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 June 8 , 2012

The 2011-2012 Theatre World Awards

This may have been my favorite Theatre World Awards ceremony since I began emceeing it in 1996.

Tell you why: every presenter and every awardee who said he was going to be there showed up on time. There was no consternation of “Is he here yet?” “Where is she?” “So-and-so is stuck and traffic and can’t get here for 20 minutes.” It’s a common litany that has been heard backstage at each of the 16 previous ceremonies, and made me sweat in terror every time.

And I was so nervous that Philip Seymour Hoffman wouldn’t show. He’d warned us that he’d had a cold, and made no promises. But the nice thing was that not only was he on time to present to castmate Finn Wittrock, but that he also didn’t purport to be this godlike figure who was doing us an enormous favor by deigning to show at our modest little awards show. It was “My pleasure” and “Thanks for asking me” and “I’m glad to do it.”

We started by having Tony Sheldon of Priscilla fame present to Tracie Bennett for End of the Rainbow. He mentioned that he’d seen Judy Garland perform in 1964 when he was nine. He recalled that a woman seated behind him pulled him by the shoulders and commanded, “Ask her to sing ‘Come Rain or Come Shine.’ She’ll listen to a child!”

Bennett entered onto the same set at the Belasco where she’s been astonishing some and infuriating others as Judy Garland. What a perfect opening line she had as she took to her own stage: “There’s no place like home.”

Now that I know I heard. However, I must admit that being backstage when everyone else is on stage presenting or accepting does present its aural challenges. It’s a variation of “Someone in a Tree” – in that I can’t see anything and can only overhear what’s being said. So if someone who was in the audience tells you he heard differently, believe him.

John Cullum mentioned that he won his Theatre World Award (which a person gets for a significant debut, by the way) for On a Clear Day You Can See Forever 46 years ago. He mentioned that he got it because its bookwriter-lyricist, one Alan Jay Lerner, had seen him as Richard Burton’s understudy in his Camelot and remembered him. “And I’ve been stuck in musical theater since that day,” he joked.

Who better to give Jessie Mueller, also of Clear Day, her award? She said “I hope I’ll be back in 46 years to give some newcomer his award.”

David Alan Grier cited John Willis, the longtime Theatre World guru until his death in 2010, for noticing him in The First. “We closed after three weeks,” he said, “so John validated what I’d started to think was a figment of my imagination.”

Grier was presenting to castmate Philip Boykin of Porgy and Bess. “I got scared when I opened the program,” said the man who plays the ominous Crown. “A picture of me fell out, and I thought I wasn’t going on.” Yes, we do include pictures of the winners inside the program.”

Isabel Keating likened Hettienne Park’s achievement to The Transit of Venus, because she got her prize for two debuts: one off-Broadway for Tony Kushner’s Intelligent Homosexual Guide, one on Broadway for Seminar. Park said that Kushner wanted her to speak Korean and asked if she could. Like any savvy actor, she said yes – even though she of course couldn’t. So she needed advice and called her mother – who, hearing her arduous request, promptly hung up on her.

Lionel Larner, the dean of agents who heads The Dorothy Loudon Foundation, was thrilled that Emily Rosenfeld and Tyra Skye Odoms, the two little girls who carried who carried trophies to the winners, –will soon be appearing in Annie – the musical, of course, that brought Loudon before a larger public.

Larner’s client Stacy Keach gave the Loudon Award to Susan Pourfar of Tribes (but not before mentioning that Other Desert Cities was closing in two weeks and that Larner should get on the phone pronto). Because Tribes is a play that deals with deafness, Pourfar spent some of her speech signing. (Or so I assume. It got quiet out there for a while.)

Philip Seymour Hoffman said so many nice things about castmate Finn Wittrock (“He’s always fuckin’ perfect”) that the awardee was actually in tears when he got to the podium. “And I thought you were through making me cry,” Wittrock said.

Lizbeth McKay, the original Lenny in Crimes of the Heart, reported what happened when she received her Theatre World Award in 1982. The presenter hadn’t seen her performance and spent the time he was to laud McKay by raving about Jennifer Holliday in Dreamgirls.

McKay didn’t make the same mistake with Chris Perfetti of Sons of the Prophet fame. She knew him, anyway, because they’d acted together. At a Christmastime party, she got his Secret Santa gift of a Justin Bieber keychain – which she still uses.

John Rubinstein semi-corrected me after I said he’d made his Broadway debut in Pippin. He actually was in Do Re Mi a dozen years earlier – albeit for a night. He was friendly with Bernard Gersten, then the show’s stage manager, who allowed him to stand in the wings and see the show. That night, star Phil Silvers came off and insisted that Rubinstein join the scene in which his character, Hubie Cram, endured a courtroom trial. “At that performance,” said Rubinstein, “there were 13 jurors in the jury box.”

Because Rubinstein had starred in (and was given a Tony for) Children of a Lesser God – about deaf people – he was a natural to present to hearing impaired Russell Harvard. The new awardee said that when he learned he’d won, he checked on line to see what the actual Theatre World Award looked like – and now was coming to the conclusion that it looked better in person.

Josh Grisetti was presenting to Josh Young of Jesus Christ Superstar. He rued that he wasn’t the first choice to present; Jesus Himself was, but wasn’t available. Young said that “Despite my Judaism, I’d like to thank Jesus Christ. I wouldn’t have a story to tell without You, Buddy!”

Victor Garber, along with our director Barry Keating, came out to say that next year we’d be giving a Lifetime Achievement Award in John Willis’ honor. Garber reminisced about his Theatre World Award for Ghosts -- at the Roundabout when that theater was still located under a 26th Street supermarket. “People hearing the shopping carts above us assumed those were the ghosts,” he said. Needless to say, both Roundabout and Garber have come a long way since then.

Faye Grant admitted that when she won her Theatre World Award (for playing Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain) she didn’t know what the awards were – “and only came to be polite and because I heard there was food.” She presented to Jennifer Lim, who may have put some ideas into unemployed actors’ heads. She’d read on Facebook that David Henry Hwang needed bilingual performers for Chinglish, and answered the “ad.” It resulted in a Broadway show and so much acclaim.

Wesley Taylor presented to Jeremy Jordan, who’d been his understudy in Rock of Ages. The latter confessed that “I’m not good at being myself, which is why I became an actor, so I wouldn’t have to be.” Whatever it takes, Jeremy, to get those good performances out of you.

Leslie Uggams admitted that her Tony-winning role in Hallelujah, Baby! was originally meant for Lena Horne – “but then she and Arthur Laurents had a falling out.” She then gave a deliciously wicked look of feigned surprise to suggest the inevitability of anyone’s having issues with the notoriously difficult Laurents.

Uggams, who’s played Mama in A Raisin in the Sun, was presenting to Crystal A. Dickinson, who’s in the quasi-sequel Clybourne Park. She thanked her cousin who took her to a terrible production of Little Shop. That’s what hooked her, and aren’t we grateful?

Interspersed were terrific performances by Howard McGillin (“Something’s Coming”), Michael Cerveris (“Pinball Wizard”) and Stephanie Umoh (“Suppertime” – the Ethel Waters one and not the one that Snoopy sings). Even though I didn’t hear what Brian Stokes Mitchell sang – at the risk of being inelegant, I’ll confess to a restroom trip – I know he got a sensational ovation because I could hear it as I was coming up the stairs from the Belasco’s basement bathroom.

What a thing to miss! But I’m grateful to have witnessed as much as I could of the 2011-2012 Theatre World Awards. I’m more grateful still to our amazing producers Mary K. Botosan and Erin Oestreich, our director Barry Keating, our board of directors guru Dale Badway, our musical director Larry Yurman, the Shuberts, Joey Parnes and the seemingly millions of volunteers we had.

On second thought, there had to be a million. Fewer couldn’t have accomplished as much as they did.    — Peter Filichia


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