NEW YORK -- The 2012 class of the Theater Hall of Fame, inducted Monday at the Gershwin Theater where previous inductees' names are inscribed in gold on the walls, included two each of actors, directors and playwrights, plus a producer-director and costume designer. The variety was fortuitous, because the selections are made by ballot of the American Theatre Critics Association and those already in the Hall.
But beneath that variety was a deeper unity. Many of those honored were connected to either inductee Andre Bishop, head of the Lincoln Center Theater, and/or inductee Sir Trevor Nunn, who is a kind of Lincoln Center all by himself, having led the two biggest repertory theaters in the English-speaking world.
Of the eight inductees, three couldn't attend. Prolific costume designer Martin Pakledinaz died July 8 of cancer, just 58, after working right up to the end. The irrepressible playwright Christopher Durang was laid low by an injury suffered Jan. 19 in a concert version of "Kiss Me Kate." And the glamorous musical star Betty Buckley is in London, about to open in Jerry Herman's "Dear World."
Emceeing with crisp good humor was Tyne Daly, who was inducted last year but couldn't attend, because she was herself then in London doing a show.
Inducting Mr. Pakledinaz was another costume designer, Susan Hilferty, who went first in the program because she was on her way to Lincoln Center for opening night of "Rigoletto," which she had designed. She must have arrived late, but, as she said, "I know how it begins."
Ms. Hilferty talked about Mr. Pakledinaz's professional work on Broadway (Tony Awards for "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "Kiss Me Kate") and all over the country, including lots of opera. He also taught at the Tisch School at NYU. But her most vivid memories were of him "at the flea markets, on his bicycle racing through New York, in workshops going over every detail with the artisans he loved."
She confessed that as his illness worsened last summer she told him he was going to be in the Hall of Fame.
"I lied, but I just knew his name would go up on this wall, along with so many people he worked with and loved," she said. And when the balloting results were announced in the fall, after his death, she proved to be a prophet.
She especially cited his work with a native Pittsburgh director-choreographer: "If he were here tonight, I imagine it would be the great Kathleen Marshall who would present him with this award." And she quoted Patti LuPone, who, when told of his death, said, "Broadway is less talented now."
Inducting Mr. Durang ("Beyond Therapy," "Betty's Summer Vacation," etc.) was Kristine Nielsen, veteran of many of his bitter/hilarious plays, including the current "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" at Lincoln Center. She described him as a combination of "Moliere and Savonarola and Swift [and a great many others] and Chicken Little." She came to know him by acting in a half-dozen of his plays, for each of which he had phoned to say he had written a character who was bitchy and psychotic and mean and depressive (or words to that effect), and comic, of course, and she would be perfect for the role.
Ms. Nielsen quoted the highly mercurial actor-playwright as claiming some mornings "to feel grateful and bitter at the same time" and went on at some length to describe Mr. Durang's "Mr. Toad-like wild [theatrical] ride."
Actor Ellen Burstyn first met Ms. Buckley by going backstage to congratulate her after a performance of "Sunset Boulevard." The fourth time she brought friends to see the same show, Ms. Buckley said, "Ellen, I think we should be friends."
Ms. Buckley became a professional actor at 15 in her native Texas, and when she had her first Broadway audition she was immediately cast as Martha Jefferson in "1776." She will always be best known as the original Grizabella in "Cats," and Ms. Burstyn said, "If any of you ever need to have the top of your head blown off, you should hear her sing 'Memory' in a small space. ... One note and Betty disappears, her hands turn to paws. It's one of the most magical things I've ever seen a performer do."
Playwright Sarah Ruhl ("In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play") introduced her mentor, playwright Paula Vogel ("How I Learned to Drive," "The Baltimore Waltz," "And Baby Makes Seven," "Desdemona, A Play about a Handkerchief," to name just some of her plays done in Pittsburgh).
Ms. Ruhl said Ms. Vogel creates "theater as a place for memory and ghosts"; "the humanity in her works eclipses the politics"; "she laughs at terrible things." In the process, "she changed the culture of silence" about oppressive sexual relationships, and as a teacher she nurtured a generation of female playwrights, several of whom have already won the Pulitzer Prize.
Ms. Vogel spoke of her "20-year conversation with Sarah Ruhl," thanked her wife of 24 years, Anne Fausto Sterling, and gave special credit to her own "three gods" -- playwrights Caryl Churchill, John Guare and Maria Irene Fornes, the first two of whom also are members of the Hall. She cited many women playwrights and noted that although women have written only 17 percent of the plays produced currently, she hopes that by 2050 it will be 50 percent.
Sir Trevor Nunn
Presenting director Sir Trevor -- head successively of the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre and director of many blockbusters ("Cats," "Les Miserables" and "Sunset Boulevard," to name just three) plus 30 of Shakespeare's plays -- was director-choreographer Susan Stroman ("The Producers"). She recalled as a student scraping together the money to see his epochal, marathon "Nicholas Nickleby." Calling him "a trusted friend and an exceptional dinner companion," she said he was best known for treating everyone with respect and because "no one can wear denim like Trevor."
Sir Trevor immediately apologized for not wearing denim on this occasion, then described the happy times he's had working in America. (Election of English artists to the Hall of Fame is based only on work they do in this country, not on productions imported from abroad.) He spoke of working with Stephen Sondheim as "the pinnacle" of his life in the theater.
Then, looking up at the Hall members' names on the walls, in the theater where "Wicked" holds sway and probably will for many more years, he remembered working with composer Stephen Schwartz early in its creation and finally, because he thought "Wicked" would "fall between two stools" as neither for kids nor adults, withdrawing from the project and advising him to drop it.
Introducing director/educator Michael Kahn was performer Christine Baranski, who blamed him for her working consistently. That's because she started at Juilliard, which he led for 35 years, and missed her graduation because she was already doing Shakespeare at Stratford, Conn. A steady diet of Shakespeare, Moliere, Chekhov and Stoppard gave her the confidence to do anything, and indeed, after playing the bloody Jacobean melodrama " 'Tis Pity She's a Whore," she found "playing Billy Dawn [in 'Born Yesterday'] a piece of cake."
Mr. Kahn said he started in theater at age 5, writing a play in which the Pony Express extended to London and Paris, and none of his teachers pointed out that implausibility, giving the unconditional encouragement that led to his name going up on the wall with all "these giants." He talked about his further encouragement by other giants, Joe Papp, Ellen Stewart and John Houseman, and gave special praise to Washington, D.C., once a sleepy stop on the touring circuit but now home to 65 professional theater companies.
That development owes a great deal to Mr. Kahn's long tenure as artistic director of Washington's magisterial Shakespeare Theatre, an achievement (along with his work at Juilliard) for which he was being honored more than for the eight shows he directed on Broadway.
Playwright Jon Robin Baitz ("Other Desert Cities," this year at the Pittsburgh Public) introduced producer-director Andre Bishop, successively artistic head of off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons and now Lincoln Center Theater. Mr. Bishop "is always dreaming of how to put our lives on stage" and "he's done as much for the American theater as anyone else alive."
The longest applause of the evening greeted Mr. Bishop. After thanking his husband, Peter, and their daughter, he quoted Moss Hart that "the stage is an inevitable refuge from an unhappy childhood." His own had been "Dickensian," he said, and the refuge was New York. He defined producing as "simply the intelligent exercise of one's own best taste."
Last to be inducted was actor Sam Waterston, best known recently for his work on TV, who made his Broadway debut in 1963 and has a bundle of Broadway credits. He was introduced by Bernie Gersten, longtime managing director, first of Joe Papp's Public Theater and then Lincoln Center Theater, who spoke of Mr. Waterston's Hamlet, Benedict and Abe Lincoln, all on stage.
Mr. Waterston started by disagreeing with Moss Hart and Mr. Bishop, saying he had had a happy childhood. "For me, from the start, the theater [as opposed to TV] has always been 'it.' ... This honor is, as I take it, for sticking to it," he said. Channeling some of his mentors, Shakespeare and Mr. Papp included, he said theater is made "out of thin air, out of heart and daring."
As always, the ceremony was gracefully produced by Terry Hodge Taylor. Afterward, the inductees, their families, friends and well-wishers all adjourned to the New York Players Club to eat, drink and be merry over shared memories.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson serves on the executive committee of the Hall of Fame and supervises the balloting. He spoke at Monday's ceremony about the process by which inductees are selected.