Every year, a couple of weeks before the Tony ceremony, the hopefuls gather to receive their nominee certificates, to schmooze and, in the midst of all this, to wolf down some tossed salad and scrambled eggs (among other foodstuffs). The theory behind holding the brunch on a Wednesday may be that the actors have to be up for their matinee performances anyway; but it does make for a tense situation as everyone attempts to come up with some fresh comments for the press and, hopefully, grab a bite before hustling over to their respective theaters in time for the half-hour call.
"It's sort of overwhelming," said Nathan Lane into a bunch of tape recorders pointed at his face by a gaggle of journalists. Though he was talking about The Producers, the mega-hit in which he co-stars with Matthew Broderick, Lane seemed to be referring as well to the chaotic brunch event. "After a certain point, one doesn't know what to say. I keep reading these socio-cultural reasons why the show is a success. I think it's because it's a good show, a great story, extremely entertaining. It's very well cast, beautifully directed. And it's definitely very funny, which I guess we haven't had in a while. This is one of the times when all the right people came together. That's how a musical works--when it all seems to be coming from one voice, but it's really lots of people collaborating."
Lane will be co-hosting the June 3 Tony telecast with Broderick. And, of course, both are nominated in the Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical category for their roles of Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom in The Producers. This could lead to a slightly embarrassing situation unless they happen to tie for the award, which may be why Lane attempted to downplay their hosting duties. "We're just figureheads," he said. "We're like the meet and greet people at the airport: 'Hi, how are you, can we help you with your luggage?' We're not really going to host like Steve Martin hosted the Oscars. It's very limited, because we just don't have a lot of time to rehearse."
Gary Smith, producer of the CBS portion of the Tony telecast, was in a joyful mood at the brunch. "This is probably the richest year that Broadway has had in a long, long time," he stated. "I've been saying that The Producers will do for Broadway what Tiger Woods did for golf: People will become much more interested in all aspects of Broadway theater, and the Tonys are going to reflect that as much as we can within our time constraints. It will be a challenge to get everything in this year, with all those production numbers plus the inclusion of Blast!, which represents a new category. And I think the plays deserve some focus, too."
Though nominees from such continually struggling shows as Jane Eyre and A Class Act were on hand--not to mention Kevin Chamberlin, the sole nominee for Seussical, which has since given up the ghost--the lion's share of press attention was quite naturally given to the hits. André De Shields, a nominee in the Best Featured Actor in a Musical category for his terrific performance as "Horse" in The Full Monty, said of that show: "It just gets better and better. The longer we run, the more audiences understand that, in many ways, The Full Monty is like a rock concert. As soon as the show begins, you can start screaming!" Monty's composer-lyricist, David Yazbek, said that "one of the reasons I was excited about doing the show is that it's contemporary; I didn't have to write in a fake Renaissance style, or something like that." Was it a challenge for Yazbek to come up with deft, accomplished melodies and words that nevertheless sound natural coming from the mouths of the show's blue-collar heroes? "The music came easy, but the lyrics were very, very effortful," he confided.
Surely one of the happiest attendees of the brunch was Brad Oscar, nominated for his featured role of Franz Liebkind in The Producers. A year ago at this time, Oscar was lost in the ensemble of one of the most reprehensible shows ever to be seen on Broadway: Jekyll & Hyde. How does it feel to now have a plum role in a critically acclaimed hit of monumental proportions? "What a ride this has been," he replied simply. "I love the American musical theater. I grew up listening to all those shows of the '50s and '60s, so it's extraordinary to be part of a something that's a tribute to all of that while, at the same time, sending it up and mocking it." Going out on a limb, I asked Oscar about Ron Orbach, whom he replaced as Liebkind when Orbach suffered a knee injury during The Producers' pre-Broadway engagement in Chicago. "I saw him on the street the other day, finally. That was great," Oscar said, "because I wanted to have a connection with him after all this had gone down. Of course, it was very difficult for him--but he opened his arms, we hugged, and he congratulated me. I wish him the best, because it was quite a weird little turn of events." From understudy to Tony nominee in just a few months: Ladies and gentlemen, The Brad Oscar Story.
Another fellow who was rather surprised to find himself at the Tony brunch is Ben Shenkman, nominated as Best Featured Actor in a Play for his work in Proof. "I never thought I'd ever be on Broadway, because you just don't see new, smallish plays done there very often," Shenkman explained "So, if that's what you do as an actor, Broadway is not where you envision working--unless you're in some kind of a revival with a big star. It's exciting that this kind of play can find a big audience. Mary-Louise Parker is a draw because she's a star, but her performance is also a draw. I don't think putting any famous name on a marquee makes people go and see a play. People heard that Mary-Louise was doing something extraordinary, and she is."
"Extraordinary" is not a bad adjective for what's happened on Broadway over the past year or so. Linda Lavin, a Tony nominee for her brilliant comic performance in Charles Busch's Tale of the Allergist's Wife, left little room for argument when she paused to declare "I think it's one great season of really, really superior work all around" before rushing off to the Ethel Barrymore Theater to experience the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd.