Taking on the Tonys: Is 'War Horse' the best play or 'a puppet show'?

'War Horse,' which involves complex puppetry, won best play at the Tonys. 'The Book of Mormon,' written by the creators of 'South Park,' won best musical. Is this a step forward or backward?

Paul Kolnik/Lincoln Center Theater/AP
The production of 'War Horse,' showing at the Lincoln Center Theater in New York, won the Tony Award for best play.

The running gag among the 3,000 or so people at New York City’s Beacon Theater for the Tonys Sunday night was that at least that many people watched it on television.

Yes, it is true the Tonys don’t draw the same ratings as the Oscars or even the Emmys, but if nothing else became clear this year on Broadway, it was that despite all the problems live theater faces today in competing with films and TV, it still matters.

For starters, for the 2010-11 Broadway season, which ended in May, Broadway shows made a record $1.08 billion, according to the Broadway League.

Moreover, the stage is attracting all kinds of unlikely people, starting with Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the duo behind Comedy Central's raunchy "South Park," who this season were co-creators of "The Book of Mormon" – a musical that took home nine awards, including best musical. The musical extravaganza about young missionaries in Africa is so over-the-top that some of its musical numbers could not be aired on broadcast television.

Meanwhile, the award for best play went to a high-profile British import, “War Horse” – a play about a boy and his pony separated by wartime. The play, in which horses are animated by complex puppetry, will be coming to movie theaters in the near future thanks to American filmmaker, Steven Spielberg.

For the economic welfare of the commercial theater, this is the good news – the cheapest seat for “War Horse" is $194, for example.

For some playwrights and critics, however, it underscores the trend toward the flashy at the expense of the substantial. Charles Evered, an award-winning playwright and screenwriter who is an associate professor of theater at the University of California, Riverside points to the loss of “Good People,” a play about an American family in crisis. While Oscar-winning actress Frances McDormand won for best actress for her role in the play, the show itself was passed over in favor of "War Horse," which Mr. Evered calls “a puppet show.”

“It was like a machine won the Tonys,” Evered says, adding, “Where is the recognition for new serious work about real human beings dealing with real human problems?”

Back in its heyday in the 1940s, '50s and even '60s, New York’s commercial theater used to have room to encourage serious dramatic works about important issues of the day, points out Anthony Chase, theater critic and assistant dean of the School of Arts and Humanities at Buffalo State in New York. But given the prices of theater tickets these days people expect a big bang for their buck, he says. He sees hope outside New York City.

“These plays [such as ‘Good People’] will move out into small regional theaters and university programs all over the country and be performed over and over,” he says. Even if they do not get their day during awards seasons, “they will affect many people for years to come as they live on outside Broadway.”

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