For the first time since I started blogging I made it to the 66th annual Theatre World Awards with considerable ease; no train chasing or train hopping this year! The ceremony was once again held at New World Stages (where it was in 2007), in the theatre which currently houses Avenue Q (seeing the set made me want to see it again).
This year it was very important for me to be there as the awards were handed out, as it’s not been the easiest year for the organization. Financial troubles left the future of the awards ceremony in doubt, but thanks to Meryl Streep, Mamie Gummer as well as the Dorothy Loudon Foundation and others, this year’s ceremony went on as planned. While still not out of the woods yet, things are looking up (To make a tax deductible donation to the Theatre World Awards, click here).
The afternoon got started with a visit from Jennifer Barnhart and John Tartaglia, who brought along one of the Bad Idea Bears and Rod. After establishing the rules for the afternoon, they introduced Peter Filichia who seemed to get Rod a little…shall we say flustered…? The affable emcee smiled as the smitten musical loving investment banker made his exit.
Filichia, as always, hosts the event and is actively involved with the Theatre World in almost every capacity. He usually starts with a few digs at some of the current shows but got off to a bit of a false start when he quipped that his 12 year old suit was now eligible for a Tony (that remark landed like a lead balloon, esp. since half the Ragtime company was in attendance). However, he eased into his usual form: very brief commentary in between presentations. Peter knows lots of minutiae about almost everyone in show business and usually regales the audience with a “Rest of the Story” anecdote.
The tradition remains: a previous winner is on hand to bestow the award to the newcomer. Whenever possible, the event planners try to pick winners with a connection to the new recipient. There is no script, there is no time limits – the afternoon always progresses in a free-form manner and ends up being the most moving of all ceremonies; often the winners are surprised at how overcome they are. Every year without fail, the presenters speak fondly of the award and its place in their lives.
In order to make her evening performance of Johnny Baseball in Cambridge, MA, the first recipient was Ragtime’s Stephanie Umoh, who received her award from original Broadway cast member Brian Stokes Mitchell, who said it was the most magical show he’s ever been a part of. The stunning Umoh, overcome with emotion, took a moment and told herself to pull it together.
Michael Cerveris presented to Bill Heck of The Orphans’ Homes Cycle. Filichia mentioned that there was a connection between the two of them because of Sweeney Todd, which Cerveris famously revived on Broadway. Heck was cast in a production of the show as Judge Turpin and it was what started him on the path as a professional actor. Heck quipped that the award was “pretty kick-ass” and thanked everyone who sat through all nine hours of the performance.
Heidi Schrek’s (Circle Mirror Transformation) proud mother was on hand to accept the award on her behalf, as the young actress is currently at Berkeley Rep. Mrs. Schreck read a statement from her daughter, including the parentheticals (which garnered a bit laugh). Robert LuPone was also on hand to accept for Andrea Riseborough, who won for MCC’s (The Pride). Condola Rashad still seemed quite overwhelmed from her win last year as she recalled the moment to moment experience of how the afternoon felt for her. She presented to Keira Keely of The Glass Menagerie, who charmed with her quirky shyness.
Jon Michael Hill received his award, most fittingly, from his Superior Donuts costar Michael McKean, who is one of funniest and most intelligent actors working today (Hill commented on his winning Celebrity Jeopardy). McKean regaled us with a couple of stories about his own career. He attended Carnegie (before the Mellon) and NYU (before the Tisch), figuring they didn’t get endowed until after he left. He also talked about his own Theatre World Award acceptance speech. Carol Lynley was his presenter and told him “I haven’t a clue who you are.” He then told the audience to google Carol Lynley.
Vanessa Williams was on hand to present to her Ugly Betty co-star Michael Urie (The Temperamentals). She claimed to have planned a very extensive presentation with song and video a la Sondheim on Sondheim, but said time just got away from her. Instead, she narrated her idea in between snippets of “Good Thing Going” from Merrily We Roll Along. Urie told the crowd that Williams was entirely responsible for his casting on the hit series, as initially Williams’ was supposed to go through a different assistant each week. It was Urie’s work on the pilot that made Williams go to bat for the younger actor.
Seated behind us throughout the ceremony was Scarlett Johansson, who was dolled up to the nines (and whose Theatre World snapshots made the style tabloids today). She was presented her award by her A View from the Bridge co-star Michael Cristofer, who – as it turns out – is the only person to have won a Tony, Theatre World Award and Pulitzer. He took a moment to talk about film acting vs. stage acting and proffered that they aren’t as different as they seem. His evidence was Ms. Johansson’s performance, her first professional stage experience and the seemingly alchemical way she inhabited the character.
Johansson expressed gratitude and was thrilled at her reception by the New York theatre community. She admitted that had she not been welcomed she wouldn’t be able to do it again (and even proferred an awkward interview where the reporter asked her what she would do if she got bad reviews). Her wish for the theatre goes back to her childhood, when she pounded the pavement in NY in order to be Cosette in Les Miserables.
Kate Burton was on hand to present two awards. The first was the Dorothy Loudon Foundation’s “Starbaby” Award, which was given to Bobby Steggert for his performances in Ragtime and Yank! Loudon’s agent Lionel Larner was on hand to talk about the award and mentioned the late actress’ fondness for the Theatre World – because it wasn’t politically motivated, was non competitive and was run by people who loved theatre. Burton met Steggert only weeks earlier when they started rehearsals for The Grand Manner at Lincoln Center. She mentioned that he one day wants to play Bobby in Company and hopes she can play Joanne (I’d see that) then called him up to the stage with the “Bobby” section of the title song. Steggert met his costar with tears in his eyes (her praise was quite effusive and incredibly heartfelt) and was quite humbled. My only quibble – there was a mention of Dorothy Loudon’s “Vodka” but no clip.
Her other presentation was later in the show to Fela! star Sahr Ngaujah. When Burton won, she was awarded for three different shows she did in one season, but felt that Ngaujah did more in his one performance than she did in all three combined. Burton found parallels in their lives. Both Burton and Ngaujah are first generation Americans and faced reticence from their fathers. Burton’s father (Richard) knew the business and based his worries in experience. Ngaujah’s father, on the other hand questioned what acting could do for the people of Sierra Leone (where Ngaujah’s family is from). It was seeing his son in Fela! that changed his mind.
Peter introduced Tovah Feldshuh by commenting that a cartwheel is what kept her employed on her first Broadway show (the failed musical Cyrano). In response, Tovah, dolled up in a vintage looking summer dress (Oh, Eileen..! was the comment I heard) offered to delivery another cartwheel, apologizing in advance for a Tallulah moment. Feldshuh introduced Nina Arianda of Venus in Fur by talking about a rumor that the actress stripped in her audition (which Arianda later put to bed) and then read one of the reviews she got, in the only way Tovah can. Arianda talked about how she was on her sixth callback for As You Like It the day she auditioned for Venus in Fur. She proceeded to get the part five hours later.
One of the most ebullient winners of the afternoon was Chris Chalk of Fences, who received his award from costar Viola Davis, who thought she was too young to be playing his mother (but neither the critics nor her husband agreed). Chalk’s high energy and enthusiasm brought roars of laughter, as he confessed to stalking Jon Michael Hill on Facebook after seeing his performance in Superior Donuts. He added that the night he saw that play he and the middle aged white man next to him were holding onto each other. He also got the biggest laugh of the afternoon when he told the audience he didn’t have an agent, so he didn’t have to thank any of them.
Much to my delight, Peter Filichia introduced Alfred Molina by talking about how he met his wife in the original London production of Harold Rome’s Destry Rides Again (which we both later agreed would be a great show for Kate Baldwin). Filichia commented on seeing he and his wife eating and conversing lively – and that nothing makes him happier than watching a married couple still in love after 25 years. Molina entered and quipped “I think that was my agent.” He graciously presented to his Red costar Eddie Redmayne, saying that the younger acting is teaching him and helping him grow as an actor, to which Redmayne genially said “Bollocks!” and insisted he was the pupil.
There were, of course, the obligatory performances. Alli Mauzey sang her big number “Screw Loose” from the short-lived, unrecorded Cry-Baby (Peter turned front and said “Gentlemen, turn on your recorders). Loretta Ables-Sayre, who won for her indelible turn in South Pacific (and who is still seriously one of my favorite people ever) sang a wonderfully jazzy rendition of “The Best is Yet to Come,” one of the more fitting numbers I’ve heard at the ceremony. Jonathan Groff was also onhand to sing “Only in New York” from Thoroughly Modern Millie in the eleven o’clock spot.
Every year we’ve been blessed to have John Willis in attendance. Though frail, the 93 yearold founder of the Theatre World Awards was in high spirits as he was helped to his feet for recognition from the audience. We stood in admiration and appreciation for this gentleman who not only helped found the organization, but kept it running for years.
The first year I attended, I found myself sitting with a couple of Peter’s guests. Now, I look forward to my annual meeting with Karen, with whom I sat the very first year. We’ve ran into each other outside the Theatre Worlds, and we joke about it since we always see each other every spring! It’s indicative of the award ceremony’s spirit – people gathering to celebrate theatre, greeting one another as old friends. If you need positive energy, this is the place to be.
There was one notable difference this year: the award itself was redesigned. In recent years the winners received a small bronze statue featuring Janus. This year they were replaced with large (and incredibly heavy, as per the winners) slabs of cut glass.
The new season hasn’t even started, but I confess I’m already excited for next year’s awards.