April 23, 2008

A Great Party for a Great Guy

“Jonathan wants to know if you’re coming to his party,” my husband K told me last week. Jonathan is Jonathan Tunick, the foremost orchestrator on Broadway and one of only nine people who have achieved the show business Grand Slam of winning an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony (click here to find out the other eight recipients). The party was to celebrate Jonathan’s 70th birthday. And the fact that he would even care whether I would be there is a testament to what a really great guy he is. Because, me aside, the guest list for his party was a literal Who’s Who of Broadway royalty.

There were the composers and lyricists Sheldon Harnick, Charles Strouse, Maury Yeston and, of course, Stephen Sondheim; the divas Barbara Cook, Angela Lansbury, Priscilla Lopez, Patti LuPone, Donna Murphy, and
Bernadette Peters; the leading men John Cullum, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Edward Hibbert; the director and producer Hal Prince; the theater historian Robert Kimball, the guardian of the Rodgers & Hammerstein estate Ted Chapin; the opera singer Harolyn Blackwell; the theater critic and columnist Howard Kissel (click here to read his account of the party); our mutual friend Seymour “Red” Press, the musical contractor extraordinaire; and the Broadway Moonlighters, a 12-member band of Jonathan’s favorite musicians including, I am proud to say, K. And those were just the people I recognized by sight.

The affair was held last Sunday, a traditional party night for theater folk since there are usually no Sunday evening performances. And the gathering took over the entire front room of O’Neal’s, the show business canteen across from Lincoln Center that is a personal favorite of Jonathan’s. Other guests included cousins and old friends, including one who went back with Jonathan as far as kindergarten, classmates from Juilliard and one pal who recently retired as a psychologist and had returned to the saxophone with enough dexterity to allow him to sit in—and fit in—with the Moonlighters.


It was a great party. Red and his wife Nona, who helped to organize things, got there early, took a table right at the front of the room and saved a place for me. So I had a literal front row seat that was just a table away from the one where Angela Lansbury and Barbara Cook sat and just about everyone else visited to pay their respects. But there was no grandstanding that night just generous displays of goodwill towards a guy that everyone was obviously happy to celebrate.


Jonathan’s manager and friend, Jeff Berger served as the evening’s MC and was so funny that Hal Prince later quipped that he’d be his agent if Berger wanted to launch a career as a standup comic. Jonathan, whose boyhood dream was to lead a big band, lead the Moonlighters in both standards and tunes he’d composed and took nice solos on the clarinet too. His frequent collaborators Prince and Sondheim toasted him. “My reputation would not be what it is without Jonathan Tunick,” Sondheim told the group. Bernadette Peters serenaded him with a lovely rendition of "If You Were the Only Boy in the World."


But the highlight, at least for me, came when Jonathan’s wife, Leigh Beery Tunick, herself a Tony nominee for her performance as Roxana in the 1973 musical Cyrano, performed a moving interpretation of "Time After Time." “There are a lot of great singers in this room” her grateful husband said when she’d finished. “But I think everyone would agree you held your own among them.” I thought so too. “As someone who’s crazy about her guy, I could hear how crazy you are about yours,” I told her when she sat down at our table afterward. “You made me cry.” We’re not personal friends. I only see her at opening nights and other large gatherings. But she squeezed my hand in solidarity. “Are you crazy about yours too?” she said, adding, “Aren’t we lucky?” Indeed. In fact, the other treat for me was watching Barbara Cook whoop with delight after K took a solo.


Later, after everyone had queued up for the buffet dinner of grilled chicken and salmon and penne with vegetables, they brought out a big chocolate cake and we all sang "Happy Birthday." The band played a few more numbers and Jonathan, known for his sober mien, looked as happy as a kitten in a dairy barn. “I’m not going to retire,” he said during his thank-you speech. “I’m going to keep working as long as you’ll have me.” Which, undoubtedly, will be for a very long time. In fact, the very next morning, he, Prince and Sondheim were scheduled to meet at 10 a.m. to work on a new show.
And as for me, I’m grateful that I got to be there on Sunday night and to know, even a little, such a truly great guy.

8 comments:

Esther said...

Wow, what a wonderful, magical, star-studded evening! I didn't know that Jonathan Tunick had won the four big awards. In fact, until I started going to the theatre more, I'd never heard of him, or even the job of an orchestrator. (Composer, lyricist, conductor, those are all pretty clear.) But it seems that he's been involved with so many of the shows I've seen and loved, like "110 in the Shade" and "The Color Purple." And after reading what you wrote, I have an even greater appreciation for Mr. Tunick and all his great work.

SarahB said...

What a marvelous party! What love there is in your post. Brava.

Chris Caggiano said...

Jan,

What an amazing experience, and what a lovely job you've done capturing the delight. Thanks so much for letting us share in that delight.

Warmest regards,

Chris

jan@broadwayandme said...

Thanks guys. I was lucky to be there. And delighted to be able to share some of it with you.

Jeff Berger said...

Thank you for the compliments about my abilities as an mc--but, just for the record, my last name is BERGER! And I'm available for weddings, Bar Mitzvahs...:))

jan@broadwayandme said...

Jeff, I'm delighted to have your comment but horrified to have botched the spelling of your name!!!! It's now been corrected and I hope you'll continue to read, comment and correct in the future. Cheers, jan

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jan@broadwayandme said...

Anonymous, thanks for searching out B&Me, for bookmarking it and for leaving this lovely message. I hope you'll continue to read, enjoy and comment too. Cheers, jan