Tony Award viewers beware: Prize recipients are going to wing it!
Members of the Screen Actors Guild in New York picket in solidarity with striking WGA members. Photo courtesy of SAG-AFTRA

NEW YORK—Viewers tuning in next month to the Tony Awards—Broadway’s yearly big bash—prepare yourselves. In a classic tradeoff averting disaster, the show will go on. There’ll be no picketing scriptwriters out front. But awardees must wing it. No scripts, by them or anyone else.

That ought to make for one of the more interesting Tony Award shows in years, when CBS broadcasts it on June 11. Who knows what the performers will ad lib?

The deal was reached after the Writers Guild of America said on May 15 it planned to picket the annual awards. Sponsors freaked out. They’re relying on the big Tonys bash to bring crowds back to the Great White Way, which hasn’t totally recovered from its two-year coronavirus closure.

The reason for the planned picketing? The Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) had forced the nation’s 11,000 scriptwriters for TV, motion pictures and streaming video to strike at 12:01 am on May 2.

One key cause is pay. WGA members have lost 23% of their pay since the last master contract was signed, the union’s study reported. One reason: Residuals completely disappeared. Another: AMPTP members shrank the hours each ever-shorter movie or TV series needed for scriptwriters, reducing their income.

And the third is the looming threat of artificial intelligence (AI), which the bosses want to use to replace six scriptwriters for a season-long series, for example, to one, plus the computer.

The bosses’ sole concrete offer before the strike began: Yearly base pay raises of 4%-3%-2%. WGA seeks 6%-5%-5%, plus greater shares of streaming revenues, which now go into AMPTP moguls’ pockets. They also demand more of the remaining residuals, now from overseas play.

When the union announced it would erect a picket line, the Broadway impresarios flipped out. Not only did they need the publicity for their recovery, but they knew other Broadway unions wouldn’t cross a picket line. And since New York theater is highly unionized, the awards show would collapse.

So the producers pleaded with WGA to change its mind. It did on May 18, but with a condition: The Tonys’ performers couldn’t write scripts for themselves. That’s a form of strikebreaking, taking another union worker’s business.

The Broadway poohabs agree

Broadway poohbahs agreed. Which means that on June 11, awardees are going to have to wing it on the Tony stage. No scripts, from the scriptwriters, themselves or anyone else.

The picketing threat and the eventual compromise is one lever WGA has recently used to force AMPTP to bargain in good faith. Another is marshaling political support, and not just from President Biden, either. He got out front in early May, backing the writers.

Now, Biden’s been joined by Sens. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio and Reps. Katie Porter, and Adam Schiff, both D-Calif. and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. And AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler. All are featured on WGA’s website.

Shuler put her support in kitchen-table terms.

“Television and movie writers should not have to worry about how they’ll make rent or pay for groceries, period,” she tweeted. “We stand with our @WGAEast & @WGAWest siblings who have voted to authorize a strike. #WGAStrong”

“Last year, 8 Hollywood CEOs made nearly $800 million, yet pay for TV writers has fallen by 23% over the last 10 years. I stand with the nearly 12,000 @WGAWest writers on strike for a fair contract,” Sanders tweeted.

“The Hollywood media industry makes billions of profits each year–but TV & movies wouldn’t be possible without the work of writers, directors, actors & more who make it happen. I stand with @WGAWest, @WGAEast, @sagaftra & #DGA fighting for better pay & safety in the workplace,” Warren tweeted.

“If you follow @ConnieSchultz and me, you know we support workers and we can get into some heated debates over the latest episode of Blue Bloods, Succession, or The Diplomat. We support @WGAWest and @WGAEast as they fight for a fair deal,” Brown tweeted. His spouse, an ex-Pulitzer Prize winning columnist who freelances, is a longtime Cleveland News Guild member.

Schiff and Porter both represent the Los Angeles area, where the motion picture industry and, now, streaming videos, are large parts of the local and state economy. They’re also two of the three top hopefuls in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) next year.

Porter not only issued a statement, she walked the WGA picket line, accompanied by State Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, D-Los Angeles, former executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles Federation of Labor and a top official of Unite Here Local 11.

“I cannot tell you how much this movement means to every unionized worker in this country,” Porter told the picketers, WGA reported. “The grocery workers see you. The people who are working in warehouses see you. This is about your contract and your livelihood and your industry, but it is about so much more. It is about what kind of economy America deserves.”

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.