By: David Sheward
"This is a show!," exclaimed Alan Alda upon receiving the John Willis Lifetime Achievement Award at the 69th annual Theatre World Awards, held Mon. June 3 at the Music Box Theater where the hit revival of Pippin is currently playing. Alda then recalled the very different ceremony when he won his Theatre World Award for Fair Game for Lovers in 1964. "It was in an office that held maybe four people if they all stood up," he said. Instead of the handsome trophy presented to the 2013 winners, Alda received a piece of paper, but it was very important to him.
The award, presented to newcomers to Broadway and off-Broadway, signified he was able to earn a living as an actor and didn’t have to rely on income from driving a cab or serving as a doorman. The late John Willis was the publisher of the annual Theatre World volumes. 2013 marks the first year a lifetime achievement award bearing his name was presented.
Theater journalist Peter Filichia hosted and wrote the ceremony which was indeed a "show" as Alda said. John Tartaglia of Avenue Q directed the production which included performances by previous TW winners. Ben Vereen opened the evening with a electric rendition of "Magic to Do" which he introduced in the original Pippin. Also singing were Isabel Keating (The Boy from Oz, 2004), Philip Boykin (Porgy and Bess, 2012), and Wesley Taylor (Rock of Ages, 2009). Taylor advised the winners to cherish the praise since it may not last. After winning his TW Award for Rock of Ages which was a popular and critical hit, he appeared the universally lambasted Addams Family and then everyone’s favorite object of hate-watching Smash.
In addition to Alda, Jonny Orsini of The Nance received the Dorothy Loudon Award, and 12 newbies were also honored. Undoubtedly the biggest name among the TW recipients was Tom Hanks, making his Broadway debut in Lucky Guy, who recalled that the Chemical Bank where he used to cash unemployment checks is now the Bubba Gump Shrimp restaurant. Carrie Coon of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf told of auditioning for a beer commercial in a bikini just as she got the call from her agent she’d been cast in the Edward Albee classic. Shalita Grant of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike shared another audition story of auditioning for a theater department and instead of doing a monologue, she performed both parts of the Mama-Beneatha confrontation from A Raisin in the Sun. "I slapped myself, and they let me in anyway."
Grant’s award was presented by Jackie Hoffman who totally stole the show with her one-liners. "I was just backstage greasing Andrea Martin’s trapeze," she started. Then she remembered her immediate reaction upon hearing she’d won a Theatre World Award for Hairspray: "Oh wow, I said, what Monday night do I have to give up?" She then praised Grant for her hysterical turn as the psychic cleaning lady Cassandra in Christopher Durang’s wild take-off on Chekhov: "The bitch got exit applause."
Each presenter had a strong connection with the recipient. Rob McClure of Chaplin performed opposite Ben Vereen in I’m Not Rappaport; Keala Settle (Hands on a Hard Body) was in the ensemble of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert with Tony Sheldon; and Ruthie Ann Miles (Here Lies Love) was a student of Meg Bussert (The Music Man, Brigadoon) at NYU.
Probably the closest link was between Crystal A. Dickinson, who won last year for Clybourne Park, presenting to her husband Brandon J. Dirden for The Piano Lesson.
New York theater award season continues–the Astaire Awards were presented the same night–culminating with the Tonys this Sunday.