Scott's cell phone rang on Monday afternoon as the tech rehearsal of the First Annual Nightlife Awards at Town Hall was just getting underway. It was TheaterMania's editor-in-chief, Michael Portantiere, on the other end of the line. He asked Scott if we would be willing to write a sort of backstage diary of our experiences putting the show up on the boards that night. With some trepidation, we agreed. All of us were clear about the fact that we would obviously not be writing a review of a show we were co-producing; this is a report of the events, not an opinion piece.
Before we begin, a little background: the Nightlife Awards was an idea we had many years ago. We wanted to gather together a cross-section of critics and experts who cover the New York's club scene and have them choose the best cabaret, jazz, and comedy acts in New York City. We wanted to bring these three different forms of entertainment to one stage and also to bring three different audiences to one venue; here was a chance for the entertainers to get greater exposure and to enlarge their fan base.
Once we decided to go ahead with the awards in the fall of 2002, we realized right away that this couldn't be a "Mom and Pop" operation; we were going to need help. We found it in the persons of Vern T. Calhoun and Kati Meister, who eventually came on board as co-producers. The four of us labored for months to lay the groundwork for one special night at Town Hall. And on Monday, January 27, that night was here:
2pm: Andrea Marcovicci arrives at the tech rehearsal. She's one of our three hosts (along with Dee Dee Bridgewater and Lea DeLaria). Andrea is early and she will stay throughout the entire afternoon to see virtually all of the acts that will be in the show. She introduces herself to everyone and becomes an enthusiastic cheerleader; at times, she is literally dancing in the aisle to the music.
2:45pm: Scott receives a call on his cell phone from Lillias White. "What should I wear? What's the dress code?" Scott is a guy; he has no idea.
3:15pm: Jeff Cohen, the director, casually walks by and says to Scott, "You're going to be the 'Voice of God' for the show." Scott wonders, "How come Barbara never thinks of me as the Voice of God?"
3:30pm: Donna Murphy is waiting to rehearse; she will sing "I Happen to Like New York" to open the show. Barbara seeks her out in the theater and thanks Donna for having been so generous in lending her name to the Nightlife Awards early on, telling her that this helped us to attract stars of the first caliber. Donna hugs Barbara.
3:45pm: After some drama involving the delivery of the show's script, it finally arrives from Kinko's. We wrote the opening remarks and the cabaret-related introductions; Kati and Vern wrote the jazz and comedy portions of the show. Hosts and presenters are encouraged to adapt the script to their own manner of speaking. However, we stress that certain points -- like the names of the finalists in each category -- should be made in every instance.
4:10pm: Kristin Chenoweth is rehearsing "Taylor (the Latte Boy)." This is a special moment. Zina Goldrich, who wrote the music (lyric by Marcy Heisler), is playing for Kristin. They had never met before. The song has become a favorite among cabaret performers and now Kristin will bring it to a larger audience. Scott watches as Zina and Kristin rehearse and then walk off the stage together, arm in arm.
4:40pm: Before Scott can utter a single God-like word, the decision is made to have Andrea share the "Voice of God" duties. Having a real actor speak these introductions from off-stage makes sense to Andrea...and also to Barbara.
5:20pm: Scott sidles up to Jeff Cohen, the show's director. "You must be exhausted," he says, noting that Jeff has been at this since the load-in at noon. "No," replies Cohen, "this is the fun part." And he sounds like he means it.
6:00pm: Break for dinner. Neither of us eats -- too nervous. We eventually get dressed for the show. Barbara heads over to the box office to see how the ticketing is going. She calls Scott to come help out. He is wearing a tux and loses his tie. Stay tuned.
7:20pm: There is a ticketing crisis, confusion about the whereabouts of certain tickets we thought were at the box office. Barbara, running to get help, falls in the lobby and sprains her ankle. This reminds her why she rarely wears heels.
8:15pm: The show hasn't started yet. We know that James Naughton has to leave by 8:30pm to get to the Manhattan Theatre Club gala where he is performing. The winner (in a tie with Tom Wopat) for Outstanding Male Vocalist in a Major Engagement, Naughton is on third in our show. Barbara is sitting in her seat -- next to a photographer who now has Scott's seat for the remainder of the show -- and she is NERVOUS!!!!
8:18pm: The show starts. Naughton stays, sings, then rushes out the stage door and jumps into a waiting car.
8:45pm: Barbara (seated in the audience) and Scott (in the wings) are each independently wondering how Scott's audacious idea of dispensing with acceptance speeches is going to fly.
9:05pm: Sonny Rollins receives the Living Legend of Jazz Award from Dee Dee Bridgewater. The audience goes wild.
9:10pm: Scott is in the wings, sitting right behind the stage manager. He has closed his eyes for the first time in nearly 50 hours. "Hey, I'm going on," Kristin Chenoweth says, laughing and tapping Scott on the shoulder to wake him up. He can hardly believe he fell asleep. She pats him on the arm. "It's okay," she says. He doesn't fall asleep again until 5am. (No, the show didn't end THAT late!)
9:20pm: Scott looks up and sees Judy Kuhn, Kristin Chenoweth, and Liz Callaway standing together. He thinks: The Sopranos.
9:35pm: Scott is going out on stage soon to introduce the judges. He suddenly realizes that he doesn't have his tie. Trying to appear calm (and probably not succeeding), he asks a volunteer to go and look for it. She returns with it in hand two minutes before he has to make his entrance.
9:40pm: Andrea is introducing Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul & Mary fame), who will, in turn, introduce Male Vocalist winner Lennie Watts. Suddenly, the stage manager turns to Scott and says, "Where is Peter Yarrow?" Scott looks around. He's not there. He was never there. "Go tell her," the stage manager says, pointing in the direction of Andrea, who is halfway through her introduction. Sheepishly, Scott walks out on stage and tells Andrea that Yarrow is a no-show. Andrea rolls with it, but Scott has an idea. He tries to get closer to the microphone. He wants to say, "Yarrow went Puff." Upon reflection, it was probably a good thing Andrea blocked his way. Because of the screw-up, the names of finalists Matt Bogart, Frank Fontana, and Jonny Peterson are accidentally left unsaid. Barbara bites off her last fragment of fingernail.
10:00pm: Tom Wopat's microphone is inexplicably turned off when he goes out on stage. He handles the situation beautifully and gets one of the biggest ovations of the evening for singing unamplified in a 1,500-seat theater. [Later, we would receive more laudatory comments from other singers about his "pure" performance than about any other act on the stage that night. Talk about turning a lemon into lemonade.]
10:10pm: Intermission. Carol Fineman, the Nightlife Awards press rep, comes by and says that she's going to Trattoria Dopo Teatro, where the post-show party will take place, to tell them when we think the show will be over. We know the second act is shorter than the first. Scott estimates we'll come down at 11:30pm. It isn't his first mistake of the evening.
10:15pm: Barbara stops by the dressing room and sees Charles Busch putting on his makeup to become Miriam Passman, cabaret chanteuse. At that moment he is half Charles and half Miriam. Barbara, a makeup enthusiast in her own right, admires his skill.
10:20pm: In the runway underneath the stage that connects the two wings, the cast of the show is eating and talking. It's a sight to behold: People from the worlds of jazz, comedy, and cabaret are partying together. Major musical theater stars are chatting with cabaret performers, who are talking to comedians, who are comparing notes with jazz artists. There must be at least 50 of them down there together. Barbara is moved by the camaraderie of these entertainers. One of the important goals of the event was to hold people who work in the clubs up to the light, and among those bearing the torches were Tovah Feldshuh, John Cullum, John McDaniel, Karen Mason, KT Sullivan, and Phylicia Rashad. They did not come to perform but simply to lend their support as awards presenters.
10:30pm: The second act begins.
10:35pm: Triumph the Comic Insult Dog claims he turned off Tom Wopat's microphone. Triumph will have the distinction of having performed the shortest song of the night. Ironically, his pianist, Tedd Firth, also played for Tom Wopat.
11:15pm: Scott has a long stretch without having to be the "Voice of God." He goes downstairs where there is a monitor with good sound, and he can finally hear what's happening on stage. Lea DeLaria is downstairs, as well. It turns out that she adores Robert Klein, our Living Legend of Comedy winner, who is now holding forth on stage. When Klein is finished, DeLaria turns to Scott and says, "This is incredible. Where else can you find Kristin Chenoweth and Cecil Taylor on the same stage?" [Taylor won the Nightlife Award for Outstanding Alternative Jazz.]
11:40pm: Julie Wilson, winner of the Living Legend of Cabaret award, sings "I'm Still Here." She gets a standing ovation. Andrea wraps up the evening with a sweet song called "I Wish You," just the right button to end the show.
12:05am: The First Annual Nightlife Awards show is over. We're among the last to leave Town Hall. We head over to the party at Trattoria Dopo Teatro's Secret Garden. Despite the late hour on a Monday night, the place is packed when we get there! Many of the stars are on hand: Andrea Marcovicci, Ute Lemper, Lea DeLaria, Robert Klein, etc. Everyone eats, drinks, and is merry.
12:40am: Barbara sees Roy Sander (special consultant to the production) talking to Robert Klein. The two of them went to school together and have hooked up to recall old times. Nightlife Awards and Class Reunion!
12:50am: Best line of the party: Cabaret artist Eric Pickering says to Scott, "The show was fantastic. What a great weekend!"
2am: The party's over. It's been quite a night. We found people like Jason Moran (jazz) and Todd Barry (comedy) whom we had never seen before and now want to catch in full performance. But the greatest satisfaction was having award winners from the clubs perform on the same stage with the likes of Donna Murphy, Ute Lemper, Liz Callaway, and Kristin Chenoweth -- and hold their own. To top it all off, upon leaving the party, we got a goody bag.
[More cabaret reviews by the Siegels can be found at www.cabarethotlineonline.com]