There was drama right from the beginning of the 2005 Nightlife Awards show. Alex Rybeck, the talented musical director for Liz and Ann Hampton Callaway, had another gig that night and had to be uptown by 8pm. With a car waiting outside Town Hall, his departure time could be no later than 7:40pm or he wouldn't make it. We needed to start as close to 7pm as possible, but there was still a big crowd picking up tickets when the hour came and passed, so we had to hold the curtain. To expedite matters, Scott was in the lobby helping to dispense tickets even though he was supposed to be making the "turn off your cell phone" speech from stage left.
The show could not start without him -- but, with a talent wrangler pulling at his sleeve, Scott kept handing out tickets. At 7:12pm, as the last few people were given their ticket envelopes, he finally dashed back stage. At 7:15pm, the show began. Alice Ripley performed a dramatic opening number, "New York, New York" wrapped around "A New York State of Mind," but the clock was ticking. Bruce Vilanch came out to make his opening remarks, fully cognizant of the time issue; he managed to be both hilarious and brief. Then he introduced famed record producer Phil Ramone, who -- happily! -- was also brief.
Scott looked at his watch; it was 7:30pm. Finally, out came the Callaways who blew the house down with their combination of "Stormy Weather" and "When the Sun Comes Out." When the applause finally ended, Alex dashed out of the building to his waiting car. Later that night, we got an e-mail from him saying that he made it to his other gig with only 10 minutes to spare.
Scott had asked Patti LuPone to be a part of the Nightlife Awards at least a month ago but she had declined due to an enormous workload. Fair enough. When her good friend and musical director Dick Gallagher passed away, we thought we'd like to do something to honor him. Scott went back to Patti and asked if she would come to Town Hall to simply talk about Dick. She immediately said yes. Not wanting to commercialize her appearance and wishing to ensure the dignity of the moment, Scott suggested that there be no announcement of her appearance. This was to be a well-kept secret.
Plans were made for Patti to speak immediately after Musical Comedy Award winner Peter Yawitz performed a song ("Talk Like a Man") that he had written with Gallagher. It wasn't until Patti was standing next to Yawitz in the wings that he -- and everyone else back stage -- found out that she was in the show. To Yawitz's credit, it didn't unnerve him, and he gave a strong performance. When Patti had finished her moving hommage to Dick, she returned to the wings with tears streaming from her eyes. Scott never loved Patti more than in that moment.
More drama: Jazz pianist Eric Reed was scheduled to play for both Paula West (Female Jazz Vocalist winner) and Allan Harris, who would be performing in tribute to the late Jackie Paris (Male Jazz Vocalist winner). On the day of the show, however, Reed took ill and could not appear. Pianist John McMahon stepped up at the last minute to play for West, taking their only opportunity to rehearse during the last 15 minutes of the tech rehearsal. They pulled it off, with McMahon providing sweet accompaniment to West's rendition of "If I Only Had a Brain."
Allan Harris solved the problem of the missing accompanist by pulling out his guitar. He was to sing "Skylark," a million seller for Jackie Paris, but Harris had never accompanied himself with his guitar on this song before. Well, he was splendid in what you'd have to call a plucky performance.
Carolyn Montgomery (Outstanding Cabaret Female Vocalist) arrived for the tech rehearsal with her baby son in tow and sang that afternoon with the infant in her arms. The adorable child was mesmerized by the microphone and kept reaching for it. Gabriel Barre, our director, was touched -- as were we all. He floated the suggestion that Carolyn sing the song to her son that night in the show. This very well might have come to pass except that good mother Carolyn was fearful that the applause would frighten the baby. When she performed that night, sans child, she receiving a thunderous ovation. Her son will have to wait a little longer before he makes his Town Hall debut.
Gabriel Barre, who directed Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party at the Manhattan Theatre Club, was an invaluable asset to the show. Talk about putting in hours: He arrived at Town Hall at 8am to be there for the "load in" of lights and sound. Unlike the union guys, who received specific, guaranteed breaks throughout the morning, afternoon, and evening, Gabe worked straight through from 8am to 11pm. So did the rest of our small but intrepid production team and many of our back stage volunteers. The show could not have happened without them.
Seat-of-the-pants producing was needed when Tony Danza arrived before the end of Act I on a tight schedule to introduce Keely Smith. We were at least an hour and a half away from Keely's slotted appearance. What to do? Scott informed everyone that we were moving Keely to the top of Act II. Her band was assembled during intermission, the appropriate changes were made to rearrange the rest of the second act, and everything went off without a hitch. Tony and Keely were terrific together -- especially when, after he had introduced her, she coaxed him out of the wings to sing a duet of "That Old Black Magic." It was magic, indeed.
As Tony left Town Hall, he pointed at Scott and said, "You're the man!" Scott replied. "I'm too short to be the man." Tony laughed and promised, "I'm going to talk about what you're doing here on my show tomorrow." True to his word, he did so, giving the Nightlife Awards a plug on his nationally telecast talk show the next morning.
Which brings us to a related point: It's one of the goals of the Nightlife Awards to garner greater exposure for talented club performers. We were therefore delighted that our Outstanding Piano Bar Entertainer, Leslie Anderson, and her accompanist Ricky Ritzel were given the opportunity to perform on WNBC-TV on the Weekend Morning show the day before the awards show. Having TV personalities like Tony Danza and Joy Behar involved in the Nightlife Awards as presenters was an important step in bridging the gap between relative anonymity and national recognition.
As for Keely Smith, she was a doll -- wonderful with the press, gracious to her fellow performers, and obviously deeply loved and admired by her fellow musicians. On very short notice, her famous band members Joe Cocuzzo (drums) and Chip Jackson (bass), agreed to play for her at a fraction of their regular fees. Fortunately, they both live in New York, so there were no plane fares involved. Sax player Jerry Vivino (from the Conan O'Brien Show) jumped in at the last second, as well, and he didn't even want to get paid. He just wanted to play for Keely.
Barbara had bronchitis (and still does at this writing); it was reassuring that Dr. Kenneth Schneider, her ear, nose, and throat doctor, was seated next to her! But her coughing was nothing compared to the noise that she made as she openly wept during the Cabaret Choir number. When the group of more than 50 singers launched into David Friedman's "As Long as I Can Sing" to end the show, Barbara saw her idea of a Cabaret Choir come gloriously to life in a number that was musically directed by Stephen Ray Watkins and staged by Lennie Watts. It was a joyful expression of talent and artistry. Watkins' selfless devotion to the Cabaret Choir, teaching the singers their parts and rehearsing them in several sessions in the weeks before the show, paid off on the Town Hall stage in their confident performance.
When the song -- and the show -- were over, Dr. Schneider and his wife went out into the lobby with a purpose. They were so knocked out by one of the soloists (Scott Coulter) that they sought out his CD and bought it on the spot. This is exactly why Scott (Siegel) conceived the Nightlife Awards: To broaden the appeal of club performers.
Sometimes, you get lucky. And oh, were we lucky when Bruce Vilanch agreed to host the 2005 Nightlife Awards. At a dinner meeting with Bruce several days before the show, we discussed all of the talent -- special guest stars and winners -- who would be on the bill. Remarkably, Bruce knew almost all of them. Nonetheless, he arrived early in the afternoon on the day of the show and prepared his introductions while watching the tech rehearsal virtually from start to finish. Generous with his time and talent, he was as affable as could be before the show -- and, once he hit the stage, he never failed to get laughs. Here we were, still in the embryonic stages of this awards show, and we were getting Oscar-level patter! Literally!
A few final thoughts and observations:
Dick Latessa, who had not heard of the Nightlife Awards before he was asked to be a presenter, said that he found himself deeply moved by the experience.
One of the sponsors, a fellow who did not know all of the talent, picked Lennie Watts (winner for Unique Cabaret Experience) as his favorite act of the night. In a concert full of celebrities, he chose someone from one of the smaller clubs. Once again, that's why these awards exist: To give a platform to lesser-known artists and allow them to show that they're just as talented as some of the most famous performers in the world.
We are open to suggestions -- short of gunplay -- as to how to keep the comedians from going over their time limits in next year's show.
The goodie bags handed out at the post-show party were so heavy that no one could run off with extras.