- By NY Theatre Buzz columnist Richard Seff
The social event of the season in theatre is the Drama League Luncheon, which celebrates the best of the ending season’s performances on and Off-Broadway, and presents the Drama League Awards. For those working onstage during the season, this luncheon is the event they truly most enjoy attending, for it’s all about them. And they get a chance to meet and greet their colleagues, all of whom are employed in their season. You can feel the camaraderie in the air, and for a time, all is harmonious and lovely in the world of the fabulous invalid, where 100% employment is rare indeed, but all on this dais are currently nightly plying their trade.
There were 58 honorees on the podium in the ballroom at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Times Square at noon on Friday May 16. One of them is selected each year for the Distinguished Performance of the Season. Other awards for non-actors are for unique contribution to theatre, for distinguished achievement in musical theatre, for excellence in directing, distinguished revival of a musical and of a play, distinguished production of a new play and new musical.
One of the two highlights of the afternoon is the comments offered by each of the 58 actor honorees as he or she rises from his or her lunch plate to say a few words. For the other highlight, you might like to wander with me through one of the ante-rooms during the pre-luncheon period, in which the clan gathered. This room is reserved only for the 58 honorees and their guests; the Drama League members who paid $150 and up for lunch to support the League have an ante-room of their own. But the real fun can only be had with the performers, many of whom have rolled out of bed and trouped directly to the Marriott, for 11;30 am is not a late hour for an actor working nightly in theatre, and that’s when they were asked to arrive to greet the press and each other. You and I got special permission to poke around.
First, I stumbled upon Patti LuPone, celebrated for Gypsy, locked in an embrace with Paolo Szot, the handsome star of South Pacific. It’s not nice to eavesdrop so all I can tell you about what went on between them is conjecture. Judging by their expressions, the embrace was not romantic, but clearly was an exchange from one champion to another, with a look of “I’m so sorry I haven’t been able to see your show as we’re on the same schedule. But when you do a Sunday night or Monday night benefit, I’ll be there, you can count on it!” I’m probably all wrong, and for all I know, a hot affair was about to begin, but it’s not likely, as Ms.LuPone is happily married. Besides, both are very busy eight times a week playing their classical roles of Mama Rose and Emile de Beque.
Continuing my perambulation, I slid past Faith Prince chatting up André Bishop, artistic director of Lincoln Center Theatre. Ms. Prince is having a great personal success as the mother in A Catered Affair, and I like to think she and Mr. Bishop were cooking up a project for the two of them at Lincoln Center next season. But for all I know they were merely exchanging a recipe for chicken soup. Next, Peter Gallagher of The Country Girl was heavily into a conversation with Laurence Fishburne of the one-man play Thurgood. I don’t recall anything in which these two fine actors played together, so I’m guessing again that the talk was about – well, it might have been “My dressing room has a shower in it, does yours?” Next up on my walk was another odd couple, Patrick Stewart, who’s had a personal triumph in Macbeth, embracing Cheyenne Jackson who has been delighting audiences all season on roller skates as the hero of Xanadu, a dark horse of a musical that opened with no advance sale, and is now a contender for Best Musical of the Season at the Tony Awards coming up June 15th. Stewart might well have been saying “You know I do a bit of a song myself in the Scottish Play, so in a sense we’re both in musicals.” On the other hand, he may not have been, so why don’t you try to come up with a plausible subject for these two very different talents? Another pair who probably don’t know each other was Martha Plimpton, who’s enjoying her second run this season in Top Girls at the Manhattan Theatre Club (following A Midsummer Night’s Dream last summer), vis-a-vising with Arnie Burton, a little known but excellent comic actor who is one of the four players turning The 39 Steps into a laugh riot at the Cort on Broadway. These four were ignored when the 58 honorees were selected, but if you love farce when it’s well played, get thee to the Cort Theatre for a very funny evening. I assume Mr. Burton was present at the luncheon to support his friends and colleagues who were receiving Drama League recognition.
The ante-room was packed, and I had a hard time maneuvering, so I took myself a seat just above the dais in the mezzanine of the ballroom, where I could have an excellent view of the honorees. One by one they rose, in alphabetical order (the League wisely avoided fisticuffs over billing) and though I missed “A through E”, I can offer you snippets starting with Laurence Fishburne who adjusted the mic, and said “Try the dessert!”. Elizabeth Franz, chosen for her work in The Piano Teacher, said how pleased she was to be in such distinguished company, but said “there are 50,000 other talents waiting in the wings.” Brian D’Arcy-James, so very good in the current Port Authority, was cited for his work earlier in the season in the musical Next to Normal. He got a laugh by announcing “I just dunked my tie in the coffee.” Patty LuPone, who got the biggest hand as she rose, said “I feel like a student among all these teachers.” Nice. Jim Norton, who was cited for his work in The Seafarer (but he’s equally marvelous in the current Port Authority) thanked the League, and said he’d had “a long and circuitous route to the Great White Way.” Faith Prince, visibly moved to be back on Broadway in A Catered Affair after a long hiatus, said that “sometimes you have to go away and shake it up to appreciate this community.” Mark Rylance, visiting from Britain and thoroughly enjoying his great success in Boeing Boeing, said one of his happiest moments came when the policeman outside his theatre said “I hear people really laughing in the theatre.” Patrick Stewart, honored for his acclaimed Macbeth, let us know he hadn’t gone grand by announcing, as he gazed out at the dozens of tables packed with folks having lunch, “This is the closest I’ve ever gotten to dinner theatre!” Paulo Szot, who is making his Broadway debut in South Pacific, marveled over his “amazing journey from opera to Broadway.” Tom Wopat, who is so very good in A Catered Affair told us “I used to be an action hero, now I’m a dad.” Of course he’s more than that – he’s a fine actor-singer who can do both with equal ease, and I suspect there is a major star role waiting for him down the line.
This is just a sampling – it took over an hour for all the honorees to speak so I had to select some for you. Among some of the others, there were Charles Busch, Roger Bart, Christine Baranski, Ben Daniels (the hot new discovery of Les Liasons Dangereuses), Sutton Foster, Jane Houdyshell, Laura Linney, Frances McDormand (who really looked like she’d just rolled out bed), Rosie Perez, Marian Seldes, Lois Smith, Stew and Julie White.
Some of the major awards went to Bartlett Sher for directing South Pacific (though his excellent work on Awake and Sing and The Light in the Piazza had to influence the choice somewhat), to Macbeth as best revival of a play, to South Pacific as best revival of a musical to August: Osage County as best production of a play, to A Catered Affair as best production of a musical, and finally to Patti LuPone for her Distinguished Performance as Rose in Gypsy. Ms. LuPone said this Gypsy was a tribute to its author/director Arthur Laurents who, at 91, “dared the actors to re-investigate the material.” It’s rare and it’s wonderful when a great star, giving the performance of her career, remembers the director and the players (principally Laura Benanti and Boyd Gaines) who supported what she was doing, and helped her enormously.
The Drama League Awards are the oldest theatrical honors in North America, having first recognized achievements in New York’s theatre community 12 years before the first Tony Awards were presented. In 1922 the League appointed a special jury of knowledgeable scholars and artists of the day to select the most significant theatrical events of the season. By 1934 it was important enough to be broadcast live on radio from coast to coast, with Gene Lockhart as Master of Ceremonies. The first Distinguished Performance Award went to Katherine Cornell in l935 for her Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Other categories of awards have been added since the 1980s and currently eight of them are bestowed annually. I don’t believe anyone enters the theatre thinking of winning awards, but oh how sweet it is when one does find its way.
It’s true that the public forgets quickly who won what last season, but to the artist honored, the visible presence of the token, trophy or certificate can be good company in later years when one wants, unashamedly, to remember the way things were. Maybe that’s why such a good time is had by all at this much loved annual affair.