Off-Broadway has eyes on the prize


Annie Warbucks has been banging on Broadway's door. But when it comes to taking in off-Broadway orphans, the Great White Way has about as much compassion as Miss Hannigan.

In December, Ben Sprecher, the producer of "Annie Warbucks," fired off a letter to the American Theater Wing, which, along with the League of American Theaters and Producers, administers the Tony Awards.

Mr. Sprecher asked the Wing to consider "Annie Warbucks" for Tony Award nominations. The musical is ineligible under the Wing's policy -- which stipulates that only shows running in Broadway venues can compete for Tonys -- because it is off-Broadway at the Variety Arts Theater.

But Mr. Sprecher argued that the musical's creators -- Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin and Thomas Meehan -- are Broadway regulars. He added that if the Tonys really "celebrate excellence in the New York theater, . . . it is simply not fair to overlook this production because it is 20 blocks" south of the Broadway Theater District.

While most theater people would concede that point, nobody -- not even Mr. Sprecher himself -- thought the Wing would grant his request. (It was rejected in mid-January.) But Mr. Sprecher's letter has rekindled a long-standing debate in the theater community about whether the Tony Awards should include off-Broadway.

"These awards are meant to recognize achievement," says Lynne Meadow, artistic director of the off-Broadway Manhattan Theater Club. In terms of quality and talent, she says, "there is no difference today between off-Broadway and Broadway."

Off-Broadway producers also point out that in recent years, the Tony nominating committee has had trouble finding enough Broadway shows to field four nominees in the Best Musical and Best Play categories.

On the other side of the debate are powerful Broadway producers who see the Tony Award as a marketing tool too valuable to be squandered on off-Broadway.

"Winning a Tony has a huge impact on business," veteran Broadway producer Robert Whitehead says. "Naturally, the Broadway society feels that that business should be confined to the people who are in it."

Mr. Whitehead says Broadway producers who spend millions of dollars on a musical or play chafe at the idea of competing for a Tony with a show that cost a mere $300,000. Still, he acknowledges that it is becoming increasingly difficult to bill the Tonys as awarding the best the American theater has to offer when there is so little product on Broadway.

Some Broadway power brokers who share Mr. Whitehead's concern think it's time the Tonys harnessed some of the excitement of off-Broadway.

Jay Harris, an entertainment lawyer who sits on the Tony Award administration committee, which determines Tony eligibility requirements, says the committee might be persuaded to create a category for off-Broadway.

Of that idea, one off-Broadway producer, who asked not to be identified, huffs: "Fat chance." He says the American Theater Wing is "controlled" by the Broadway theater owners -- the Shuberts, the Nederlanders and Jujamcyn Theaters -- and that they will fight to keep off-Broadway out.

Gerald Schoenfeld, Shubert Organization chairman, dismisses that. "We are always a convenient source of blame" for what's wrong with the theater, he says, pointing out that theater owners have only three seats (out of 36) on the administrative committee. Citing the Obies, he adds: "Off-Broadway has its own awards."

As for "Annie Warbucks," the the future isn't very attractive. Denied the possibility of a publicity boost from Tony nominations, and unable to transfer to Broadway, the musical closed Jan. 30.

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