The 2009 Theatre World Awards

Though not quite the odyssey I experienced last year, I had another adventure making my way to the train station today to attend the Theatre World Awards. I had called a cab with plenty of time to spare, and he showed up at my house twenty minutes before the train left. I figured there was going to be no problem.

Well, I didn’t anticipate getting into Mr. Magoo’s taxi. We crawled our way the two miles it takes to get to the station. As we show up the gates were lowered and we sat as my train pulled into the station. Going into full panic mode, I opened up the cab door before it came to a stop, threw money in his general direction and bolted up on the platform.

Out of breath and looking semi-crazed, I make eye contact with the conductor who shouts to me to just come on as I stop for my ticket. I can now check “train-hopping” off my list of things to do before I die. With the help of the conductor I found myself jumping aboard as the train rolled out of the station. Those old time western people sure had all the fun. So after leaping and bounding, I found myself on my way in, a little hectic but too bad.

I continue to revel in the new Times Square layout, even if I’m still habitually finding myself sticking to the sidewalks and walkways, and make my way over the Samuel Friedman (nee Biltmore) Theatre where the ceremony is being held this year. I meet up with the familiar faces I see but once a year at the ceremony while waiting for Sarah to swing on over from work.

The Theatre World Awards ceremony is always one of the most special events of the season. The award is one of the oldest presented for theatre in NY and celebrates the breakthrough/debut performances, this year running the gamut from the three Billy Elliots to Oscar-winning legend Geoffrey Rush. Each person, no matter how they are making their debut find themselves incredibly humbled by the experience. The winners are announced in advance, and in a break from the usual competitive nature of the industry, the idea of coming together as a community for the sake of creating and experiencing art is celebrated. This marked my sixth consecutive trip, one I look forward to immensely every single spring.

The curtain rose on the lavish New York apartment set of the current production of Accent on Youth, the pianist in an elegant dressing gown (Craig Bierko would later quip, “Ladies and gentlemen, Noel Coward’s production of Dick Cheney). Peter Filichia enters to give his understated but informative introduction to the afternoon. He always fills his talks with interesting tidbits on the season, celebrating the fact that it was the busiest year on Broadway in a quarter of a century and praising a U.S. president who likes to go to the theatre. He was a little more pointed than usual, with an especially irreverent crack about the current ad campaign for The Little Mermaid (later, he wistfully the audience, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a reason to revisit the Majestic Theatre?” …before introducing longest running Phantom, Howard McGillin).

For the performances this year, there was no stunner like the Carol Lawrence-West Side Story redux (though how fitting would that have been this year with yet another Maria receiving the award), but the audience received three incredibly diverse, yet wholly entertaining sets. The first was the wry and witty Nellie McKay who brought down the house with her “Mother of Pearl,” an ironic ode to feminism complete with ukelele. I wonder if McKay has ever considered writing a musical, she’s mastered an effective comic list song. Vivian Reed tore the roof off the house with “God Bless the Child,” her soulful eleven o’clock number from Bubblin’ Brown Sugar. And Ann Hampton Callaway wrote an improvised song about the ceremony, with help from the audience.

Some brief highlights of the ceremony include Wesley Taylor of Rock of Ages worshipping Phylicia Rashad, as well as his brief encounter with Geoffrey Rush that last all of three seconds but included some awkward bowing. Jennifer Grace, Emily in the hit off-Broadway revival of Our Town felt the only way she could rationalize the moment was to consider it an elaborate prank, “but how did they get Dylan Baker (presenter) to go along with it.”

Marin Ireland became emotional as former costar Jayne Houdyshell praised the young star of Reasons to Be Pretty. Ireland also told a lovely story about corresponding with Julie Harris via letter, a result of meeting her at the stage door of the Lyceum and how it culminated in Ms. Harris sending flowers to Ireland on her opening night at the very same theatre in Reasons.

Earth mother Tovah Feldshuh gushed over the excitement of presenting to the three young actors playing Billy Elliot, giving us a touch of borscht humor as she quoted her own mother, “If you reach for the stars, you might only land on the roof, but if you reach for the roof you may never get off the ground.” Craig Bierko presented to Josh Grisetti, the fresh faced star of Enter Laughing – the Musical, who did his homework and learned the role’s creator Alan Arkin also won the Theatre World award (and the Tony). Though he lamented that he couldn’t even get an Outer Critics Circle Award, he’ll be eligible for the big prize next season when he headlines the repertory revivals of Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound.

Loretta Ables-Sayre presented to fellow LCT actor Chad L. Coleman of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, who is not only a phenomenal actor but an incredible humanitarian. Condola Rashad of MTC’s Ruined has not only inherited talent and beauty from her famous mother Phylicia, but also her grace and poise. Harriet Walter presented to the brilliant cast of The Norman Conquests, represented in the speech by Amelia Bullmore and Ben Miles, the latter quipping that they chose the two because “listening to Brits apologize for winning starts to get tedious.”

Kristin Chenoweth joked that she thought she’d won a second award when she got the call about presenting, but was more than thrilled to be giving it to newcomer Josefina Scaglione making her North American debut as Maria in West Side Story. Susan Kellerman presented to 33 Variations costar Colin Hanks, who isn’t big on musicals but proposed to his girlfriend onstage at the Eugene O’Neill by the ghost light.

Andrea Martin greeted the audience with, “I am honored and really bored to present this award to Geoffrey Rush. I don’t know why they asked me, because we’re not close at all. Would it kill him to ask me out for a cup of coffee?” The presentation, in which she basically roasted him, provided hands down the funniest aspect of the entire awards ceremony, only continuing once Rush was onstage to accept. Taking a moment to be serious, he talked about how people react in NY to hearing that he’s on Broadway for the first time, the implication in their voices expressing a hope that he’ll return (to which the audience applauded enthusiastically).

The afternoon ended with Ann Hampton Callaway’s improv song, working in such As always we spotted many of the Theatre World regulars, with the treat of seeing Celeste Holm in the back of the house. I also got to meet Sweeney Todd alum Lauren Molina, currently in Rock of Ages and had beautiful moment talking with the incredibly talented and lovely Amelia Bullmore and Stephen Mangan of The Norman Conquests. God, I’m a sucker for the Brits.

The Theatre World Awards also signifies that another more significant event is upcoming: Lady Iris’ Annual Moon Lady Extravaganza on Sunday evening, where we’ll class and sass up the Regency. It will also mark my first time ever live-blogging the awards show so that should be fun, tech-like and interesting.