STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: The 1997-98 Theatre World Awards

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: The 1997-98 Theatre World Awards Can anyone tell me what the presenters and winners said at the 1997-98 Theatre World Awards?

Can anyone tell me what the presenters and winners said at the 1997-98 Theatre World Awards?

I know I should know -- for I was there. But I didn't hear too much, because I was situated onstage behind the presenters, along with Patricia Elliott, a 1972-73 winner, and John Willis, the head of the Theatre World Awards, the publisher of the Theatre World annuals, and the legend who has been associated with them almost since their inception in 1994-45.

John is one of those wonderful tall and elegant theatrical gentlemen. He still sports a touch of Tennessee accent, though he's lived in New York for a half-century. He'll be 82 soon.

So last year, through the suggestion of Walter Willison (Class of 1970-71) and the kind support of Patricia, John allowed me the honor of becoming his successor, should the not-at-all-certain event occur that I survive him. The man is still indefatigable, still going out nightly to check out debut performances, so that he later can, with a panel of critics, name the 12 theatrical rookies-of-the- year.

Each and every May for the last 40-or-so years John has bestowed these prizes to a deserving dozen. What he also likes to do is have previous winners present the prizes. I offered to write the stars, mail or deliver the requests, or call their agents -- whatever it took to get a dozen presenters. "Get a few extra," John suggested. "Some years, somebody gets a paying job at the last minute and has to take it."

Nevertheless, John also informed me that Alec Baldwin and Dorothy Loudon were already on board.

So I contacted Alan Alda, Jane Alexander, Victor Garber, Judy Kaye, Linda Lavin, Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Alfred Molina (interesting, isn't it, that the entire cast of Art all won?), Bernadette Peters, and Marisa Tomei.

All of them called and said yes, most of them hours within receiving the letter. That's how much they love and respect John Willis.

So I was all set with 12 presenters. And when Patty Friedman, Linda Lavin's publicist, told me that James Widdoes -- who won for Is There Life after High School? then went to college via the movie Animal House, and now a big Hollywood TV director -- wanted to attend. "Would he care to be an understudy in case someone drops out?" I asked, and Patty called back within an hour that he graciously consented.

As it turned out, I needed him -- because we voters gave a special award to Eddie Izzard. I'd also need a 14th presenter -- once the committee decided that the entire cast of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, making their New York debuts, deserved an ensemble Theatre World Award. But John decided that he'd like to give that prize -- fitting, for a man who does the work of four should give the trophy to a great foursome.

The big day finally arrived, Thursday, May 14. All day long when the phone rang, I felt a shudder through my shoulders. Who was canceling?

No one, that's who. They all showed at 4 PM at New York's Roundabout Theatre. Such is the love and respect they have for John Willis.

Patricia introduced us, and we both went to the podium. The applause was pretty hearty, and I realized that the way I was admiringly looking up at John was pretty analogous to the way Nancy Reagan used to look at her husband.

John had asked that I introduce the presenters, which started with Marisa Tomei, who'd give the award for Outstanding Debut to Max Casella of The Lion King. As I stated earlier, what either one of them said, I don't know, partly because the sound carried out front, but more because I was concentrating on what I'd say next about Alan Alda.

"Tonight, there's a big TV series finale," I said to myself, meaning "Seinfeld," of course. "But every newspaper will tell you that it won't outdo a certain series finale that featured a character named Hawkeye. The actor who played him was so beloved that women all over the country wrote him mash notes."

When I finally did deliver that line, I got the groan that people feel compelled to give whenever someone makes a pun. It's OK. If there's one thing I can't stand, it's a critic who can't be criticized.

The rest of my Alda introduction went better. "He was kinda top- billed for The Apple Tree. Now you may ask, 'How can you be kinda top-billed? You either are, or you aren't.' Well, the producer of The Apple Tree decided to alternate top billing from month-to-month among his three stars. So, may I introduce the top-billed star of The Apple Tree in November, February, May, and August, Mr. Alan Alda."

As Alda took the stand and I returned to my seat, he gave me a big smile. "You know, I'd forgotten that." (That much, I did hear of the ceremonies.)

I also heard him talk about when he won his Theatre World Award (for a flop called Fair Game for Lovers in 1965). I was able to make out that he was glad that the award were now handsome masks-of-comedy-and-tragedy statuettes instead of the "tacky cheeseboards" they used to be. I think he also said that he didn't have a chance to give his acceptance speech then, and wanted to do it now. "Gee," he said, "I'm so surprised to win this award. I hope I make good on it. I also hope that it means that someday I'll get to do a play with Alfred Molina and Victor Garber."

But I didn't hear what his winner, Margaret (Jackie) Colin said, or what Douglas (The Scarlet Pimpernel) Sills remarked after Linda Lavin introduced him. But I could make out that Ms. Lavin heaped a ton of praise on John for noticing her in a short-lived revue called Wet Paint. I tell you, this Willis doesn't miss much.

I did miss, though, what Alfred Molina and Audra McDonald said when they presented to Eadie (Side Man) Falco and Alan (Cabaret) Cumming. I didn't miss what Lea DeLaria said when James Widdoes gave her her award -- because she wasn't there to pick up. How I wish I could have discerned what her agent, David Kolodner, said for her. I know it had something to do with Barry and Fran Weissler, and -- I could be wrong about this -- but from the way the audience was ooohing, I don't think these two producers were give much praise.

I did pick up some of Dorothy Loudon's hilarious patter, about how "This is the first time I've been out. I mean, out of the house," she quickly added, once she realized that some of the audience had a different definition of the word "out." She also pointed out that she was delighted to give the award to an actress with whom she could not possibly be in competition for parts: Little Anna Kendrick for High Society.

Alec Baldwin may play threatening heavyweight roles, but he showed he was a perfect gentleman by offering his chair to Kendrick, so that she could stand on it and give her acceptance speech.

On the other hand, when Baldwin got up to introduce Ednita (The Capeman) Nazario, he called John a thoughtless (expletive-deleted). Playfully, though. You see, John has been famous for sending every Theatre World Award winner a birthday card each and every year. That's right -- more than 500 cards annually. Except that this year, he mislaid his book, and wasn't able to do it. So Baldwin good-naturedly chided him for it, while also indicating how much the previous winners have come to look forward that perennial good-wish.

I did hear what Jane Alexander had to say, because she turned to Alda, Molina, and Garber to make sure they heard it, too. The star of Honour gave a big smile when she said, "I'm happy to announce that with Enid Graham's winning, the cast of Honour -- including Robert Foxworth and Laura Linney -- now beats out Art as the cast on Broadway with the most Theatre World Award winners -- four."

I could tell that Brian Stokes Mitchell liked giving an award to castmate Steven Sutcliffe, for playing his right-hand man in Ragtime. Bernadette Peters heaped on a ton of praise on John before presenting to Sam (Ah, Wilderness) Trammell. Ditto Judy Kaye when presenting to Ruadari (The Cripple of Inishman) Conroy. He wasn't there, so a woman got up, and without introducing herself, graciously accepted the prize.

"If you don't know who that is, " I told the crowd, "then you're no fan of serious drama. You'll see her a little later."

And, indeed, after Victor Garber gave the special award to Eddie Izzard (whom I think I heard say that he was amused that he just didn't win in the regular category, but was deemed "special"), John cited the Beauty Queen cast, and Marie Mullen -- the earlier presenter -- came up with Anna Manahan and either Tom Murphy or Brian F. O'Byrne. I wasn't sure which, because I was concentrating on wrapping it up.

"Well, John," I concluded, "this was a real nice clambake. I'm mighty glad I came." Just wish I could have heard it, too.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star-Ledger
You can e-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com