June 3, 2009

Celebrating the Theatre World Awards

The Broadway community is in a celebratory mood. Last week, The Broadway League announced that, despite these recessionary times, total gross receipts for the 2008-9 season were slightly higher than the previous season’s. There has also been rejoicing that 43 shows opened on Broadway between June, 2008 and April, 2009, the most in 26 years and eight of them were new plays. And now, all kinds of groups are giving out awards to honor the very best of the season, culminating with the Tonys on Sunday. Still, it would be hard to find a more jubilant group than the people who crowded into the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Tuesday for the 65th Annual Theatre World Awards ceremony.

It’s a particularly sweet award because it honors outstanding Broadway or off-Broadway debuts and is often the first official recognition an actor gets. Past winners read like a Who’s Who of theater greats and include Betty Comden and John Raitt from the inaugural class of 1945, as well as Julie Andrews, Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Barbara Cook, George Grizzard, Julie Harris, James Earl Jones, Audra McDonald, Bernadette Peters, Christopher Plummer, and Meryl Streep.

The ceremony is part pep rally to encourage the newcomers and part family reunion because former honorees return to present the awards. Also mothers, fathers, spouses and other significant others turn out. And, because the event is free, plain old theater lovers like me can show up too.

It was a great way to spend an afternoon. There are no nominees, just winners. So no one has to pretend to be happy when his or her name isn't call. Everyone just is happy. The three Billy Elliot boys got awards. And the entire cast of The Norman Conquests did too. Amelia Bullmore and Ben Miles, the two who weren’t nominated for Tonys, spoke for the group, all of whom have long and accomplished stage careers back home in Britain. “Not being excessively burdened by youth means we don’t need to wait 10 years to realize the value of this award,” Bullmore said in a gracious acceptance speech. “We get it now.”

Both the presenters and the recipients spoke. There is no time limit on the speeches and there was intimate quality to them. Some speakers like Presenters Craig Bierko (a winner in 2000 for The Music Man) and Andrea Martin (a winner in 1993 for My Favorite Year) were very funny. Martin got big laughs when she joked about how tired she is of honoring her Exit the King castmate Geoffrey Rush, an Oscar, Emmy, Golden Globe and BAFTA winner, who recently added Drama Desk and Drama League gold to his collection, but is eligible for this one because it’s his first time on Broadway.

Other speeches were very moving. Chad L. Coleman of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone talked about growing up as a foster kid and how theater gave him a true home and helped to save his life. Marin Ireland of reasons to be pretty told a lovely story about meeting Julie Harris when she was a young acting student, seeing Harris perform at the Lyceum Theatre where reasons to be pretty is now playing and being touched on opening night when flowers arrived at the Lyceum from Harris.

I had planned to tell you more but then I read the blog by Peter Filichia, the theater critic and columnist who chairs the seven-member Theatre World Awards committee and served as host of the ceremony. It’s so fly-on-the-wall thorough and entertaining that I can’t really add anything more. So click here to read it. And start making plans now to be there next year.


Esther said...

Sounds great. I definitely want to go to this sometime. Maybe next year!

Sarah B. Roberts said...

What? I didn't see you there! It would have been a great addition to the day to say hello to you. I try not to miss this annual celebration...so I'll see you there next year!

jan@broadwayandme said...

Hey Sarah, I figured you'd be there and looked around for you but there were so many folks and I did get there right before the show started. Hope to see both you and Esther there next year.