Industry Editor Exclusive: Behind the Unusual Tonys Race for Best Score

Who will be eligible? It's not just musicals.

By: Sep. 04, 2020

As readers know by now, the 2020 Tony Awards are going ahead based on a severely abbreviated season. Many were hoping there would be elimination and/or combination of categories to make them more competitive, but that announcement did not come as of the season's final Tony Awards Administration Committee meeting. The existence of one category in particular has puzzled many: Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre.

Before the February 19 cutoff, four musicals opened, but only one had a score written for the theatre: THE LIGHTNING THIEF. The show was well-liked off-Broadway but crashed on Broadway. Rob Rokicki's score was not particularly popular with critics this time around, leading many to question the intelligence of possibly giving him a Tony Award.

"Given how weak the season was for new musicals, Rob probably would have been nominated year end," one voter commented. "But he would not be a top contender like he is now."

Rokicki is in fact not the only one eligible. Composers of music for plays can be nominated in the Best Original Score category--and have been in the past. According to the Tony folks, there are nine productions eligible for this award, eight plays and one musical:


Industry Editor Exclusive: Behind the Unusual Tonys Race for Best Score

The plays not eligible are BETRAYAL, FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE, GRAND HORIZONS, MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, A SOLDIER'S PLAY and LINDA VISTA. In some of these cases this is likely a matter of billing. For example, for BETRAYAL, Ben and Max Ringham are billed as having done "Composition." One wonders if they were billed as doing "Original Music" or even as "Composers" whether they would be eligible, but it was not meant to be. In other cases, such as LINDA VISTA, the memorable soundscape of a given show was made up of pre-existing material.

The subject of pre-existing material is an interesting one. There is not a hard-and-fast rule about how much music has to be written for the theater in order to qualify for the Best Score award, but the general guideline followed has been that the original content has to be over 50% of the score featured in the show. This rule was analyzed in 2003 when URBAN COWBOY was originally deemed not eligible in the category, but then the Administration Committee reversed course when it was pointed out that Jason Robert Brown in fact wrote over 50% of the songs featured in the musical. This rule is also what eliminated the possibility of an Imogen Heap nomination in 2018. Her music for HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD is a big part of the production, and many fans rooted for her to be nominated, but, because the music was not written for the show, she was not eligible.

Many involved in SLAVE PLAY were surprised about that show's eligibility because of that same "over 50%" guideline. Lindsay Jones wrote original music for the play, but the most memorable part of the show's score was the production's highlighting of the Rihanna song "Work." ("Pony" and "Multi-Love," two other mainstream hits, were also featured.)

"That can't be right," one SLAVE PLAY investor exclaimed after I reported to him that the show was eligible for Best Score.

However, it is right, as per the Tony spokespeople. SLAVE PLAY is eligible to be nominated alongside the eight other listed productions. If/when plays are nominated in this category they will not be the first. Just last year Adam Guettel beat out some who had written music/lyrics for musicals when he picked up a nomination for his work for TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Two plays (ENRON and FENCES) were nominated in 2010 alongside two musicals (THE ADDAMS FAMILY and MEMPHIS). And there are more examples.

If the category were to have been cancelled that also would not have been without precedent. 1989 was the last time this particular category was nixed. There were eligible musicals that year -- including the first Broadway musical that featured lyrics (as well as music) by Cy Coleman, WELCOME TO THE CLUB -- but the category was still eliminated. It happened before that as well.

Of the twenty or so people spoken to for this piece, about half believed the category should stay in. Some noted the work of Paul Englishby on THE INHERITANCE. (A production spokesperson confirmed that Englishby wrote 95% of the music used in the play, with the remaining 5% being from the song "Cavatina" or the "Suite from Inside the Actor's Studio.") Others pointed out that one of the most memorable parts of A CHRISTMAS CAROL was the score, which featured original music by Christopher Nightingale. Ben Brantley wrote in his New York Times review: "Music - affectingly arranged and orchestrated here by Christopher Nightingale - is, appropriately enough, the oxygen of this 'Christmas Carol.'" Other scores for plays also received high marks from some.

Still those that think the category should be nixed are a vocal group. "Leave it to the Tonys to make the dumbest decisions," one remarked. "No combination of the musical acting categories, a Tony for score when there should be none. Why bother?"

Interestingly, despite what many see as a dearth of potential Best Score nominees, the nine eligible scores actually triggers an expansion of the category. The Tony rules state that if there are at least nine eligible candidates for nomination, then there shall be five nominees in that category, instead of the default four nominees. So it looks like come Tony nomination day -- which is still unspecified -- we can expect at least four plays to be nominated, easily a record. And it one wins that will also be a first; composers' work on plays has been nominated but none of those nominees has ever taken home the statuette.

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