Do You Hear The Stars Sing?
The crowd did. And the stars heard the crowd roar at the 11th annual "Stars in the Alley" show in New York's Shubert Alley May 28, the last open to-the public countdown to the much anticipated June 1 Tony Awards, which will be broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall on PBS and CBS.
The temporary stage set in the center of the famed thoroughfare of giant show posters and theatrical legend just off Broadway between West 44th and 45th Streets came alive with the stars and songs not only from the 1996-97 shows -- those Tony-nominated and not -- but also medleys from the long running hits.
Stan Martin of WQEW-AM Radio, who did live remotes during the hour presentation, welcomed Lou Diamond Phillips and Ann Duquesnay from The King and I and Bring In the Noise, Bring In the Funk, respectively, to the stage. Phillips reported that in the past 12 months, more than 10.1 million theatergoers attended Broadway's 36 new shows as well as the 14 productions from previous seasons.
The event, sponsored by Continental Airlines and Chase with additional support from The New York Times and the New York Marriott Marquis Hotel and produced by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, drew a lunch-time and pre matinee crowd estimated at a record 2,500. They included executives in corporate finery on their lunch hour; well-heeled, handsomely-dressed tourists from as far away as Argentina and South Korea; as well as locals from as close as the Bronx, Queens, and New Jersey. Phillips and Duquesnay introduced Jessica Molaskey and legendary recording artist Margaret Whiting, two of the standouts from the Johnny Mercer musical Dream, accompanied by co-star John Pizzarelli. They sang "Something's Gotta Give" and "Day In, Day Out." As the crowd grew and surged forward, a cheer went up as Linda Eder and Robert Cucciolli of Jekyll & Hyde made their way to the stage. Cucciolli, nominated in the Best Actor category for his portrayal of the show's title character(s), only sang the praises of his non-nominated co-star of the last two years (on the road and now New York), Linda Eder, whom Cucciolli called "a bona fide Broadway star." As the crowd roared, Eder sang what has come to be her signature song, "Someone Like Me" and left in a hail of applause.
Immediately another thunderburst of applause welcomed Chicago star Bebe Neuwirth, who introduced Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the Shubert Organization, who presented the fourth annual League Star Award to Charles Gargano, chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation, a power broker in the reclamation and redevelopment of West 42nd Street.
Then Neuwirth and co-star Marcia Lewis, both Tony-nominated, made a duet of Lewis' big number from the show, "When You're Good To Mama."
Titantic featured actors Brian D'Arcy James and Martin Moran singing their duet, "The Proposal"/ "The Night Was Alive" from the nominated musical.
Meanwhile, in the audience, Amanda Tabbytite from Colorado Springs was at her first Stars event. She didn't know that the namesake of the Tony Awards, Antoinette Perry, was a native of her state. "We saw Chicago last night and loved Bebe Neuwirth and wanted to see if she'd be here. And there she is!"
Back on stage, Cate Coffman, Latonya Holmes, Norm Lewis, Ric Ryder, and Traci Lynn Thomas, wearing the logoed Ts of the long-running hits sang a medley of songs from those shows with special material written by music director and stand-up comic Seth Rudetsky.
More music was to come, but more than musicals were being celebrated. Dana Ivey and Jessica Hecht of The Last Night of Ballyhoo; Michael Chiklis, best known as the star of TVs "The Commish," who's starring in Defending the Caveman; and Owen Teale and Peter Gowen of A Doll's House took the stage to talk about their shows and urge attendance at a live Broadway play. Teale and Gowen, members of the original English cast, talked about their "wonderful experience of being on Broadway" and being a part of the "international community that the great power of drama" has provided. Said Gowen, "I'm Irish, he's English, the playwright is Norwegian, and the show has come from the West End and we're working with a cast that's half American."
By the time the nominated Karen Ziemba and Lillias White from nominated Steel Pier and The Life, the crowd had nearly overflowed into West 44th and 45th Streets. Both drew huge audience recognition and response. Ziemba sang "Willing To Ride" and White performed "The World's Oldest Profession" with gospel fervor.
What better way to end a perfect late-Spring Manhattan day -- sunny, with a cool breeze permeating the Alley -- than with a little sunshine from the Annie revival? Brittny Kissinger, with Cindy Lou (who plays Sandy) by her side, pretty well summed up the feelings of everyone there, even those not nominated for a Tony, with her rousing rendition of "Tomorrow" -- you know when the sun'll come out again.
For Karen Ziemba, Stars In the Alley was like coming back home. "This is my old neighborhood," she said. "I did two shows at the Shubert [Theatre], A Chorus Line and Crazy For You. This is my stage door. And hearing all this great music this early is getting me juiced for my two shows today."
Asked how she managed such impressive high notes at so early an hour, Ziemba replied, "I didn't do too bad, did I! I love singing Kander and Ebb, but it was also having so many enthusiastic people out there inspiring me. I was really thrilled. It made me feel so good." How've the last couple of weeks been? "Having everything jam packed into so tight a period has been totally crazy. But what's so neat being able to meet so many people in the theatre that I've admired for so many years. At the Drama League luncheon, I sat between Rip Torn and Whoppi Goldberg! Does it get any better than that?"
Onstage, Lillias White sang "I ain't no machine/My head hurts/My feet hurt/And everything in between" but you'd never know it from her spirited performance and the way she pumped the crowd, which had them yelling for more. Over her ovation, she exclaimed, "Come see The Life. You'll have the time of your life!"
Asked how she managed to be so full of energy, White replied, "Didn't you hear my song. I meant every word. But it's been a great, exciting, wonderful, wonderful time. Certainly a great time in the theatre. There's a lotta stuff going on. And this recognition is great for me because I've worked real hard to get to this point."
How hard is it keeping on schedule with your job and your family? "Damn hard! But I'm doing it. God is good! He's my perfect planner and protector. I rely very heavily on him."
And White said she'll feel God's presence on Sunday night at the Tony Awards. If she wins, will she thank him in her acceptance speech? "Of course, I would, but I'm not going to be so presumptuous to think I'm going to win. I'm up against some stiff competition."
What is it like with so much word of mouth saying "She's going to win? "I'm trying to keep a cool head and my feet on the ground and just be thankful for the strides I've made. I just thrilled people are recognizing the work! But I'm very hopeful!"
The events leading up to the Tonys and his nomination for Best Actor in a Musical, says Robert Cuccioli, is actually a bittersweet time since his co-star Linda Eder, such an audience favorite, was overlooked in the nomination process. "It's been an exciting two months," he said, "I can't even express how fantastic it's been! It's been a hundred birthdays in the course of eight weeks. The audience response, opening night, the award nominations -- Drama Desk, Tonys. It's hard to say any one thing has gotten me more excited than another. It all feels too surreal."
Regarding Eder, he said, "We've known each other two and half years and developed this incredible bond. I believe in her very much and feel a little cheated that she didn't get the recognition she deserves from the theatrical community. I'm sorry about that. You don't have to worry about the audiences. They adore her!"
He felt one of the important aspects of Stars In the Alley is that "people have many misconceptions about shows and don't really know what they're about. It may be a reason for not going to see a show. This brings the music right out there in front to the people. It's great for everyone."
Marlene Brooker from Freehold, NJ, said she got her front row spot by getting to the Alley at 9 AM. "I come to all the Broadway free events. Broadway's the greatest! I can't wait to see the Tony Awards and Rosie (O'Donnell) as host. Stars In the Alley was great. And after seeing the Jekyll & Hyde stars today, I know I have to see it soon!"
An elegantly dressed woman from Argentina was also enjoying her first Stars. "It's beautiful! I've seen many Broadway shows!"
A visitor from not so far away Bloomfield, NJ, was also at her first Stars In the Alley. "I'm enjoying it immensely. I go to the theatre a lot and have seen a couple of the new ones, Steel Pier and Jekyll & Hyde and liked them both. So getting another sample of them today's been the icing on the cake."
Sammy Steinwright, in his 20s from East Brunswick, NJ, manuvered to a front row place even though he arrived little more than an hour before showtime. In the last year he's seen Rent, Bring In the Noise/Bring In the Funk, and Smokey Joe's Cafe "and I plan to see many more!" Where will he start? "I don't know. There's so much talent out there." What did he enjoy the most at Stars In the Alley? "Hey, all of 'em! Chicago sounds great, ditto The Life."
When the Shubert's Schoenfeld was asked what was different this year, he replied, "The crowd was larger. There's a great spirit every year, but this year it seemed to be very infectious. What was especially gratifying is that stars who're not household names got incredible response. That's true because more people have seen the shows. And these actors go all-out at every performance."
Jeannette Kaiser of Elmira, NY, agreed. She's been coming to Broadway for 50 years and this season has seen 10 shows, but this was her first Stars In the Alley. "Theatre's synonymous with New York and getting a front row place for today's show just meant the whole world -- a dream come true."
-- By Ellis Nassour