Now that the New York City awards season is over (the raucous sounds you hear in the background are theater folks rejoicing), bear with me for the length of this column while I talk about my favorite event: The Theatre World Awards, which took place this year Monday, June 3 at the Music Box and on the appropriately circus-like Pippin set.
Established 69 years ago(!) by the late John Willis, editor of the annual Theatre World and Screen World volumes, these prizes are the least well known of the seemingly endless line of gifties accruing to theater folks during the madding May-June onslaught.
For starters, they’re only given to actors. More specifically, they’re given to actors who’ve made what the seven-member nominating committee deems the most illustrious debuts in either a Broadway or off-Broadway production during the season. Furthermore-this is the truly distinguishing factor-this isn’t a competition.
Indeed, the TWAs are so out of competition that many of those selected have no idea what they’re getting when they receive the congratulatory phone call or whatever-it-is they receive informing them not only that they’re winners but that it’s also hoped they’ll show up for the blessedly informal ceremony. That so many are ignorant of the TWAs honor can only be gauged by the former winners who’ve gone on record saying pretty much the same thing when they were apprised: “What’s a Theatre World Award?”
I’m able to report this, because each year the 12 winners-six men, six women-are introduced by a former winner, who’s asked to reminisce about his or her win as recently as the last few years or decades back. (Although she wasn’t a presenter this year, Bambi Linn, given an award the year Willis founded them-1944-45-was in the audience.)
Without question, the camaraderie apparent when a past winner presents the award to a current recipient is what makes the TWAs so gratifying. Not for the career boosts it implies or for the exposure to hundreds of spectators–and in the case of the televised Tonys, millions of on-lookers.
These citations, hosted every year by affable theater-fact repository Peter Filichia, are special due to something else entirely. The TWAs, as many of this year’s presenters remarked, occur more often than not at a time in actors’ lives when they welcome-and more immediately-need encouragement. That morale boost is what John Willis, who died only three years ago at 93, had in mind. The memory of such longed-for encouragement had many of the previous winners insist this award is the most meaningful of any they’d received since.
So who was handed the tall, transparent columnar piece of sculpture for 2012-13 debuts? In alphabetical order, they’re Bertie Carvel (Matilda: The Musical), Carrie Coon (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), Brandon J. Dirden (The Piano Lesson), Shalita Grant (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike), Tom Hanks (Lucky Guy), Valisia LeKae (Motown: The Musical), Rob McClure (Chaplin), Ruthie Ann Miles (Here Lies Love), Conrad Ricamora (Here Lies Love), Keala Settle (Hands on a Hard Body), Yvonne Strahovsky (Golden Boy) and Tom Sturridge (Orphans).
The presenters? Previous winners Meg Bussert, Crystal A. Dickinson, Jackie Hoffman, Christine Lahti, Jessie Mueller, Anika Noni Rose, Lea Salonga, Tony Sheldon, John Tartaglia, Courtney B. Vance and-are you sitting down?-Nathan Lane, who’d never been handed one of the Lucite items. (Early winners got paper citations.) Also Johnny Orsini was given the Dorothy Loudon Foundation award (Lane was his presenter), and Alan Alda received the first John Willis Award for lifetime achievement.
Alda took his from former winner Patricia Elliott, a tireless TWAs advocate. When he did, he chatted in his typically warm-hearted manner about the years leading up to his award and only cut his comments short when he said he needed “to pee.” But not before he declared the TWAs recognition “the most important thing that happened to me up to that time.”
Tom Hanks didn’t streamline his speech, noting as he began that there’d be no band striking up to signal him to stop. Talking with enthusiasm about the Lucky Guy “family” he’d joined-co-star Vance was his awarder-he began by asking, “What actor wouldn’t want to appear on Broadway?” He closed by saying he regarded the award as acknowledging the onset of a Broadway career and said he hoped for more. Can there be any question-if you check the Lucky Guy box-office-the offers aren’t pouring into his Broadhurst dressing-room?
Needless to say, two-time Oscared Hanks, who’s copped this award but not the Tony(!), is no longer in the needing-encouragement position. The rest fit the category handily and none more than Keala Settle, who talked about dropping in and out of acting on her journey to the Music Box stage. She said she became emotional when thanking the theater family with whom she’s bonded tightly, because her real family is so far away. Tom Sturridge was the one who most looked like the character he played for his win. Not unlike the lost Phillip, he confided during his thanks, “I genuinely don’t know who I am.”
The awards ceremony did streeeetch, with many of the givers and getters taking more than the two-minutes they’re asked to keep speeches to. But awards ceremonies always go on long when a network isn’t calling the shots. And even then. But this one, brimming with good spirits, shouldn’t be faulted for length. Quite the opposite. Praise be that there’s no orchestra sneaking exit music in every 30 seconds.
What might be questioned is the inclusion of performers apparently intended to break up the presenters-winners parade. No one would have wanted to do without the opener-Ben Vereen reprising “Magic to Do” on the Pippin revival set and looking thrilled to be there-but he would have sufficed. The other three were Wesley Taylor and Phillip Boykin, both swell at what they do, and one who’ll go unnamed, who wasn’t so swell.
Nonetheless, when it comes to awards shows, the winner is…The Theatre World Awards.