The Olivier Awards have finally and defiantly crept out of the shadows and the public have been able to witness the winners accepting their prizes on late evening network commercial television, or at least see heavily edited snippets of their speeches, for the first time in ten years.
This was part of an ITV highlights package that made the evening look uncannily like the Royal Variety Performance, with some random guests (co-host Sheridan Smith and special guests Idina Menzel, Matthew Morrison and Petula Clark all doing songs unrelated to current West End shows), while a nominated (but long-shut) show like Loserville was relegated to a performance in the outside Covent Garden Piazza and not shown on TV at all.
Priorities, of course, change in the glare of the television cameras where the aim is to produce a popular piece of television that will not have viewers reaching for the remote button; but the main business of the awards remain the awards themselves, and those priorities, too, seem to be undergoing a significant overhaul. As I described in these pages last week, the way the votes are cast was suddenly changed this year, with some 153 SOLT members joining the existing independent panel of nine who used to be charged with making the decisions alone.
There is, however, no mechanism yet in place to ensure that all those SOLT members see every eligible show, as the panel does (this year there were 103); that would require them to invite each other to their shows, and they don’t at the moment (There’s a cost attached to giving away all those free tickets — though they do, of course, in New York, where the Tony Awards have an even wider voting panel of 700+ members). Most voting members will therefore only see their own shows (and inevitably vote for those) and those of their friends, as well as a scattering of the bigger, more talked-about hits.
And it is striking that out of those 103 eligible shows, only seven shows got rewarded at all in the SOLT-voted awards for West End shows (an eighth show Billy Elliot took this year’s Radio 2 Audience voted award, in which some 65,000 people cast votes). And every single one of those shows have been seen in commercial runs, even if three of them began in the subsidised sector at Chichester (Goodnight Mr Tom and Sweeney Todd) or the National (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, the NT’s eighth win for best new play since 2000).
Only one of the theatre awards, in fact, went to a performance that wasn’t also seen in a commercial run: Nicola Walker, who took the award for best supporting performance in a play for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time at the National’s Cottesloe, but didn’t transfer with the play to the West End. Could it be that SOLT’s expanded judging panel were unaware of this fact when they voted for her?
It is also striking that more awards have been made to shows that are still running rather than shut, even though the balance was the other way in the nominations stakes (of 74 nominations made in the main theatre categories, only 34 were for productions still running). Theatre memories are notoriously short, especially among a voting panel who may not have had the chance to get to see the shows that had shut before it came time to judge them. Sweeney Todd (with three awards), Goodnight Mr Tom and Long Day’s Journey into Night (one each) were at least happily remembered; but by the same token, it is also notable that four closed shows with multiple nominations — Kiss Me, Kate (five nominations), Constellations and Twelth Night (four each) and Old Times (two) — went home empty-handed.
There are, of course, always going to be more losers than winners in awards ceremonies, so while Top Hat triumphed to a three-award win out of the seven it had been nominated for (including best new musical, an ironic category for a show based on a film made in 1935 and featuring music by a composer who died in 1989), The Bodyguard also failed to register any wins out of its four nominations.
No voting process is ever going to be perfect, of course. But already it feels like a shift of priorities has been made to recognise and represent product that is still running commercially over shows that have passed, whether in the awards made or the extracts actually seen on TV. This tendency can only grow in future years as producers get wise to the process, and as in New York, not only start lobbying harder among colleagues to be seen, but also open their shows closer to the award time to be remembered.
The nominations for this year’s Tony Awards were announced earlier this week — and of some 46 shows to open across the season that could be considered for them, 20 opened in the last two months alone. Could we be heading in the same direction?
For the full Olivier Awards results, click here