NEW YORK -- Stephen Sondheim, Neil Simon, Terrence McNally and Ann Reinking made it a pretty starry night at the 38th annual induction into the Theater Hall of Fame, and those were just some of the inductors and fans.
Leading the list of the eight actual inductees was actor Nathan Lane. Joining him in the class of 2008 (the year of their election) were composer Marvin Hamlisch, playwright Alan Ayckbourn, producer Emanuel Azenberg, actor Richard Easton, director-choreographer Patricia Birch, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick and, posthumously, actor Roscoe Lee Browne.
"I was incredibly grateful to find out we didn't have to go up to Cooperstown for this," cracked Lane. Then, looking up at the walls of the rotunda on the upper floor of the Gershwin Theater, where his name had just joined more than 300 others inscribed in gold letters, he added, "for a kid growing up in New Jersey reading Moss Hart's 'Act One,' this is incredible."
McNally, Lane's presenter, described the revelation when Broadway saw Lane perform for the first time, in a small, scene-stealing role opposite George C. Scott in Noel Coward's "Present Laughter" at Circle in the Square, located in the basement of this same building. McNally cited Lane's other work in theatrical basements, some of it in his own plays, and he praised his mastery of "the art of making people laugh and believe in the character you're playing simultaneously," concluding, "Nathan came out of the closet a long time ago. Tonight he comes out of the basement."
Then McNally hung the beribboned Hall of Fame medal around Lane's neck.
When his presenter -- the president of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers -- gave producer Azenberg his medal, he kissed her and then cracked, "I never kissed a union president before." It's probably a familiar line, since she's his daughter, Karen Azenberg.
Her induction speech was one of the evening's most heartfelt. She summarized her father's career of more than 50 years, rising from company manager to produce 62 Broadway shows, including 19 plays and three musicals by Neil Simon (hence Simon's presence). Her father is "as proud of the plays that didn't make it as of those that did," she said, claiming he's on a first-name basis with everyone on Broadway, from stars to janitorial staff.
He also teaches at Duke University, and she said "he can count tickets like this," holding a small stack to her ear and riffing through them, "fliiiiip." "Who's this Emanuel?" she said -- "everyone calls him Manny. Everyone but us -- we call him Dad," and her voice broke with feeling.
After the medal and the kiss, Azenberg corrected her: "it was 72 Broadway productions," he said. "We'll talk." He called his five children "the five best productions of my life" and thanked them and his wife for having "forgiven me my negligences and my excesses." Then he reminded the children that they represented a total of 85 years of tuition.
He ended with a story about going to London to check out a non-West End production of a Simon comedy that had aspirations of moving up. All he had to report to Simon in nixing the deal was that in saying the line, "putz, you don't have to marry," the actor pronounced it "poots."
The audience howled. They are one of the chief attractions of this annual love-fest, an intimate ceremony and dinner for about 150 theater veterans and their family, friends and colleagues, plus a few historians and critics.
Former New York Times theater critic Frank Rich, now a commentator on politics and culture, inducted composer Hamlisch. Rich mentioned several of Hamlisch's other shows, but he focused on the iconic "A Chorus Line," which he said we tend to take for granted, "it's such a Broadway brand, such a seamless creation." At the heart of it is Hamlisch's music, timeless, as evidenced the other night on "The Colbert Report," when Christine Ebersole sang "What I Did for Love" as a parodic send-off for the Bush administration.
In response, Hamlisch, who works with symphonies (witness his tenure as director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops) and in movies, called himself "a die-hard fan of theater" and concluded, "for a composer, having your name in a threater named Gershwin is truly awe-inspiring."
Three-time Tony winner Reinking inducted her mentor, choreographer Birch. She began by reading a letter from director-producer Hal Prince, who remembered Birch playing Anybodys in the original "West Side Story" and praised her for infusing actors "with the kind of goofy enthusiasm that enhances performance."
Speaking for herself, Reinking said although she is known primarily as a protegee of Bob Fosse, it was Birch who first took her out of the chorus and gave her a featured role in 1974 in "Over Here." Of the diminutive, feisty Birch, she said, "her brain gets way ahead of her mouth and she speaks in this other language, and after a while I found I could understand her -- I speak Birch!"
Speaking excitable English, Birch gave a quick recap of a show biz life, starting out with "baby dancing school" and "giving mumps to your sister, so you'd get all her parts." She cited her teachers, from Merce Cunningham to Martha Graham, both of whom terrified her, the first by saying, "your bureau drawers are a mirror to your soul," and the latter by telling a small group of novices, "one of you is just doomed to dance."
In "West Side Story," Birch said, "Lenny [Bernstein] said I could pretend to sing in the quintet but please be quiet." Her choreographic break-through was "Grease," which Prince saw, enlisting her for "A Little Night Music," and she acknowledged Sondheim sitting right in front of her. As is true many years, since Broadway theater is a pretty small club, she and most of the other inductees could claim to have worked with each other and with many others of those present, both in person and on the walls above.
Sondheim was there to induct his long-time collaborator Tunick, whom he called "the best orchestrator in the history of the American theater, and I'll swear to that in a court of law." He praised his practicality, noting that when he told Tunick he imagined the orchestra for "Little Night Music" sounding "like perfume," Tunick replied, "oh, you mean strings." He concluded, "my reputation would not be the same without Jonathan."
In return, Tunick thanked Sondheim for their almost 40 years of collaboration. The two share a passion for puzzles and word games. He said that anagrams of his own name usually had to use the word "junk," but he was proud of one he devised for Sondheim: "he opens the minds." He remembered that he was the only one in his elementary school class who preferred a Spike Jones perversion of "The Nutcracker Suite" to the original, but "I'm the only one in the class who became a musician," and he said he intended to keep writing music "until I drop."
Inducting veteran actor Easton was Tony-winning director and Hall member Jack O'Brien, who directed Easton recently on Broadway in the title role in "Henry IV," in "The Coast of Utopia" and in his Tony-winning role in "The Invention of Love." O'Brien is the long-time head of the Old Globe Theater in San Diego where Easton played many of the great classical roles and also spent 10 years as an actor-mentor: "young actors took to him for no-BS advice, the kind of thing they can't always get from a director or an academic."
"I've always been a company man," said Easton, meaning he likes to be part of an acting ensemble -- as he is at present, the Bridge Company, doing Chekhov and Shakespeare in New York on the first leg of an international tour. Easton cited some of the many companies he's worked for, from Stratford, Conn., to a small theater which once did 33 plays in 35 weeks. "So I like companies," he concluded, then looked up at the walls and added, "but my god, what a company this is!"
Inducting the late Browne was his great niece, Susan Fales Hill, who quoted Geoffrey Holder, who said people in show biz "never die, they just go on tour." She said "Uncle Roscoe" would have rejoiced in the political change in Washington, "making America once again safe for habeas corpus," noting that he was one who "helped make America safe for Barack Obama." She described the distinctive actor, some of whose fame was in August Wilson plays, both on Broadway and at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, as having "a baritone voice like a sable coat," speaking the King's English with a strong mid-Atlantic accent. To someone who once objected that he sounded "too white," he replied, "I'm sorry, I once had a white maid."
The other inductee not present was playwright Ayckbourn, now Sir Alan, who is in London directing a revival of his "Woman in Mind," just one of his more than 70 plays. Presenting him was Howard Sherman, executive director of the American Theatre Wing (proprietors of the Tonys), who pointed out that Ayckbourn's astonishing output actually takes second place to his career as stage director and 37 years as head of the theater in Scarborough, England. He quoted Ayckbourn as saying that "writing for me is in a sense only the preparatory notes for the directing process."
Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, editor of the "Best Plays Theater Annual" and faculty member at New York University, spoke eloquently for the veterans' committee to induct five earlier theater luminaries: Louisa Medina (1813-38), known as America's first professional woman playwright; Bronson Howard (1842-1908), once dean of American playwriting; Boris Thomashevsky (1868-939), handsome star of the Yiddish theater (and immortalized in a lyric in "The Producers"); Mordecai Gorelik (1899-1990), designer for the Group Theatre and Broadway; and Celia Lipton, now Dame Celia Lipton Farris, a star at mid-century in London and briefly on Broadway before marrying wealth and retiring to a life of arts philanthropy.
The actual order of induction began with Easton and ended with Lane, currently the biggest star. The ceremony complete, everyone adjourned to the Friars Club for convivial dining and reminiscence.
Pittsburghers in the audience included Kathleen Marshall, Broadway director-choreographer and vice-president of SSDC, with her fiance, producer-photographer Scott Landis, and former Post-Gazette writer and Pittsburgh Public Theater staff member Phil Stephenson.
The Hall of Fame event is produced each year with grace and dispatch by Terry Hodge Taylor. Inductees are selected by ballot by members of the Hall and the nation-wide membership of the American Theatre Critics Association. The minimum requirement for the 63 names that appeared on the 2008 ballot was at least five major theater credits over 25 or more years.
Looking at all the names inscribed on the walls and perhaps at the audience as well, Lane said, "all of these people were survivors -- they didn't fear critics or mercury poisoning." That got a laugh, but it's also true. The theater is an impossible business that survives against all odds, thanks to the talents of every kind who won't let it die.
Post-Gazette senior theater critic Christopher Rawson is on the board of the Theater Hall of Fame; he can be reached at email@example.com.