PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, May 9-15: Rocco Goes to Washington

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, May 9-15: Rocco Goes to Washington
 
It takes a pretty significant piece of news for theatre people to not talk about the Tony Awards in the weeks between the nominations (last week) and the ceremony (June 7). But Rocco Landesman, the producer and chief of Jujamcyn Theatres, being nominated by the White House to be the next chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, was just such a story.
Rocco Landesman
Rocco Landesman Photo by Aubrey Reuben

In response to the announcement, playwright Tony Kushner, who has benefited greatly from Landesman's support in the past, said, "It's potentially the best news the arts community in the United States has had since the birth of Walt Whitman." That may be one of the more absurd statements in the history of hyperbole, but the enthusiasm behind Kushner's remark was not out of place. Landesman is not a safe choice for the NEA; he's an exciting choice. And not just because he comes from the theatre world, and the stage will benefit from him being in a position of governmental leadership. We've had that before in actress Jane Alexander. But Alexander, who served the NEA during the Clinton administration, was dignified and reasonable. Nobody could possibly have objected to her assuming a place of authority and, truth to tell, her tenure was more about preserving the status quo and preventing the GOP from tearing the agency down.

Landesman, on the other hand, is not a status-quo kind of guy. He's a man who could shake things up, who could, in a phrase, build a better NEA. As his name might suggest (know many Roccos?), the producer is a colorful character. He's been called Runyonesque, and if anyone in today's theatre fits that bill, it's him. He wears cowboy boots with his suits. He's well known for his love of horse-racing, has owned various minor-league baseball teams from time to time, and journalists can always count on him for a salty comment on any subject. As a producer, he's made plenty of safe choices — all producers do — but has also been more artistically adventurous than some. Having studied Dramatic Literature at Yale, he contemplated a career in criticism at one time. He has penned pungent Op-Ed pieces in the New York Times.

Moreover, Landesman is the sort of rough-and-tumble character who, one would imagine, would relish the political hardball of Washington, willingly getting in there and mixing things up. It would take about five minutes for Congress to realize that they weren't going to steamroll over this NEA head that easily.

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There was Tony Awards news, of course. Neil Patrick Harris was announced as the host of the show. The selection seemed a tame one to some, but those who knew Harris' work on the stage and his persona off-stage thought it a smart move. Over the past decade, the former star of "Doogie Howser, M.D." has proved himself a capable stage performance and a witty, sharp, self-effacing personality on the talk show and awards ceremony circuit. If given free reign as host (and that's a big "if"), he'll spark the proceedings. ***

Winners of the 75th Annual Drama League Awards — that's the one with the big dais full of stars, and the lunch — were announced May 15 at a luncheon in the Grand Ballroom of the Marriott Marquis Hotel. Winners included Billy Elliot: The Musical (Distinguished Production of a Musical), God of Carnage (Distinguished Production of a Play), Hair (Distinguished Revival of a Musical) and Blithe Spirit (Distinguished Revival of a Play).

This year's winner of the Distinguished Performance Award was Geoffrey Rush for his performance in the revival of Exit the King.

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The praised revival of O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms did not get a single Tony nomination. The show wasn't exactly theatregoer catnip before that, but that slap in the face really did it in. will close on May 24, six weeks earlier than intended. The show stars Brian Dennehy, Carla Gugino and Pablo Schreiber.

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The Tony Administration Committee, a body known for occasionally making curious decisions as to how Broadway shows will be judged, laid down one of its more curious edicts this week. It said that, although all three young actors who rotate in the demanding title role of Billy Elliot — The Musical have been jointly Tony-nominated for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical, Tony voters need see only one of the three Billys — David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik and Kiril Kulish — when casting their vote in that category. "If the Nominating Committee were to ultimately vote to nominate the joint eligibility, it would do so with the determination that the three performances mirrored each other, hence the joint eligibility decision," was the official reasoning. Unless the three Billys are actually clones of one another, I don't personally follow this train of thought. Actors are actors, and every actor is unavoidably different from another. But, hey, for voters who think the way I do, the producers of Billy Elliot — The Musical will make tickets available so one can catch the performances of the all the young actors.

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Some shows have already taken home trophies.

Winners of the 59th annual Outer Critics Circle Awards — that's the one run by critics who write for papers beyond the reach of the NYC subway system — were announced May 11. Billy Elliot the Musical received seven awards, the most of any show of the season. Shrek the Musical also fared well, winning four awards. God of Carnage won Best New Broadway Play. There was a tie (always exciting) in the Outstanding Actress in a Musical category: Both Sutton Foster (Shrek the Musical) and Josefina Scaglione (West Side Story) will receive that award.

The Outer Critics also found a way to solve the pesky three-Billys problem. It gave a Special Achievement Awards to Billy Elliot co-stars David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik and Kiril Kulish. Now, why didn't the Tonys think of that?

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