Hall of Fame: theater veterans get a night in limelight


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NEW YORK -- "I'm sure we're all astonished to be here" said director Jack O'Brien, speaking Monday night for what he called "my graduating class," the inductees into the Theater Hall of Fame. Contemplating their eight names in gold letters, added to more than 400 on the rotunda walls at the Gershwin Theatre, he said what has mattered most is "the society, the friendships. The accomplishments speak for themselves."

In presenting O'Brien for induction, his friend, another fairly successful Broadway director, Mike Nichols, unbelievably 76, looked around at the abundant white hair among the 200 or so assembled theater veterans and said, "I was thinking, seeing all these old friends, 'this is nice . . . this is our Florida.'"

That got one of the many laughs in an evening that was half humor and half sentiment, filled with testimonials and reminiscence, as each inductor hung a ribboned brass medallion around an inductee's neck.

"I began to wonder," Nichols said, "if this is what heaven would be like. And when I saw there are critics' names on the wall, then I knew." It was the only dig at critics in an evening overflowing with the good cheer of theatrical survival, when even a critic was inducted, the late Mel Gussow of the New York Times. Of him, Hall member Marian Seldes said, "I don't think there's anyone in the room whose life wasn't affected by him. He is a part of the family of the theater."

The reminiscences weren't completely rosy: in inducting playwright-performer Harvey Fierstein, off-Broadway legend Ellen Stewart remembered when some playwrights said they would boycott her LaMaMa theater if she produced the work of the overtly gay young man, "but I did, and now he's here."

Emceeing with as much charm as height, and that's a lot, was Tommy Tune, himself a Hall member. To piano accompaniment, he opened the proceedings with a snatch of song: "Tonight, it's four-leaf clover time . . . s'wonderful, s'marvelous."

The group inducted Monday is actually the class of 2007, when it was selected.

Legendary producer-director Hal Prince was to have inducted actor John Cullum, 77, but he was sick, so Cullum's agent, Jeffrey Berger, pinch-hit. "I know how Bernadette Peters' understudy must feel," he said and, after an appreciative audience response, added, "I got a laugh in front of Mike Nichols!" After noting Cullum's TV fame ("Northern Exposure," "E.R."), Berger sketched in his theatrical career, from his debut in the original "Camelot" to his recent lead in "the most cutting-edge musical, 'Urinetown,'" and from playing Laertes opposite Richard Burton's Hamlet to last month's appearance in Shakespeare's "Cymbeline."

In response, his new medal glistening on his chest, Cullum said that a year ago he had had a revelation about himself. He was asked to play the old dog Max in "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," and he demurred at first, wondering about the dignity of it, but then he accepted, "and the kids loved it, and I had a wonderful time. I realized that I do care what people think about me after I'm gone, but I'm not going to worry about it -- and now I know that my resume will say, 'member of the Theater Hall of Fame.'"

Broadway power Gerald Schoenfeld, head of the Shubert Organization with a Broadway theater named for him to prove it, inducted British playwright Peter Shaffer in absentia. He talked about the first time he saw Shaffer, at the London opening night of "Equus," when, to a standing ovation, the playwright rose in his box and made a formal bow to the crowd. Having produced "Equus" on Broadway, the Shuberts then leapt at the chance to produce "Amadeus," accepting Shaffer's condition that it be staged first at London's National Theatre -- and the National Theatre still receives royalties from the hit movie version.

Shaffer, 81, wasn't present because he was at the final rehearsal of a British tour of the "Equus" revival that last year captivated London, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Richard Griffiths. According to Schoenfeld, he was still tweaking the "Equus" script, all these years later. In a letter, Shaffer called rehearsals his favorite time, "watching the word made flesh," and concluded, "I am proud beyond words of my career as a dramatist, and now of my golden membership in the Hall of Fame."

The night's most effusive, energetic induction speech was by Frank Galati of Chicago's Steppenwolf Company who is best known on Broadway for directing "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Ragtime." He said of his honoree, actress Lois Smith, who famously played Ma Joad, that she has an "ecstatic plain spokenness . . . a kind of yearning on which I do believe she holds the patent." He praised "the simplicity of her faith, modesty of her art and keenness of her listening, which draws the truth out of the rest of us. We're better because she's along for the ride."

He reminded us that Smith, 77, made her Broadway debut in 1952 in "Time Out for Ginger" and her film debut in "East of Eden," and she did TV "from 'Studio One' to 'Dr. Kildare' to 'Gray's Anatomy.'" Saying "it was a wonderful day when she came to Steppenwolf," he called her to the stage as "the former coat-check girl at the Russian Tea Room and an ordained minister from Topeka, Kansas, for whom Joseph Cornell created one of his famous boxes."

"How do you follow that?" asked Smith, her eyes shining as she enjoyed her ovation. Then she told "a story of early influence," when her kindergarten class was asked to move across the gym floor playing slow-moving elephants. "At a certain point, I realized all of the others had reached the other side. And I realized all eyes were on me. I didn't stop and I didn't hurry. . . . And look where I am now!"

Composer and lyricist Sheldon Harnick, a Hall member, inducted librettist Joseph Stein, 95, his collaborator on "Fiddler on the Roof." He said Stein has "an enviable reputation for craftsmanship and humor," citing "the list of shows he's rescued, often without credit," for the first, and for the second, several witticisms, including Stein's assessment that, "it was a great collaboration. We didn't have one argument -- we had many."

In response, Stein said the thing he most loved about his job was "hearing an audience roaring with laughter" at one of his shows, and that he would "treasure this [evening with] my theatrical family."

To begin praising Gussow, Seldes quoted G.B. Shaw, that "the true joy in life [is] being used for a purpose." Gussow's great gift, she said, was the more than 4,000 reviews and other articles he wrote at the Times, "mostly positive," because this encouragement had sustained many careers, to the benefit of all. She also cited his eight volumes of biography and interviews, concluding, "I don't think people who write well ever die, and I don't think Mel is dead."

Accepting for his father, Ethan Gussow said the theater "was where my father and I best connected. Some fathers and sons go fishing; my father and I went to the New Frontier Theater Festival in Alaska." He quoted his father's advice on criticism, that it is important "not to over-praise good intentions" and to note what's meretricious, but it is most important to praise what's meritorious.

Producer Emanuel Azenberg presented the Founders Award to Roy Somlyo, 77, who was general manager of more than 100 Broadway shows as well as managing producer of the Tony Awards, 1967-2002, and president of the American Theatre Wing (which produces the Tonys), 1998-2003. Azenberg told a funny story about their working together in suburban theater 49 years ago and driving a truck 100 miles in the middle of the night to "steal" rented sets and costumes that had been held back because of an unsettled bill. He noted that as a general manager, Somlyo often had to be the bad cop who said no, but he was always "respected, if begrudgingly," and was "really a closet aesthete."

Somlyo declared that getting the Founders Award made him "feel humility -- and I don't do humble easily."

Playwright Alfred Uhry inducted a favorite actress and fellow Atlantan, Dana Ivey, who starred in his two best-known plays, "Driving Miss Daisy" and "The Last Night of Ballyhoo." "We went to the same nursery school," he said, "though not at the same time. And her mother was the reigning queen of Atlanta theater for decades."

He spoke of seeing Ivey play "the Queen of Denmark, twice; a prim lady who vomits into her purse; a chatty communist spy; Mrs. Warren, Mistress Quickly, Mrs. Malaprop and Mammy Yokum. . . . she digs and she digs and she's so damn smart."

Her voice still tinged with Atlanta, Ivey, 65, said she had wanted to be an actress since age 6, and as opposed to movies and TV, "theater has always been the lodestone of my life." She classily quoted "Much Ado About Nothing": "Silence is the perfectest herald of joy; I were but little happy if I could say how much."

Stewart, the grand lady of LaMaMa, moving slowly from age and illness, glittered in a billowing black and gold robe with gold streamers in her hair. She noted of her own induction into the Hall in the class of 1992, that "I was the first one who didn't really belong, but I made it anyway" -- meaning she was the first whose achievements weren't on Broadway, but in downtown alternative theater.

That's where Fierstein, 53, began. "Harvey came to LaMaMa about 17. He was wearing high heels and lipstick. I thought he was very talented, but he didn't think so." Along with acting, Fierstein wrote more than 60 off-off-Broadway plays, eventually moving uptown, winning Tonys as both writer and actor for "Torch Song Trilogy" and for the book of "La Cage aux Folles." Stewart said, "because of Harvey, Broadway as we know it has changed," admitting homosexuality as a subject for theater.

Taking the stage, Fierstein quipped, "I loaned her that to wear," adding of Stewart, "some people have one mother; I'm lucky to have two." He recalled he went into a basement office as a teenager to make posters for the Gallery Players and "found a life."

Nichols and O'Brien were given the evening's final, climactic spot. Nichols assured us, "this speech was written months before the writers' strike, so maybe it's a little generic, because I didn't know who the inductee would be." He said O'Brien, 68, Tony-winning director of "Hairspray," "Henry IV" and the epic "Coast of Utopia," had a sign backstage at a long-running comedy admonishing, "remember, you're not funny, it is." And in rallying his huge cast for "Utopia," O'Brien told them, "you're going to be together for over six months. You are a group of enormously attractive people. Proceed with caution!"

O'Brien spent 30 years as artistic director of the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, occasionally directing in New York. "He just passed us on the outside," said Nichols, "and has become, without even trying, the leading director on Broadway."

"A medal from Mike!" responded O'Brien: "It's all you can do not to genuflect." He said his Broadway debut was directing "Porgy and Bess" in this same theater, 30 years before, and recalled a theatrical connection with each of the other inductees: "It's this community of theater workers that I'm proudest of."

The minimum criteria for selection to the Theater hall of Fame are at least five major theater credits over a career of at least 25 years. Each year a ballot goes out to an electorate of about 400, made up of the members of the Hall of Fame, members of the American Theatre Critics Association and selected other critics and historians.

The producer of the Hall of Fame is Terry Hodge Taylor, who also produces a gala post-induction reception and dinner at which inductees and their guests celebrate further.


Post-Gazette theater editor Christopher Rawson serves on the Theater Hall of Fame board of directors, helping with the selection process. He can be reached at 412-263-1666 or crawson@post-gazette.com .


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