Mos Def in Topdog/Underdog(Photo: Michael Daniel)
Mos Def in Topdog/Underdog
(Photo: Michael Daniel)
Football fans will tell you that the big game of the season is the Super Bowl, but it isn't the last game of the season: The Pro Bowl, which is football's All-Star Game, is the official finale. And we at the Theatre World Awards felt the same way about our prizes in 2002. For while the Tonys took place on Sunday night, we bestowed our Theatre World Awards on Monday afternoon and thus marked the official end of the 2001-2002 season.

The Theatre World Awards were established in 1945 to celebrate the rookies of the year--i.e, performers making their Broadway debuts--by Daniel Blum, who'd just started a pictorial annual of the Broadway season. He kept both the books and awards going until his death in 1963, at which time John Willis, his associate since day one, took over. As the years progressed, with the theatrical climate changing, Willis began to include Off- and Off-Off-Broadway shows both in the book and at his awards ceremonies.

It's paid off for him: If there's a more beloved figure in the industry than John, I don't know who it is. I say this with authority for, a few years ago, when I was asked to assist him, I agreed to take on the task of finding the presenters for each year's Theatre World Awards--and, since then, virtually everyone I've contacted has graciously and quickly accepted. They're glad to do it for the man who once tabbed them for greatness when plenty of other critics and audiences did not. (Would you have noticed Brian Stokes Mitchell in the mess that was Mail? John did.)

When I took the stage of Studio 54 on Monday to emcee this year's ceremony, I pointed out that John himself was a good metaphor for the 2001-2002 season. The semester started out strong--until that terrible Tuesday, after which many people said Broadway would be severely crippled and that Off-Broadway would be totally finished; but, while receipts were down this year, there were enough theatergoers out there with a hunger and thirst to keep theater alive. Similarly, John started off the season strong, seeing his usual six-to-nine shows a week, until the night he went to see Surviving Grace and fell, breaking his hip and shoulder. The poor soul has since had to endure many people saying that he must have willed himself to break his bones rather than suffering through Surviving Grace, but he has borne it all with a patient shrug of his good shoulder. Now he's walking with a cane and is returning to his theatergoing regimen, rising like a Phoenix baseball club of last season.

Louise Pitre
Louise Pitre
John has always wanted his presenters to be previous Theatre World Award winners, so this year I asked Kate Burton, Billy Crudup, Lindsay Duncan, Joanna Gleason, Julie Hagerty, Rosemary Harris, Judy Kaye, Laura Linney, Dorothy Loudon, Andrea Martin, Estelle Parsons, and Bernadette Peters. All accepted, but Peters asked to bow out when she was tabbed to do the Tonys the night before our awards, and we cheerfully gave her our blessings. Then on Saturday, Loudon had a sudden family emergency that took her back to her native Boston. It was okay; with both Adam Godley and Emma Fielding winning for Private Lives, having Lindsay Duncan present to both of them was logical enough. And when we found that Simon Callow of The Mystery of Charles Dickens had already gone home to London but that Godley was a pal of his, we decided to have him pick up his friend's award while he was up there receiving his own.

I had a good time introducing the presenters. I mentioned that Estelle Parsons was once Susan Johnson's understudy in Whoop-Up and that she went on quite often to sing the infamous song "Men," in which she said that men were "the only animals that eat when they're not hungry, drink when they're not thirsty, and are ready to you-know-what any hour of the day and night." Parsons responded by coming up and singing a few bars of the show's 11 o'clock number, which begins "Montana, who needs it?" Pretty impressive that she remembers it more than 43 years later.

I pointed out that while I saw Joanna Gleason on the night the raves came out for I Love My Wife in 1977, performing with obvious happiness that she wouldn't have to look for a job for years, I also saw her on the night the pans came out for Nick & Nora in 1991, performing as if she were in the biggest hit in the world. That's professionalism; and, now that she's a director, I'm sure that she's imbued the cast of A Letter from Ethel Kennedy cast with the same discipline.

I mentioned taking a look at Richard Norton's new Chronicle of the American Musical Theatre, which details every season since The Black Crook. Each season is introduced by a picture and the one for 1977-78 is this terrific shot of Madeline Kahn in On the Twentieth Century with her maid attending to her. But that maid wouldn't be her maid for long, for it was Judy Kaye, who would assume the lead when Kahn left the show. (Do take a look at this book! You'll see pictures of musicals you've never seen before.) I continued by applauding Andrea Martin for taking a role (Aunt Eller) that's traditionally played by someone beyond her years, because many performers are loath to portray an older character lest they be thought of as a fossil. I lauded Rosemary Harris in All Over, which I saw at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton in February, and said that New York has a real treat in store now that the production is moving to the Roundabout's Gramercy.

Justin Bohon in Oklahoma!(Photo: Michael LePoer Trench)
Justin Bohon in Oklahoma!
(Photo: Michael LePoer Trench)
How I wish I could report a good deal of what the presenters and the winners said, but the problem with walking off stage while the stars are shining is that I don't get to hear very much of what they say. I did catch Kate Burton noting that her daddy Richard presented her Theatre World Award to her 19 years ago. Mos Def, accepting his prize, gave a sincere speech that really paid homage to theater artists and made clear that he's awed by the experience he's had this year. Justin Bohon of Oklahoma! thanked the teacher in Las Vegas who made him an expert rope twirler. Louise Pitre Evita'd her arms up high, and said that it took her 23 years to get to Broadway, but at last she's made it. Spencer Kayden recognized those who started with Urinetown at the Fringe and helped make it the Broadway hit it is today. Martin Jarvis invited the entire By Jeeves cast to share his honor and made a point of naming each and every one of them. Alas, David Warner (Major Barbara) was back in London, Anna Paquin (The Glory of Living) was back in Hollywood, and Rachel Weisz (The Shape of Things) couldn't attend, either, so castmate Gretchen Mol accepted for her after receiving her own prize.

I ended the afternoon by mentioning that the first Theatre World Awards I attended was in 1980, when John emceed. Before the show, he'd done the math to find out what percentage of his winners went on to win Tonys, Oscars, and Emmys, and the number for each was astonishingly high. I told the crowd that I remembered this last year when winner Joshua Park was feeling blue because his show, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, had closed just the day before. I reiterated what John had said 21 years earlier when I asked him, "John, is it true that so many Theatre World Award winners do extraordinarily well?" He answered, "Some do, some don't." Hey, John Willis may be terrific, but he's no Pollyanna.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]