The DC theatre community celebrated the storied accomplishments of theatre lover Joel Markowitz last night at Alexandria’s MetroStage with an evening of music from some of Washington’s brightest musical stars, interspersed with videos from Broadway stars and snippets of podcasts from his years with DC Theatre Scene. Centered in the program was the presentation of a lifetime Gary Maker Award, given yearly to an audience member who most exemplified Maker’s passionate love of theater.
So far, Joel has founded the Ushers, a theater-going group that during his time numbered in the hundreds; contributed over 100 interviews and podcasts to DC Theatre Scene; helped Maryland Theater Guide as it started out, and began (along with his brother Bruce) his own theatre website, DC Metro Theatre Arts. Tim Treanor acknowledged these contributions in his address to the sold-out MetroStage audience before presenting the award to Joel.
But his impact reached further than that, as artist after artist — including Lynn Sharp Spears, Natascia Diaz, Anya Randall Nebel, Roz White, Sam Ludwig and Katie McManus — thanked Joel for the assistance and encouragement he gave them during the early stages of their careers.
Last month, Joel learned that he was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” a progressive neurodegenerative disease which attacks motor neurons, sometimes with devastating effect. Joel has temporarily turned the helm of DC Metro Theater Arts to his longtime associates, David Siegel, John Stoltenberg and Nicole Hertvik as he fights this disease.
“Joel Markowitz is a brave man,” Tim Treanor said, recalling the time he told Chevy Chase to shut up because his whispering was disturbing other theatregoers, and also the many times he took risks to advance the cause of theatre.
Joel, who was onstage to receive his award, had his remarks read by his brother Bruce, one of the six Markowitz brothers, all of whom were present for the event. Joel, who has survived many health challenges in the past, wrote that “theater has healed me” and invited the assembled artists and other theatre supporters to take a bow for themselves. Joel was particularly pleased to receive an award named for Gary Maker, who was a close friend. Joel remembered Maker’s heroic struggle against cancer. “I shall use his bravery in facing cancer as an inspiration.” he said.
His brother Bruce then threw in some stories of his own, including Joel’s first review (of his kindergarten teacher: “She’s a bad teacher and her voice is scary”) and the time he gifted his fifth-grade teacher, who had bad halitosis, with a bottle of Scope. “Use this, please. Joel,” said the note on the bottle he had left on the desk. Even back then, Bruce noted, Joel was signing his reviews.
Bruce cited Joel’s renowned wit when he described how he announced his diagnosis to his Buffalo, New York-born family. “I’m sad to tell you that I will not live to see the Buffalo Bills win the Super Bowl,” he said of the city’s benighted football team, now seventeen years from its last playoff appearance. “On the other hand, neither will any of you.”
The Maker Award was one part of a star-studded evening produced by MetroStage Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin and Lorraine Treanor from DC Theatre Scene. Adventure Theatre/MTC Artistic Director Michael J. Bobbitt was the show’s charming host. Gabriel Mangiante shared the accompanying duties with William Knowles on MetroStage’s grand piano. Michael Sharp, familiar to MetroStage audiences as Scrooge in their Broadway Christmas Carol, opened the show with a highly suggestive version of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from Company. (Sharp later sang a heart wrenching Nothing’s Going to Harm You “Not While I’m Around” from Sweeney Todd). Lynn Sharp Spears delivered a powerful version of Cole Porter’s “Find Me a Primitive Man” before telling Joel how much he meant to her and to the Washington theatre community at large.
William Knowles took over the piano to accompany Anya Randall Nebel, who credited Joel with her decision to go back to school to perfect her art, transformed herself into Billie Holiday to do “God Bless the Child”, part of her repertoire from Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. Jimmy Mavrikes then blasted out a version of “I Really Like Him” from Man of La Mancha, prefacing each verse with a mention from a DC Metro Theater Arts “year’s best of” lauding himself!. Then Natascia Diaz gave the night its first showstopper — and led up to the award — by praising Joel for his passionate love of theatre and the help he brought to her career before singing the Edith Piaf song, “Milord.”
Following the award, we were treated to a six minute tribute showing Joel’s humor and compassion from podcasts done for DC Theatre Scene. We heard Joel interview Christiane Noll, Amy Ziff, Josh Kornbluth, Bill Irwin, 7 year old Justin Marks, Kimberly Gilbert, Marc Kudisch and climaxing with DCTS’s first audio “Awards show,” recorded at Joel’s kitchen table.
Surprise video greetings followed from DC favorite Florrie Bagel, now in rehearsal for her show in New York; Jim Brochu,along with his partner Steve Schlalchlin; and Brad Oscar (currently in the New York production of Sweeney Todd) with his husband, Diego Pietro.
Yvette Spears sang the Sammy Davis, Jr. classic “I’ve Got to be Me” before Katie McManus — whose career Joel has extensively encouraged and covered — belted out a saussy version of “Miss Byrd” from Closer than Ever. After Sharp’s selection from Sweeney Todd, Roz White added her best Bessie Smith to sing “When the World Turns Blue.”
Diaz returned to the stage, this time with Sam Ludwig for the duet: Jacques Brel’s “No Love You’re Not Alone.” Sandy Bainum — who is currently performing in California — produced a studio video of “The Sweetest of Nights and the Finest of Days” from Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, a show she did for Bobbitt at Adventure Theatre/MTC.
Which left the incomparable Rick Hammerly to close out the evening and bring down the house. He dismissed the accompanist Gabriel Mangiante, who was busy laying out some classical runs on the grand piano, tore up his program, and tore off most of his clothes while asking Markowitz, seated in the front row “Aren’t you tired of all these ballads?” and brought on his band to perform “Sugar Daddy” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The performance had the crowd clapping and roaring with laughter, as Hammerly, in his impressively kinky boots, jumped off the stage, grabbed two Markowitz brothers sitting beside Joel, leapt onto their empty seats and practically lap danced Joel to the Stephen Trask lyrics and music. Later, Hammerly told me: “I’ve learned you can get people to do almost anything dressed like I was.”
Despite the hour plus long show, when Bobbitt announced the end of the evening, there were shouts of “oh no!”, “keep going!”.
But the time had come to join Joel in the lobby, where Griffin and her Board of Directors had prepared an extensive array of treats for the 128+ well wishers. At one moment, I realized I was standing in the same spot I had in 2006. I had just taken over what became DC Theatre Scene and wanted to start podcasting. A few feet away I heard a distinctive voice ringing out above the excited crowd. I was about to discover Joel Markowitz, and he was about to launch us into one of our most treasured features, DC Theatre Scene’s podcasts.
Steve Schalchlin, himself a survivor, calls his phase of life “the Bonus Round.” The GoFundMe campaign is still accepting donations to help give Joel a chance for his own bonus round.