The American Theatre Wing’s annual gala is always a great party. Each year, the Wing, the creator of the Tony Awards, selects a beloved person from the theater world to honor and lots of show makers and theater lovers get dressed up and go somewhere swanky (The Plaza Hotel's Grand Ballroom this year) to celebrate him or her. A highlight of each evening is the performances that pay tribute to the honoree’s career and, in the process, entertain the hell out of the rest of us lucky enough to be there.
Of course finding the numbers to do is easier for some honorees than for others. There was no shortage of candidates when Hal Prince (who has produced and directed more than 50 musicals, ranging from The Pajama Game to The Phantom of the Opera) was honored a couple of years ago. Or when Angela Lansbury (who has won Tonys for her iconic performances in shows such as Mame, Gypsy and Sweeney Todd) was the honoree last year. But I was a little worried when I heard that the Wing was honoring James Earl Jones this year.
There is no question that Jones, a two-time Tony winner who will mark his 20th Broadway performance when he opens next month in The Gin Game opposite Cicely Tyson, deserves the honor but his resume isn’t exactly heavy on musicals and so I wondered what the entertainment would be.
I shouldn’t have doubted the Wing. It’s got a contact list jammed pack with creative folks and they came up with a terrific—and at times moving—evening. It got off to a sensational start when five of the actors who have played Mufasa in the 18-year run of The Lion King, appeared to sing that show's affecting anthem “They Live in You,” acknowledgement that Jones not only first gave voice to the lion patriarch in the 1994 animated film but also helped pioneer the way for African-American and other actors of color to play significant roles on Broadway.
Also on hand to pay homage were Patina Miller, Ruthie Ann Miles, Brandon Victor Dixon and Kerry Butler, who appeared with Jones in the last revival of The Best Man in which no one batted an eye at having a black actor portray a former president of the United States modeled after Harry Truman.
But the emotional highlight of the evening came when Norm Lewis sang “Bring Him Home” from Les Misérables and dedicated his performance to Kyle Jean-Baptiste, the 21-year-old actor who made history as the first African American to play that show's leading role of Jean-Valjean just a few weeks before he died in an accident this summer.
In between the performances, my husband K and I dined on lamb chops and chatted with our tablemates, who included Steven Boyer, the terrific star of Hand of God, and Robert Creighton, who created and starred in the bio-musical Cagney, which played at the York Theatre this spring. And K, who’d once worked with Jones, went over to the main table to extend his personal congratulations.
At the end of the evening, filmmaker George Lucas, who confided to the audience that he’d chosen Jones over Orson Welles to be the voice of Darth Vader in the “Star Wars” films, and Samuel L. Jackson, whose wife LaTanya Richardson Jackson is on the board of the Wing, gave Jones the commemorative trophy.
Taking the stage, Jones paid tribute to the training he received at the American Theatre Wing’s Professional School back in the ‘50s, which brought the evening around full circle, showing that the Wing has been doing the right thing for decades.