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Meet Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, Arizona's Only Tony Awards Voter

While Arizona theater devotees are glued to their screens during Sunday, June 12’s live broadcast of the 70th annual Tony Awards ceremony on CBS, Colleen Jennings-Roggensack will watch James Corden host the show from a seat inside the Beacon Theatre in New York City. And she'll be in good company. Others attending the ceremony include Barbra Streisand, Steve Martin, and Oprah Winfrey.

Since 1995, Jennings-Roggensack has been Arizona’s sole Tony Awards voter. It's a hefty responsibility, one that she takes in addition to her duties at ASU Gammage Auditorium in Tempe, where she's served as executive director for 24 years. Being a Tonys voter means seeing, analyzing, and comparing dozens of Broadway shows in New York City throughout the year — and seeing the musical Hamilton not once, but four times.

Still, she says, it’s not always a glamorous gig. 

Sure, she's seen and voted on shows including Rent, The Lion King, The Book of Mormon, War Horse, and Kinky Boots. But she's also attended hundreds of related meetings and cocktail parties. Typically, she has a running list of 20 or so people she needs to connect with while in New York. 

Around 850 people are eligible to cast Tony Awards ballots (the number varies slightly from year to year). “You get nominated,” Jennings-Roggensack says of joining the voter ranks. “You need a series of referrals from people who are already Tony Awards voters.” She was a logical choice, since ASU Gammage presents a robust lineup of touring Broadway shows each season.

Those casting ballots can only vote in categories for which they’ve seen every nominated show. During the last year alone, she saw 40 shows that ended up being nominated for Tony Awards – plus more than two dozen additional productions, including some that are still in development. So when she's in New York, it's all business.

"I have to be there and focused," Jennings-Roggensack says of her duties.

Keeping track of all those productions is no small feat, especially considering the many elements she'll have to vote on — including direction, performances, scenic design, costumes, lighting, choreography, and orchestrations. Rather than taking notes while she watches a performance, Jennings-Roggensack says she waits until returning to her hotel room, then makes notes on her iPad. And, of course, she keeps a program for every show she sees.

But Tony Awards voters also get plenty of materials that help their decision-making process, she says, including copies of scripts and librettos (the text for musical numbers), CDs, and picture books. "All of these are tools," she says. 

A new Broadway season starts the day after every Tony Awards ceremony and continues until the next annual ceremony rolls around. Most months, Jennings-Roggensack travels to New York at least once or twice in order to get through her long list of must-see musicals and plays.

Every spring, during the height of the Broadway season, she’ll travel between Arizona and New York at least four times a month. That means a good 40 hours each month of air travel, and all the TSA time that goes with it.

Her last whirlwind trip started Wednesday, June 1, when she flew to New York with a packed agenda that included seeing several Broadway shows, hitting assorted receptions and cocktail parties for theater-industry insiders, and attending the Drama Desk Awards ceremony, which honors professional theater artists working on Broadway as well as other New York venues.

Tony Awards voters actually have until the Friday before the ceremony to cast their ballots by mail or in person, Jennings-Roggensack says. But she took care of that on Monday. “I’ve got my own little ritual,” she says of hand-carrying her ballot to the Manhattan offices of the financial firm Grant Thornton, where everything gets tabulated.

Monday night she attended the Tony Honors ceremony, which recognizes theater achievement by individuals or organizations not eligible for Tony Awards – such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the four young actresses who split the lead role in the musical Matilda. On Tuesday, she flew back home – but not for long.

Today she’s back on a plane, with carry-on items that include the black gown she’ll wear to Sunday night’s Tony Awards ceremony. It’s from the Valentina Rose line by designer Rosangelica Cardenas, owner of Blush Boutique in Phoenix, who took a selection of accessories including shoes and jewelry along for a fitting at Jennings-Roggensack’s office yesterday. "I love being able to support a local, Latina designer."

While she's in New York, Jennings-Roggensack will be considering which Broadway shows she'd like to see on the ASU Gammage stage one day. 

Local stage aficionados were frustrated that The Book of Mormon, which got the 2012 Tony Award for best musical, didn't hit Tempe during its first national tour. Conceived by the creators of South Park, the irreverent musical first toured in 2013 but didn’t arrive on the ASU Gammage stage until October of 2015.

But Jennings-Roggensack is garnering praise for snagging the Hamilton tour for its 2017-18 season. She’s been inundated by requests for help in securing tickets for the show, both on Broadway now and in Tempe down the road. “I can’t help you,” she tells people. However, she does offer a bit of advice for those eager to see the musical when it lands at ASU Gammage.

“People have to understand that they have to have season tickets for 2016/17 if they want to see Hamilton.” That’s because season-ticket holders get the first shot at buying tickets for the following season, and you can bet they’ll buy them all.

On Monday morning, when social media is abuzz with news of the Tony winners and losers – as well as assorted lists of fashion bests and worsts for the night, Jennings-Roggensack will be flying back to Arizona, fully expecting to find on her desk at least one letter from a producer hoping she’ll come to see a new Broadway show.

“I already know I’ll be seeing more shows before the month of June is out,” Jennings-Roggensack says. “It’s a tremendous honor, but it’s also a tremendous responsibility.”
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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble