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Prize Diary

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The past six weeks have been a mad dash of accolade accruing and coverage. As president of the Drama Desk, a voting member of the New York Drama Critics Circle and the Outer Critics Circle, and managing editor of Back Stage, I've been sprinting from theatre to theatre and event to event. Here's a diary of this past frantic awards-fest and pre-Tony openings:

Friday, Apr. 26: In the 1987 production of Into the Woods, the first act was clever, caustic, and perfectly formed. The second act, in which the fairy-tale characters come to terms with uncomfortable realities, was overly maudlin and needed to be cut by a good 20 minutes. In the new edition at the Broadhurst, original director/book author James Lapine has revisited the material, and the result is a more consistently successful work. Maybe it's 9/11, but the Act Two tragedy of the giantess wrecking random havoc in the kingdom has more resonance, and the sad numbers ("No More" and "No One Is Alone") seem necessary rather than repetitive.

Vanessa Williams makes for a sexy witch, though she fails to shade the nuances Bernadette Peters brought to the role. Laura Benanti's Cinderella is now the center of the story, and she carries it off with calm and poise in the musical and dramatic departments. Stephen DeRosa and Kerry O'Malley balance skit-comedy antics with honest yearning for family stability as the clumsy baker and his wiser wife. Gregg Edelman and Christopher Sieber are sharp caricatures as a pair of princes who double as wolves. But John McMartin is a loopy cartoon as the Storyteller, even further out than Edward Everett Horton, who narrated the "Fractured Fairy Tales" segments of Rocky and Bullwinkle. His lunatic flights of fancy curtail the more touching moments. Despite a few comic excesses, this Woods imparts the tender complexities of Sondheim's dark score and Lapine's ambiguous fables.

Saturday, Apr. 27: After turning in my ballot for the Outer Critics Circle, I take in a matinee of Private Lives and an evening show of The Man Who Had All the Luck. In Private Lives, Noël Coward's comedy of bon mots, cocktails, and divorce, Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan find dozens of off-the-wall line readings and reactions in this familiar script of a divorced pair reunited on their respective honeymoons with two new spouses. The Man Who Had All the Luck was Arthur Miller's first Broadway play. It closed after a few performances in 1944. It bears the print of a young man with great potential learning his trade. Yet there is the powerful depiction of the love/hate bond between fathers and sons and brothers, predicting the strength of All My Sons and Death of a Salesman. Director Scott Ellis makes this uneven early play work. Though he can't entirely hide the flaws, its strengths shine through.

Sunday, Apr. 28: A matinee of The Secret Order at Ensemble Theatre Studio is the last show I manage to catch before the final Drama Desk Awards Nominating Committee meeting. Bob Clyman's drama follows a scientist along a bureaucratic maze as he experiments with a cure for cancer. Ethics, romance, and departmental politics play a part. The science is fascinating, and Clyman's dialogue can be snappy, but the storyline and characters are somewhat familiar.

Tuesday, Apr. 30: The nominees for the Drama Desk Awards are announced live on New York-1 by Polly Bergen and John Stamos. Thoroughly Modern Millie tops the list with 12.

Monday, May 6: The Tony nominations are announced by Steven Weber and Jennifer Jason Leigh at Sardi's. Once again, Millie is the leader with 11 nods.

Tuesday, May 7: Voting for the New York Drama Critics Circle is scheduled for this afternoon. Edward Albee's The Goat narrowly defeats Ivan Turgenev's 1848 Fortune's Fool as Best Play after three rounds of balloting. FF is eligible for all the new play prizes (it's nominated for a Tony in that category, as well) as it has never been produced on or Off-Broadway before. There is no award for Best Foreign Play or Best Musical.

Thursday, May 16: An actual new play opens amid the dispensing of awards: John Guare's A Few Stout Individuals at the Signature Theatre Company. The author explores themes of celebrity, history, and memory and how they influence one another as Mark Twain attempts to get a doddering Ulysses S. Grant to write his memoirs. Guare plays fast and loose with accuracy—Grant was not as gaga as he is portrayed here—and brings in elements of farce and fantasy. There are plenty of ideas, but Guare fails to bring them into clear focus. Perhaps that was his intent: to show the phantasmagoric mishmash of history and the impossibility of creating a coherent picture of it. Ghosts of a Japanese emperor and his wife, an opera singer, creditors, battlefield nightmares—all vie for our attention. It's a breathtaking ride but hard to put together. Director Michael Greif does his best to act as ringmaster for this intellectual circus, and he achieves a measure of control, but the chaos still seeps through. Donald Moffat is a dignified Grant searching for a center to his tumultuous life, and Polly Holliday is properly fussy and endearing as his fluttery wife.

Sunday, May 19: In the afternoon I catch a matinee of Martha Clarke's Vienna: Lusthaus (Revisited) at New York Theatre Workshop. It's set in a nightmare version of the title city at the turn of the last century, where director/choreographer Martha Clarke creates a disconnected yet fascinating world of naked bodies, petticoats, and prancing soldiers.

After the 90-minute show, I rush to my nearby Back Stage office, change into my tuxedo, and take the subway to the 47th annual Drama Desk Awards at the LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts. These citations presented by the DD (a group of theatre critics, writers, and editors) are the only major New York theatre award to consider Broadway, Off-Broadway, and off-Off-Broadway equally in all categories. This year was a difficult one to get the ceremony on, as very few corporate sponsors could be found. But it turns out to be among the best DD Awards ever. We couldn't afford a full orchestra or a screen to show video clips, but the ceremony is simple, direct, and fast-paced with Billy Stritch of 42nd Street at the piano and the glamorous Rue McClanahan as our hostess.

Elaine Stritch is ecstatic over winning awards for Outstanding Solo Performance and for Outstanding Book of a Musical (with New Yorker critic John Lahr) for her show Elaine Stritch at Liberty). She called the Drama Desks "the classiest award in town." Edward Albee is gratified to win the Outstanding Play category for The Goat in a tie with Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses. He says he hopes such ties are the beginning of a trend so that more good work can be honored. We'll see more of Stritch and Albee later in the week.

Monday, May 20: Stritch wins another accolade at the Village Voice Obie Awards, but she sends her director George C. Wolfe to pick it up for her—Monday is one of her nights off. Wolfe collects a prize of his own for his direction of Topdog/Underdog. The Obies, which are only for Off- and off-Off-Broadway, are known for their loose humor and irreverence. Ralph Pena of the honored Ma-Yi Ensemble adds to that reputation. In his acceptance speech he thanks his boyfriend for giving "both of his tits to milk dry."

Tuesday, May 21: In the midst of production for the current issue of Back Stage, I steal away to attend the presentation of the New York Drama Critics Circle Awards at Jack Rose's Restaurant. Edward Albee, in winning Best Play citation for The Goat, states he loved working with every single actor who had ever been in one of his shows, "except for four." (He won't name names.) Then our old friend Elaine Stritch accepted her special citation and, unconstrained by time limits, speaks for about 15 minutes. But it's never boring, as if Stritch ever could be. After sincere thank-yous, she said she couldn't wait to get home and get into bed with Sam Waterston—presumably for a rerun of Law & Order.

Thursday, May 23: Today is the Outer Critics Circle Awards. Among those present at the dinner ceremony are—guess who?—Edward Albee and Elaine Stritch, who states jokingly, "I really am award-weary." Winner Frank Langella (Fortune's Fool) bites the neck of presenter Gary Beach after the latter praises Langella's performance as Dracula. Katie Finneran of Noises Off tells of the feeling of community in the theatre world: "You can take a friend out to dinner after they've been in a bomb. Wait, I didn't mean to end on a negative note." Then presenter Claudia Shear, who had just finished a short run in Smell of the Kill, gets to the podium, points to herself, and confesses, "The friend, the dinner, the bomb."

Sunday, June 2: It's the biggest night of all as the Tony Awards are presented at Radio City Music Hall. Millie wins six awards including Best Musical, but the outrageous Urinetown takes Best Book, Score, and Direction. This leads to the question, "How can a show be the best written and directed, but not be the best musical?" Elaine Stritch wins again, has her acceptance speech cut off on the air, then tearfully expresses her anger in the press room. The ceremony itself is one of the slickest and most well-paced in recent memory, but it's the lowest-rated Tony show ever according to the Nielsens. Fortunately it attracts upscale viewers, and commercial ad sales are up 10 percent from last year.

Monday, June 3: Back Stage receives the Broadway Beacon Award from Inside Broadway for its participation in bringing theatre to public schools. Until next year, we bid adieu to the prize-dispensing season. BSW

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