remain shuttered through at least June 7, the original date of the Tony Awards, due to the i...

The 73rd Annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on June 9, 2019. (Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)

The postponement of the 2020 Tony Awards is a first in the 73 years of the ceremony, according to theater historians.

This year’s Tony Awards ceremony has been postponed indefinitely as Broadway theaters remain shuttered through at least June 7, the original date of the Tony Awards, due to the impact of COVID-19. Its fate was threatened by a dispute in 1965 and its subsequent fallout in 1966, as well as labor disputes through the years, but theater experts said none of the events that have closed Broadway theaters in the past have affected the ceremony.

The organizers of the Tony Awards, which are co-presented by the American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League, are still in the planning process of what this season’s ceremony will look like when it is allowed to resume.

“The community is a phenomenally collaborative community, and we will find the way forward,” Heather Hitchens, president of the American Theatre Wing, said in a recent interview with Broadway News. “We’re just working through lots of different things to try and find that way forward.”

The American Theatre Wing created the Tony Awards in 1947 to honor the organization’s co-founder Antoinette Perry, for whom the award is named, following her death in 1946. For the first 18 years, the awards presentation took place in various hotel ballrooms and was coupled with a gala dinner. It has since evolved into a nationally televised, red-carpeted event, moving from various Broadway theaters to Radio City Music Hall, where it is most commonly held today.

Though Broadway itself has been interrupted by work stoppages, including a 25-day musicians’ strike in 1975 and a two-day closure after Sept. 11, 2001, the Broadway season was able to recover before the spring deadlines of the Tony Awards, said Laurence Maslon, an arts professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Rather, the only threat to the Tony Awards ceremony, as far as theater experts can recall, was a 1965 dispute between Helen Menken, then-chairwoman of the American Theatre Wing, and the board of the nonprofit organization.

At the time, Menken was upset at what she perceived to be a lack of support from the board for the now-defunct American Theatre Wing Professional School — a training program founded by Perry that would shape artists including Bob Fosse — “of which she was very proud,” said Patrick Pacheco, author of the book “American Theatre Wing, An Oral History: 100 Years, 100 Voices, 100 Million Miracles.”

Other factors were in play: Menken was ill, and her husband, George N. Richard, a stockbroker and major subsidizer of the Tony Awards, was planning to pull his funding, Pacheco said. She was poised to cancel the event until producer Hal Prince stepped in and convinced Menken to proceed with the ceremony, citing an obligation to the tradition of the awards, according to Pacheco.

Pacheco notes that Prince was “not a disinterested party” in that year’s ceremony, as he had just produced “Fiddler on the Roof,” which was up for Tony Awards contention.

Though Prince was able to change Menken’s mind about the 1965 awards, which went on without incident and won “Fiddler” nine Tony Awards, she died shortly before the following year’s ceremony, putting the fate of the 1966 awards into question.

At that time, the Broadway League (then the League of New York Theatres) had recently joined as a co-presenter of the awards alongside the American Theatre Wing because “there wasn’t a lot of money around” for either entity to single-handedly present them, Pacheco said. Richard had pulled funding after the death of his wife.

The 1966 ceremony was ultimately scaled down because of the new financial limitations and Menken’s sudden death, according to Pacheco. The awards show was broadcast on CBS Radio rather than televised, and it “was subdued and, for the first and only time, held in the afternoon without entertainment,” according to the Tony Awards’ website.

Not every Tony ceremony has featured the usual hallmarks. The trademark statuette was only created after the first two ceremonies. Seven ceremonies have taken place without a host. And the Tony Awards schedule itself has shifted, with the ceremony taking place in either March or April until 1977, before landing in its now-traditional spot in June, according to Maslon.

Union disputes also created obstacles for the telecast of the ceremony. The 10th annual ceremony was the first to be televised, but the 11th and 12th annual ceremonies’ telecasts, meant to be broadcast on WCBS-TV, were both canceled (first due to a 1957 dispute between the Theatrical Protective Union Local 1 and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and then due to a 1958 strike conducted by electrical workers against CBS). Both ceremonies, however, were still conducted in person.

A hotel strike in 1985 prevented the 39th annual Tonys dinner from taking place at its original venue, the New York Hilton. The New York Times reported that, “on 24 hours notice,” the Grand Hyatt made preparations and was able to accommodate the event.

The actual awards ceremony at the Shubert Theatre that year was not impacted by the dinner. It did, however, run into another obstacle: the nominating committee scrapped categories for the first time. No awards were given for Best Leading Actor and Actress in a Musical, nor for Best Choreography, due to a lack of eligible and qualified candidates, according to news reports from the time.

It was one of a few ceremonies to deal with concerns over a lack of nominees. The 43rd annual awards in 1989 only had three shows nominated for Best Musical, with “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” taking home the prize.

“Sunset Boulevard” took home seven awards at the 49th ceremony in 1995, but it was only up against “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” for Best Musical and ran unopposed for Best Book and Best Original Score. Glenn Close was only one of two nominees for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical, winning the prize for her role as Norma Desmond.

Though finding worthy nominees “proved to be somewhat problematic” some years, according to Pacheco, those ceremonies were never in danger of cancellation.

-Caitlin Huston contributed to this report.

A previous version of this report misstated the former name of the Broadway League. It has been corrected.