The 2002-2003 Theatre World Awards
How Tammy Blanchard and 14 other newcomers were chosen as winners of Theatre World Awards this year.
That happened because major league baseball often calls up its minor leaguers in the month of September just to get a look at them and see if they can make the team. The rules say that newcomers can bat up to 150 times and still keep their rookie status the following year. If you're a pitcher who's called up this September, you can pitch up to 50 innings without officially losing your rookie status.
Why this lesson in major league baseball? Because a number of people have been asking me about the Theatre World Awards, which acknowledge theatrical Rookies of the Year, both on and off Broadway. (I'm on the panel of nominators.) How, they ask, can Daniel Sunjata, who portrays the dynamic gay superstar in Take Me Out, be a rookie if he already appeared in Twelfth Night at Lincoln Center? Because he played Valentine in that production, hardly a role that anyone would notice. That was his equivalent of Ripken's 1981 September. What we're interested in at the Theatre World Awards is someone's first reviewable performance. Last year, we gave a prize to Justin Bohon -- Will Parker in Oklahoma! -- even though he'd once been a soldier in Miss Saigon. To my knowledge, no reviewer wrote anything like, "Boy, that Bohon can really tote a rifle." So why penalize him when he makes a real splash in a real part? Yes, we knew when we voted that Marissa Jaret Winokur was in Grease, but I never saw any press on the lass, so why deny her breakthrough triumph in Hairspray?
Okay, you say. But how can Mary Stuart Masterson be a rookie in Nine if she's already appeared in a Horton Foote play called Lily-Dale, in which she had the title role? Yes, there are plays where the title characters don't even appear (Edward, My Son comes to mind), but Lily-Dale was a big event in Lily-Dale. So explain that one, will you?
Sure. The fashionistas tell us that "You never get a second chance to make a first impression," but John Willis feels differently. Willis, who has been with the Theatre World Awards since their founding in 1946 (and became its president in 1963), believes that an Off-Broadway debut is one thing and a Broadway debut is quite another. So a performer who has made a big sensation Off-Broadway can still be considered if he or she makes a big or bigger impression on Broadway.
All right, you say. But Fiona Shaw won a Theatre World Award for The Waste Land six years ago, which was Off-Broadway, and now you're giving her yet another Theatre World Award for being on Broadway in Medea? As John Adams says to his wife in 1776, "Ah, there you have me, Abby." I simply made a mistake when compiling the ballot. I joined the organization the year after Shaw won her prize, so I had no memory of her winning it. Because she was making her Broadway debut, I put her on the ballot, unaware that she had been a previous winner. John does say that if you've won the prize once, that's it. So we had to retract. Gypsy's Tammy Blanchard -- who hadn't finished far behind in what was the closest voting for women in the six years that I've been doing this -- took her place. (The irony that Louise again triumphed after being shunted aside was not lost on me.)
It was a crazy year for rookies. Everyone from Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam on Broadway was eligible. Almost everyone from Movin' Out was eligible, as was almost everyone from all three casts of La Bohème. The ballot wound up being 10 pages long, an all-time record. I commend my colleagues Clive Barnes, Harry Haun, Michael Sommers, Doug Watt, Frank Scheck, and Linda Winer for just getting through the thing.
I've been busy preparing for the ceremony on Monday, June 2 at 4pm at Studio 54. (If you'd like to attend, e-mail me at [email protected]). What John likes to do is have winners from previous years bestow awards on this year's winners. Sometimes there's a logical affinity; for example, Bernadette Peters, who won for George M! in 1968, will present to her stage daughter Blanchard. Similarly, Harvey Fierstein, who got his Theatre World Award in 1983 for Torch Song Trilogy, will present to castmate Winokur. Indeed, Fierstein had his press agent call me in December and say that if anyone from Hairspray won, he wanted to be there to present. God love him!
Lining up 12 presenters -- a job that falls to me -- isn't always that easy, given that I must draw from a specific talent pool: previous Theatre World Award winners. And Lord knows that even those who accept and have the best of intentions can cancel at a moment's notice. Says John Willis, "I once lost a presenter two hours before the ceremony because he got a Tide commercial." Two years ago, an hour before the ceremony, the phone rang -- never a good sign so close to showtime -- and it was, as I had feared, Brian Stokes Mitchell. I knew he'd missed his Saturday night and Sunday matinee performances of King Hedley II but I hoped and prayed he'd be all right for our Monday afternoon ceremonies. "I'm terribly sorry," he said, "I'm still not feeling well. I thought I could make it but I'm just feeling terrible."
I then went into a passionate oration that made the two lawyers in Inherit the Wind seem like members of a high school debating club. I begged Mitchell not to do this to me at the last minute, and the poor soul was so moved by my plight that he said he'd attend after all -- and did. Afterwards, I told him that I was so grateful that I would never impose on him again to present.
Well, I wasn't good to my word. After all, I rationalized, Mitchell did say he enjoyed presenting because John had noticed him in the much-maligned Mail in 1988 when no one else did. So when I went from stage door to stage door dropping off letters requesting the pleasure of previous winners' company at the awards this year, I left one at the Beck, where Mitchell is starring in Man of La Mancha. By the time I got home, there was Mitchell's phone message saying he'd be delighted to present. What a guy, huh?