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Mark Shenton celebrates the impact of the Olivier Awards
I've been going to the Olivier Awards with some regularity for the last thirty or so years: a couple of times as a paying member of the public, then a few years when I was working for the West End advertising agency Dewynters, but mostly as an invited journalist.
Across that time, I've seen the event evolve from a theatre show to a hotel ballroom banquet cabaret and now back to a theatre show, with all sorts of add-on bells and whistles. I've also regularly attended Broadway's Tony Awards, and I can honestly say that there's now not a lot to separate them, at least in presentational terms, from the glamour and excitement of the (very) long red carpet that runs virtually the length of Bow Street to the gorgeous Opera House itself, and the post-show Floral Hall party.
Of course there are still key differences: the Tony's still get live national television exposure, whereas the Oliviers only have a time-delayed 'highlights' package on ITV later the same evening (but at least they're on TV at all!). But the Oliviers have definitely upped their game and the event is now both a serious cheerleader as well as advertisement for the West End.
There's still a basic problem with timing, though; while on Broadway the theatre year is strictly defined, and indeed entirely run around the eligibility cut off date for the Tony's around the last week of April, the London theatre year runs a lot more randomly and there's no all-out focus on opening in time for the Oliviers.
This is possibly healthier - in New York, they're currently in the midst of the craziest of crazy rushes to the finishing line, with no less than the last 13 big shows across a 16-day period, between April 8 and 23. That much is entirely public: shows need to open by April 23 to be eligible, with nominations announced on April 28 and the awards themselves taking place on June 7.
In London, by contrast, the exact eligibility dates are an industry matter only, and it's curious, for example, that this year 'Beautiful' (which opened on February 24) has received multiple nominations, whereas the Donmar Warehouse's 'Closer' (that opened the night before) and the National's 'Man and Superman' (that opened the night after) went unmentioned in the nominations.
No awards process, of course, can necessarily include all the eligible shows - and in London, there are usually well over 100 eligible productions, against a typical tally of less than 40 on Broadway, to consider. But in London, the potential to fall between the cracks is far more possible.
In New York, a dedicated, specially appointed Tony Nominating Committee (the names of whom are made public) meets regularly throughout the year to consider matters of eligibility, and publish their rulings publicly. In London, whatever happens behind the scenes seems to stay behind the scenes. This makes the process inevitably seem less transparent, even if it is.
The voting system, both for the nominations and the awards, have also now changed in London - now all SOLT members have the opportunity to contribute to both, instead of relying on the judgements of a mixed panel of professional and public members as used to be the case. So the system is open to more direct lobbying than it used to be, and powerful blocks of producers who typically co-produce shows now with each other are also capable of skewing results in their own favour.
But then no one has ever said that awards had to be fair or representative. They have a different purpose: to simply promote the industry and to allow itself the chance to pat itself on the back.
Only a handful of shows that have been nominated this year will actually still be running after Sunday anyway, so the opportunities to exploit the results commercially are reduced. Whereas on Broadway the Tony's can have a direct commercial impact, that's hardly ever the case in London. Only one play amongst the four nominated for Best New Play is still running, namely The Nether, and that's only got a couple more weeks to run after this one; to April 25. Three of the four nominated best New Musicals are still running, so it may have more of an impact there.
But more important than any of this is that it puts the theatre at the centre of a lively conversation, and here at Londontheatre.co.uk we like to take an active part in promoting that. You're reading this as a fan of the theatre and someone who buys tickets to support it. The Oliviers are a way, too, of giving the supporters a rallying point. I look forward to seeing you in Covent Garden on Sunday, or on ITV later the same night!
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