Just 20 weeks ago, Covid-19 sounded little more than the title of a science fiction movie – viewers were wondering who would win Love Island and the biggest concern for the West End was if Stephen Schwartz’s new blockbuster musical The Prince of Egypt (his first new musical in London since Wicked) would become this year’s big hit. It is the abruptness of how our world has changed in such a short period of time that is so disconcerting.
Celebrities walked down the red carpet into the Dominion Theatre for the premiere of The Prince of Egypt that night in February, amid a sea of flashbulbs with crowds behind crash barriers jostling for selfies. Such a concept now seems alien and trivial.
Who could have predicted a few months later that the most famous man in the UK would be a 100-year-old Second World War veteran who walked around his garden 100 times for the NHS?
Has coronavirus forever changed the way we view celebrity? Certainly, there has been a mixed reaction to the ways celebrities have responded to the virus. For some, it has resulted in a backlash, while at the same time the public’s affection has turned to essential workers – especially those in the NHS, for whom we again clapped on our doorsteps last Sunday.
Back in April, I wrote about the decision to postpone the Olivier Awards. I still feel it should have gone ahead in some form and the same with the now-postponed Tony Awards. However, I was struck by the comments from some readers who saw these events as a celebrity bash rather than a recognition of excellence, and, post-coronavirus, felt there was no longer a place for them.
In recent years, some reporting on awards ceremonies has been more about the cost of a celeb’s goodie bag than the winners. It is something I would be pleased to see gone for good. However, across the entertainment sector, what awards ceremonies represent still matters. While refocusing is needed, their celebration of excellence is still important.
This is especially true for the many individuals who work on a nominated production – from costume-maker to flyman, usher to writer, actor to stage manager. These companies deserve to feel proud, and recognised, for their contributions towards a production’s achievements.
As well as celebrating talent, these events can give key voices a platform to talk about important issues
Had the Oliviers or Tonys happened, then not only would they have provided an urgent reminder to support live theatre when venues reopen, but they would have also provided a reminder of our industry’s values of community and togetherness.
Thirteen days before the Tony Awards should have taken place, George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. The decision to postpone the ceremony had already been taken due to the pandemic – if that decision had not already been made, then it may have been felt inappropriate for the awards to go ahead anyway.
However, I also remember the 2016 Tony Awards. They took place less than 24 hours after a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando.
Tony host James Corden’s powerful opening words, broadcast by CBS, made an important statement about equality and unity and how hate will never win. Our industry was able to use one of its showpiece events to make a visible statement in solidarity with others.
The longer it goes on with no new date for either the Tony or Olivier ceremonies, the less they feel worth restaging. But this would be a great loss, and is unfair to those theatres that staged excellent work in the year before lockdown.
As well as celebrating talent, these events are a platform to talk about important issues. For example, the recent US Drama League and Drama Desk Awards still found a way to go ahead online this year, offering an important platform for address, community and outreach.
Broadcasting these ceremonies nationally means they can reach and influence many young people – whether in the middle of rural Arkansas or rural Norfolk – watching with a drive to be creative and know they are not alone in such ambition.
As any celebrity PR can tell you, to be out of sight quickly becomes out of mind. I would therefore be sorry to see the end of entertainment awards as the result of this pandemic, but for them to survive, we also need to take this opportunity to review and work together at how better we address their value, appropriateness and reach if they are to remain relevant.