As with many aspects of British cultural life, the influence of America looms large in commercial theatre. The apparent split in opinion over whether Olivier statuettes should be rationed is borne out of a general unease from some in Theatreland about the increasing Tony-fication of the Oliviers – and the Broadway-ification of the West End.
The Oliviers started life as the Society of West End Theatre Awards and used to be quite a humble affair at the Grosvenor Park Hotel. Genteel and modest, they felt more like a trade fair than a glamorous showbiz event.
That changed – thanks in large part to the efforts of Society of London Theatre chief executive Julian Bird and his team – who have glitzed the ceremony up significantly in recent years. This year’s event at the Royal Albert Hall, with highlights on ITV, might not have quite boasted the pizzazz of the Tony Awards, but it’s not far off, and compares favourably with other UK entertainment awards ceremonies. But with its greater focus on musicals and the showbiz end of theatre, it also feels like it has moved some way away from the kind of theatre that Laurence Olivier might have championed.
As the Oliviers have become more like the Tonys, commercial theatre has taken on a few other US theatre habits that some people find less palatable. Premium tickets are an obvious example, but another is the increasingly long list of producers attached to shows.
This reached its peak (or nadir, depending on your outlook) this year with the nearly 50 named producers on Come from Away.
To some extent this is not new. These people were always there, but they used to be called angel investors and were kept firmly in the background. In the US, they started to demand public recognition for their dollars: money talks, so they were reclassified as producers. The same is happening in London.
This is where the root of the Oliviers’ problem resides. If the industry is going to call these people producers, it’s not unreasonable of them to be expect to be treated as producers. If producers receive an award when their show wins, then they will understandably want one too. And the Tonys lets them buy one.
This problem reflects a wider tension within the industry that is unlikely to go away, but it is the awards organisers who have been left to come up with a solution that retains British sensibilities while not irritating US producers whose money they need.
In typical British fashion, they’ve come up with a compromise and a sensible attempt to balance art and commerce. Time will tell whether it appeases both sides, or neither.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith