In a unique rule change, the Tony Administration Committee announced that awards for lighting, set, and costume design will be given in two categories beginning with next year's awards. Designers for both plays and musicals will be eligible for Tony Awards in those respective categories.
“It makes a great deal of sense to me because a play never wins over a musical,” says Heidi Ettinger who received two Tony Awards for designing The Secret Garden (1991) and Big River (1985). “It's only reasonable that there are separate categories because it's a separate skill, just like directors.”
Susan Hilferty, 2004 Tony Award winner for her Wicked costumes, thinks the new categories are a welcome change. “Have any designers of plays won in the last decade?” she asks. “The playing field has always been uneven since the voters seem to be impressed with more showy productions, musicals, because of their scope and scale.”
Hilferty added that costume designers like Jane Greenwood — who has been routinely nominated for her work since 1965's Tartuffe — will be more likely to get a Tony now. “Now that the awards are separated, work that is smart but not necessarily flashy will receive the recognition it deserves,” she adds. “My only hope is that all of the design awards will be televised, but we should just take one step at a time.”
Still, the new rules haven't generated a total love fest within the design community. While the new rule doubles the design prizes to six, sound designers are still ineligible for an award. “I'm used to this idea of not recognizing sound,” says one industry source. “Sound is the dirty little secret without whom no one can live. They don't want to recognize it as a discipline, but they'll never give up sound as much as they think they would like to.”
It appears that the lack of recognition for sound designers stems from a plethora of prevailing attitudes from the media, the Tonys, as well as other design disciplines. The industry source specifically pointed to the Tony nominators as a body made up of people who think they remember a time when there was no enhanced sound in musicals. “Even Ethel Merman's musicals were reinforced with foot mikes but most people don't know that. People say it used to be so great, but it was great because it was reinforced. You can't have an un-reinforced musical in the Marriott Marquis or the Gershwin. It's not going to happen because nobody will hear anything.”
The source added that the only time the media — The New York Times in particular — ever mentions sound in a production is to bash it mercilessly, and that other designers who do get noticed each year by the Tonys have not raised the issue. “It would be great if there was such an uproar from the design community that there was some discussion about this but I don't think there will be,” the source continues. “Our colleagues, God love ‘em, they're not going to raise their head above the trench on our behalf. Why would they?”
Ettinger urges her designer brethren in the sound field to not abandon hope because Tonys for sound are surely around the corner, adding “when they do give them, it'll be awarded off-camera anyway!”