Theater world fetes stage greats with Hall of Fame inductions

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NEW YORK -- The emcee for the annual Theater Hall of Fame induction, which took place Monday at Broadway's Gershwin Theatre, is always a sure-footed Broadway notable. But this year's emcee, Joel Grey, raised the standard pretty high by singing his opening:

"Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome," he began softly, a cappella, in the inveigling tones of the Emcee in "Cabaret," the role he made his own in the 1966 Broadway premiere and 1972 film: ... "im Cabaret, au Cabaret, to Cabaret."

He paused for applause, then started again: "I am you host. ... Leave you troubles outside! ... In here the girls are beautiful, Jerry Zaks is beautiful, George Wolfe is beautiful," and he went on, building to climax with, "It's not a shame, to have your name, in the Hall of Fame!"

Great applause and a great start to the 43rd annual induction ceremonies, which then proceeded with a theater notable, or sometimes a friend or family member, to present each inductee, who then responded.

First up was producer (and former theater critic) Jack Viertel to present veteran director of comedy Jerry Zaks, 67. He began with the anecdote of Hank Aaron being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and being greeted by a clerk at the hotel, "I hear you've been indicted!"

"Jerry Zaks," Mr. Viertel declared, "knows how to make people laugh twice at the same joke: He makes you laugh and then makes you think and laugh again," the second time more deeply. He remembers Mr. Zaks struggling once with a new play, saying of the playwright's craft, "I've got a philosopher on my hands, but I need a plumber."

Mr. Zaks opened by reminding us he'd directed 47 shows in New York, "and I'd like to tell you about every one of them." He didn't give us a chance to laugh twice, jumping right into what proved to be the recurrent theme of the evening, the point in his life when he discovered his theatrical calling. For him, it was as an undergraduate at Dartmouth, watching "Wonderful Town": "It changed my life forever. ... All I've wanted to do is tell a good story and get a good laugh."

Next up was Julia Hays to induct her father, theatrical polymath David Hays, 83, founder of the National Theatre of the Deaf and the O'Neill Theater Center in Connecticut. His daughter ("I've known him all my life") kept a theater-savvy crowd oohing and aahing as she described his long career as a Broadway designer (right back to the original drawings for London's "The Mousetrap"), collaborating with theater legends, and even his sailing around Cape Horn with his son, resulting in the best-selling book "My Old Man and the Sea."

In response, Mr. Hays twinkled and said his daughter had left out one thing: "I once removed a splinter from Meryl Streep's toe."

The gorgeous, gracious Phylicia Rashad, herself a Hall member, inducted playwright Lorraine Hansberry (1930-65). The basic requirement for Hall membership is at least five major theater credits over a career of at least 25 years. Author of just three Broadway plays and dying young, Hansberry had not qualified until the Hall nominators suspended the rules, largely in recognition of the epochal influence of her famous "A Raisin in the Sun."

Ms. Rashad described Hansberry's youth in a cultured Detroit household in the '30s and '40s, connected to many of the famous black artists and thinkers of the day. In response, Joi Gresham of the Lorraine Hansberry Trust described her legacy, pointing out there have recently been at least five plays in direct response to "Raisin." And in March, yet another revival of "Raisin" (starring Denzel Washington and Diahann Carroll) opens at the same Ethel Barrymore Theater where it premiered in 1959 and changed the face of the American theater.

Playwright John Guare, a 1993 inductee along with emcee Mr. Grey, presented director, playwright, producer and lyricist George C. Wolfe Jr., 59, who "has been in the hall of fame since he was born, if only in his own mind." He focused on Mr. Wolfe's famous "The Colored Museum," which brought to the stage a frank and wildly comic way of dramatizing racial relations, and his years as head of the New York Public Theatre, where "he didn't try to make Joe Papp's shoes fit him" but simply provided his own.

"He tells the truth. And he may drive you crazy waiting until he has time to do your play, but there is more life in his (occasional) stumbles than in some acclaimed successes."

Mr. Wolfe described several moments of wonder in his life, on the theme of "how did I get here from Frankfort, Ky.?" One was when "Colored Museum" had just opened at the famed Royal Court Theatre in London; another when he was in final rehearsals for his "Jelly's Last Jam" and realized he had a whole theater of skilled professionals executing his impossible vision; and now, standing beneath the walls encrusted with the names of some 500 theater stars of past and present.

Responding enthusiastically throughout was Sarah Jessica Parker, who was sitting beside me, so I heard every gasp and whoop. She is now appearing in "The Commons of Pensacola" under the direction of Lynne Meadow at the Manhattan Theatre Club, so she was there to induct Ms. Meadow, 67, MTC founder and artistic director for 40 years.

Ms. Parker described Ms. Meadow as a friend of several decades whom she now knew more intimately as an actor working with a compassionate, supportive but also frank director. "She had no [women] role models as she started, but now she has herself become that role model."

Ms. Meadow traced her own theatrical "ah ha" moment to seeing her mother in a "New Faces" show in the basement of their Jewish temple in New Haven, Conn. When she was 10, she appeared on that stage herself: "It was a sensational play and I think I was flawless." At 12 she began acting at Yale, which had no female students, so it used women from the town.

But from early on she really wanted to be one of "the guys at the brass rail at the back of New Haven's Shubert Theatre [then a pre-Broadway tryout house] ... figuring out how to make it better." In her mid-20s in New York, she realized she'd have to create her own opportunities. So the Manhattan Theatre Club was born, now a major fixture both off-Broadway and on.

Robert Wankel, president of the Shubert Organization, the largest producers and theater owners on Broadway, was there to induct in absentia British producer, director and entrepreneur, Sir Cameron Mackintosh, 67, once deemed by The New York Times the most powerful theater producer in the world, as the litany of his megahits from "Phantom of the Opera" to "Les Miserables" and beyond suggests.

Mr. Mackintosh had a good reason for not being present, Mr. Wankel said, as for a year he had planned a trip to Burma, "which is just about as far from New York as you can be." He read a letter from Mr. Mackintosh, who takes pleasure in being the first British producer in the Hall of Fame.

The Pittsburgh portion of the event came next, as actor and Green Tree native Zachary Quinto rose to induct fellow Carnegie Mellon University alumna Cherry Jones, 57, with whom he now stars on Broadway in "The Glass Menagerie."

He remembered as a CMU freshman in 1995 reading an inundation of articles about her breakthrough, Tony-winning appearance in "The Heiress," and that she said it wasn't until after 10 years of post-college work that she felt she could call herself an actress. "She's a fierce protector of the character she plays and the acting company she's in," and he added with wonderment that he gets "to be chastised and berated every night" in the play by such an actress.

Ms. Jones showed us the necklace she had been given by the late Julie Harris -- a recognition of one great actor by her predecessor -- and described her journey from her native Paris, Tenn. She compared her life in the theater to her mother's "huge, steaming pot of collard greens." Growing up, "we rubbed up against each other and made ourselves more savory."

In this "elixir of nourishment, the most important ingredient is ham hocks. Mine was the American Repertory Theatre [in Cambridge, Mass.], where I grew up." Seeing her name with the others at the Hall of Fame, she was now "overcome by the aroma" of that memory and that journey.

The final induction, of Ellen Burstyn, 82 but looking more like 65, was by fellow actor Betty Buckley, for whom Ms. Burstyn had performed the same favor on Ms. Buckley's own induction last year. She traced Ms. Burstyn's career from her appearance as a "glee girl" on the Jackie Gleason TV show -- "before there was 'Glee' " -- to her eight Broadway shows and 48 films, with every kind of award filling her path along the way.

Thanking Ms. Buckley, Ms. Burstyn said, in reference to Mr. Grey's opening number, "I asked her if she could sing it, but she wouldn't." Picking up the theme of others, she said, "I don't know how I got here, either." She started in Detroit, but without any artists or intellectuals in her family, and "I couldn't wait to get out of there."

Her first two revelations were from seeing the national tour of "Oklahoma!" and being "so deeply, pleasurably entertained," and then something called "Ideas Have Legs," which was "the first time I remember thinking ... period. No, thinking that it was about something."

She flunked out of college, worked as a model and came to New York and auditioned for a play "about a model who had lost her husband to an intellectual ... you know how often that happens." So her career began with a lead on Broadway. But later, in Hollywood, she decided she needed training, moved back to New York and discovered famed teacher Lee Strasberg and the Actors Studio, "which changed my life, completely." She later served the profession as president of Equity, the stage actors union.

She reminded us that theater began "the first time someone stood up around the campfire and told the story of the tribe to the tribe. ... With my name now on that wall, I know I did learn to tell it and make it mean something."

Full of good memories, the inductees, friends and most of the audience of about 130 then retired to the Friars Club for a late dinner and further reminiscence. The whole event was produced with skill by Hall of Fame leader Terry Hodge Taylor.

The Hall of Fame electorate includes members of the Hall and of the American Theatre Critics Association. Post-Gazette senior theater critic Christopher Rawson serves on its board and supervises the election process; he is at 412-216-1944.

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