NEW YORK -- Phylicia Rashad gave the most affectionate speech, Brian Dennehy the funniest and Donald Margulies the best written. But the best overall was by surprise presenter Meryl Streep -- affectionate and funny, delivered in that artless way that is the perfection of art.
There was also Liza Minnelli, gushing sweetly; Jane Alexander, earnest and professorial; Brian Murray, playing the veteran pixie with practiced skill; and a very dry, crisp emcee, Estelle Parsons, riding herd on it all with an amused twinkle.
Those were just the presenters. They gathered last Monday at the Gershwin Theater beneath the gold-lettered names of some 400 members of the American Theater Hall of Fame to pay tribute to the eight members of the class of 2011 (when they were elected): actors Tyne Daly and Ben Vereen, producers Elliot Martin and George White, costume designer Ann Roth and directors Paul Sills, Daniel Sullivan and Woodie King Jr..
On balance, the inductees are never as well-known to the public as the presenters, even when the presenters aren't as starry as these. After all, the Hall of Fame celebrates those who work in every niche of the theater, from onstage to backstage to production offices.
But they are certainly known to each other. As at every annual induction since I first got involved in an official way in 1992, each of the eight inductees noted professional or personal connections with most of the others. And when you take the presenters into account, along with the audience of 100-150 family, colleagues and friends, you understand just how small and tightly knit a profession it is.
This year's induction ceremony and the party to follow were orchestrated, as always, by the very experienced Hall of Fame executive producer, Terry Hodge Taylor.
Jane Alexander presented her old colleague, producer Elliot Martin, 86, saying, "you always remember the first time." That was about her first Broadway audition. She didn't get the part, but she still remembers Mr. Martin as "an impossibly handsome man sitting next to the impossibly tall Mr. [George] Abbott."
The play was "Never Too Late" (1962), Mr. Martin's first credit as producer. He had broken into the theater as a raw westerner in boots and Stetson in the ensemble of "Oklahoma!" He moved into stage managing in 1953 -- his best credit is "Long Day's Journey into Night" (1956) -- then started producing the first of his 34 Broadway shows, many of them revivals of classics.
One original show was "Shadowlands," where Ms. Alexander did get the part, playing opposite Nigel Hawthorne on Broadway, for which she said Mr. Martin had the grace to let her warm up as a replacement in the London production. "The last of the gentleman producers," she called him.
In response, Mr. Martin recalled that his first New York job was at Schraft's at $25 a week, plus meals, so when he was offered $55 a week to go to London in "Oklahoma!," he grabbed it. His two years in London was "a marvelous start in the theater."
Tyne Daly, 65, couldn't attend, for the best of reasons: she's in London, appearing in "Master Class" (now in previews, opening Tuesday). But she sent Brian Murray to accept on her behalf. He remembered first seeing her in 1967, "a snip of a thing, gorgeous. She is a solid, total, true person of the theater."
In the letter Ms. Daly sent, she described herself as, like "any actor . . . looking for a place to belong . . . the company of my colleagues . . . now thrilled to be in this room with this family of mine."
Playwright Donald Margulies claimed to be "representing two generations of playwrights" in honoring director Daniel Sullivan, 70. Artistic director of Seattle Rep, 1981-97, where he premiered his own play, the popular "Inspecting Carol," Mr. Sullivan has been the favored director of such playwrights as Herb Gardner, Wendy Wasserstein, John Robin Baitz and Mr. Margulies.
On Broadway, he made his directing debut 40 years ago and has directed more than three dozen plays there since, four of which have won the Pulitzer Prize -- "one more than [Elia] Kazan," Mr. Margulies pointed out. His directing credits run from "I'm Not Rappaport" (1985) and "The Heidi Chronicles" (1988) to "Proof" (2000) and "Time Stands Still" (2010). The last is by Mr. Margulies, one of three they have done together.
"His signature is no signature, just truth in service to a story," said Mr. Margulies, saying "landing the right director is a lot like finding the right shrink, who understands you better than you do yourself." He described Mr. Sullivan as "laconic, inscrutable, discriminate" and "more patient than he has any right to be, until he isn't."
But he has never been one for unnecessary compliments. Paul Scofield once confronted him after their play had opened to ask, "do you think I'm any good?" What you had to realize, said Mr. Margulies, is that if he cast you, he clearly liked your work. He has "the magical ability to [make us] want to please him, to do our best work."
Mr. Margulies concluded, "being with Dan is a master class in life and art, and it's so damn much fun ... Garson Kanin said he was a student in the school of Thornton Wilder: I am a proud student in the world of Dan Sullivan."
Mr. Sullivan, obviously pleased, contented himself with a memory of his acting in a 1973 modern-dress "Merchant of Venice," with costumes by fellow honoree Ann Roth. It was directed by the notoriously eccentric Ellis Rabb, who didn't like Mr. Sullivan's costume as Launcelot Gobbo, so he brought in some drapes from home with gold tassels and a gold lame jockstrap. Mr. Sullivan said he'd wear them if he could also have motorcycle boots and smoke a cigar.
"It's a deal," said Mr. Rabb. "And that's when I knew I'd be a director for the rest of my life," said Mr. Sullivan.
The late Paul Sills (1927-2008) followed in the footsteps of his mother, teacher of improvisational theater, Viola Spolin. Admired and beloved as the artistic founder of The Second City and Story Theater, Mr. Sills helped launch the careers of Ed Asner, Shelley Berman, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Alan Arkin and Barbara Harris, among others, while his work in improvisational theater has influenced three generations of American actors.
He was represented by his wife, Carol Sills. She described herself as a painter from Montana who arrived in Chicago just in time for the second show at Second City and became Mr. Sills' set designer and artistic collaborator during a crucial era of theater innovation. She continues his work today.
Wide-eyed and flushed with enthusiasm, Liza Minnelli (who had had to miss her own induction in 2000) presented Ben Vereen, 65, triple-threat performer best known on stage for "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Pippin" and elsewhere for his Chicken George in TV's "Roots."
She called him "a man who changed my life," teaching her how to focus and not spread all over the place. She remembered it was Bob Fosse who first took her to see Mr. Vereen in "Pippin." She said, "he was so specific and so sharp, that raised the bar in singing and dancing for everyone." And then she sang, "all he ever needed was the music . . . and the chance to dance, for you."
Mr. Vereen was ebullient. He remembered doing "Jesus Christ Superstar" right across the street. That's when the doorman gave him an envelope, "from Tony." Well, "I'm from Brooklyn, I didn't know who Tony was." He soon learned it was his first Tony nomination, giving him recognition by his peers -- as welcome as the recognition this night.
That was "back when the Palace Theater was the Palace Theater, now it's the Doubletree Hotel. The first Broadway show I ever saw was the one I was in." He recalled his horrendous 1992 automobile accident and his struggle back, aided by Gregory Hines, who gave him a role in "Jelly's Last Jam."
"Stand up for the arts!," he urged us. "Make a powerful noise!" And seeing Stephen Schwartz in the audience, he sang, "because I knew you, I have been changed, for good."
Beautiful as ever, Phylicia Rashad praised inductee Woodie King Jr., 74, as "the gentle giant. Say his name and people smile." He and his off-Broadway New Federal Theatre have launched many a career. He is also "the artist with everyman sensibilities . . . the gentle giant; say his name and people smile."
Mr. King took the podium with his own smile a yard wide. "When you're out there doing it, you wonder, 'maybe nobody knows I'm doing it,'" especially when you're off-off-Broadway. Looking out over the room, he could see that many did.
Brian Dennehy couldn't attend his own Hall induction two years ago because he was performing in Ireland, but he was here this week to do the honors for George White, c.81, a fellow Connecticut native. Under-dressed in a sport coat, he explained "I would be better dressed, but George is wearing our tuxedo."
Mr. White has had a career of creating things, serving on boards, panels and commissions of many councils and institutes -- he's even been Town Constable of Waterford, Conn. -- but his Hall of Fame-worthy credit is as founder and long-time head of the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, a great workshop of the American theater.
He's also preserved Eugene O'Neill's Monte Cristo Cottage, where both "Ah, Wilderness!" and "Long Day's Journey into Night" are set. "I'm surprised George is being inducted into the Hall of Fame because I would have thought he had founded it," Mr. Dennehy quipped with perfect deadpan. And noting that Mr. White has a Master's Hat from the Coast Guard, the avid boatsman noted, "I hear Italy's Costa Cruise Lines is looking for one."
Beaming with pleasure, the voluble, energetic Mr. White quoted Yogi Berra: "I want to thank the committee for making this evening necessary." He thanked his theatrical mentors, Dale Wasserman and Lloyd Richards; said "unlike so many awards, tonight is really a family affair; and then launched into his chief indebtedness, to his wife Betsy: "without her, I'd be a beachcomber somewhere off Waterford."
The final presenter was the reigning queen of American film, Meryl Streep, whom no one had to note had abandoned a promising stage career in the 1970s to head for Hollywood. She had come to induct her good friend, costume designer Ann Roth, 80, but she started by acknowledging Mr. White and the O'Neill, where she had had a "pretty intense, seat-of-the-pants" theater education in which "I think I learned more in three weeks than in three years at Yale."
She described Ms. Roth as being "of a capacious mind and confident talent . . . [who] doesn't just design clothes," but also characters. She creates "a video biography of a character," bringing "collaborative spunk and inexhaustible wit to every project."
Ms. Streep described working with Ms. Roth on a recent film, going to her workshop in a railroad loft on 23rd Street, where "she's always on her feet, standing, in high heels -- she has great legs." There, Ms. Roth reduced her to tears listening to a long emotional aria by a Russian contralto, then said, "OK, let me show you what I got at the mall" -- the sexual vibration of the music giving her a deeper insight into her character.
"She's not a writer, she's a poet. She mixes objects and music, high and low, text and subtext. She makes herself vital to every project, but not crying 'look at me' -- except in 'The Book of Mormon,' but everything screams at you in 'Book of Mormon.' Go online and read all the credits."
If you do, you'll discover Ms. Roth was costume designer of 80 Broadway shows, from "The Disenchanted" (1958) to "The Book of Mormon" (2011), and more than 100 movies, from "The World of Henry Orient" (1964) to "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" (2011) -- and still counting.
In response, Ms. Roth struck the common note of the evening. "When I started to work in the theater, I walked through the stage door -- sizzle and magic was what I craved -- and then continued right to the cellar," where costumers work. Looking over the room full of theater veterans, she said, it has been "all of my friends and all of my great moments."
The ceremony at the Gershwin continued with a reception, dinner and many a reminiscence at the Friars Club.
Induction into the Hall of Fame requires a minimum of 25 years in the business and five major stage credits. Usually these are on Broadway, but not necessarily -- witness, from this year's class alone, Mr. King (off-Broadway), Mr. Sills (Chicago) and Mr. White (Connecticut).
Nominations may be suggested by anyone (contact Terry Hodge Taylor) and the ballot is compiled by a small committee of critics and scholars, led by yours truly, and sent to members of the American Theatre Critics Association, members of the Hall of Fame and selected other critic and historians.
These eight names now go up in gold letters along with their previous colleagues in the Gershwin upper lobby, where display cases hold mementoes of their careers. And next year, we get to do it again.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson is at 412-216-1944.