DIVA TALK: 2009 Tony Awards Recap Plus News of Block, Graff and Hilty

News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Tony Award winner Alice Ripley
Tony Award winner Alice Ripley (Photo by Aubrey Reuben)

THE 2009 TONY AWARDS
Despite a slew of sound glitches, the 2009 Tony Awards — hosted with an appealing ease by stage and screen star Neil Patrick Harris — was a highly enjoyable and often touching evening, one I witnessed first from the press room atop Rockefeller Plaza and, later, at home in my apartment.

In fact, the opening number alone provided enough excitement for an entire night: One won't soon forget the set piece crashing down on rock star Bret Michaels or the odd pairing of Pal Joey's Stockard Channing and Next to Normal's Aaron Tveit in a duet that mixed "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" with "I'm Alive." Yet, by the time the opening, which built to an emotional crescendo, was finished, one couldn't help feel the exhilaration that poured off the stage into the vast Radio City Music Hall. I was especially moved when, during Hair's exuberant "Let the Sun Shine In," the curtain rose to reveal all of the performers who had preceded the cast of that '60s-themed revival. It was thrilling and surprisingly moving to watch Stockard Channing, Liza Minnelli, Elton John and the casts of the various 2009 musicals join in that rock anthem.

Host Harris was charming from the moment he stepped onstage, explaining that the opening number was the most expensive ever produced on the Tonys, which "is why I'm your host tonight."

Academy Award winner Jane Fonda, back on Broadway this past season in 33 Variations, presented the first award of the evening — Best Featured Actor in a Play — to Roger Robinson, who won for his work as mystic Bynum Walker in the revival of August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone. "It has taken me 46 years to come from that seat up these steps to this microphone," Robinson said with a lump in his throat. The actor thanked, among others, his 98-year-old mother, director Bartlett Sher and the late August Wilson "for writing this wonderful play."

Shrek was the first of the Tony-nominated musicals to perform: Christopher Sieber, who was Tony-nominated for his performance as Lord Farquaad, led the cast in the spirited "What's Up, Duloc?"

Angela Lansbury
photo by Aubrey Reuben

James Gandolfini, who presented the Best Featured Actress in a Play Award (with Jeff Daniels), offered one of the best lines of the evening, deadpanning, "For the record Shrek and I are no relations" (the camera then offered a shot of Brian d'Arcy James, in full Shrek get-up, in the audience). Blithe Spirit's Angela Lansbury won the aforementioned award for her performance as the zany Madame Arcati, and when her name was announced, the audience rose en masse. A teary-eyed Lansbury asked, "Who knew at this time in my life that I should be presented with this lovely, lovely award? I feel deeply grateful. I can't believe that I'm standing here." Brava to Lansbury, who now ties Julie Harris for the most acting Tonys won by an artist! "As a Broadway veteran who spent as many as 18 previews and 46 exhausting performances trodding the boards, I gained so much theatrical wisdom," Will Ferrell joked before presenting the award for Best Original Score to Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey for Next to Normal. It was probably the one big surprise of the evening, yet one that was wholly earned: Normal has one of the great rock scores in recent memory. It was Kitt's second Tony of the evening, having won earlier in the evening (with Michael Starobin) for Best Orchestrations (a tie with Billy Elliot's Martin Koch). The songwriters acknowledged their competitors, saying their "work has inspired us to become writers in the first place."

Lin Manuel-Miranda, who penned (and starred in) the 2008 Tony-winning Best Musical, In the Heights, introduced the first nominee for Best Revival of a Musical, West Side Story. The cast offered "The Dance at the Gym" and a snippet of Matt Cavenaugh and Josefina Scaglione singing the classic Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim tune "Tonight."

Oscar winner Susan Sarandon, who is currently starring in the revival of Exit the King, presented the Best Director of a Play Award to Matthew Warchus for his direction of God of Carnage. Warchus, who had also been nominated for his direction of The Norman Conquests, joked in his acceptance speech, "I was hoping for another tie actually." Warchus acknowledged the casts of both Carnage and Conquests.

Sarandon also presented the Best Director of a Musical Tony; the winner was Billy Elliot's Stephen Daldry, who said he has been blessed "to spend the majority of the last ten years of my life working on the story of Billy Elliot, and in that very long and extraordinary journey, I've been working with a group of people who are more than just collaborators — they are my friends and my family. . . .And perhaps more than anything else, [this award] belongs to three, if you like, three great gifts of Broadway, our three little Billys. So, this is for them, this is for us. Thank you very much indeed."

Liza Minnelli
photo by Aubrey Reuben

The cast of Rock of Ages, the second Best Musical nominee, rocked Radio City Music Hall with a medley of '80s tunes that included "I Wanna Rock" and "Don't Stop Believin'." Cast member Mitchell Jarvis also had fun with the audience, heading offstage to greet Liza Minnelli, who he referred to as a "nasty little Tony-nominated freak machine." "Nurse Jackie" star Edie Falco presented the Best Special Theatrical Event to Liza's at the Palace. Both producer John Scher and Minnelli accepted the award. Scher explained that it was "truly an honor to be able to present a great American treasure on Broadway, Liza Minnelli." After forgetting some of her co-stars names, Minnelli thanked director and choreographer Ron Lewis and her "parents for the greatest gift they ever gave me, Kay Thompson! Thanks, Kay!"

Guys and Dolls co-stars Oliver Platt and Lauren Graham introduced the number from their Frank Loesser musical, "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat." Hurrahs for Tituss Burgess, who didn't skip a beat when a sound man rushed out to give him a hand-held microphone because his body mic was malfunctioning. Not only didn't the somewhat jarring moment upset Burgess, but he went on to deliver a roof-raising "Rockin' the Boat." The number also featured the always-dependable Mary Testa, who had a chance to show off her rangy belt and comedic prowess.

John Stamos, who will return to Broadway this season in the Roundabout's revival of Bye Bye Birdie, presented the Best Featured Actor in a Musical Tony to Billy Elliot's Gregory Jbara. An emotional Jbara, who brought his wife Julie onstage with him, explained that his wife "has spent the majority of the last year as a single parent raising our sons in Los Angeles so that I could have this opportunity here tonight."

Karen Olivo
photo by Aubrey Reuben

West Side Story's Karen Olivo, who won the Best Featured Actress in a Musical Tony, was even more emotional when she accepted her award. Fighting back tears, the stellar singing actress said, "Oh my God! I'm completely unprepared for this. I have to say, thank you Arthur [Laurents] for believing in me and giving me confidence when I never had confidence; my husband, who's amazing, and I can't do anything without; [and] the amazing cast. Josefina Scaglione, you make it so easy to be Anita, and George Akram, thank you for carrying me around the stage night after night. Oh my God, I just want to dedicate this to everyone who has a dream, and a lot of people said I couldn't do this, and I think that if you stick with it and you surround yourself with people who love you, you can do anything. Thank you." Carrie Fisher, who is headed to Broadway in her one-woman show Wishful Drinking, introduced the performance from the third Best Musical nominee, Next to Normal. Alice Ripley, J. Robert Spencer and Aaron Tveit performed a breath-taking version of the emotionally charged "You Don't Know."

One of Neil Patrick Harris' best comic bits — a spoof of the much-in-the-news Jeremy Piven Speed-the-Plow drama — found Harris eating a plate of sushi while saying, "This stuff is great. I have like so much energy. If I ate this all the time, I could do show after show, night after night."

Two-time Academy Award winner Jessica Lange presented the Best Leading Actor in a Play Tony to Exit the King's Geoffrey Rush, who — holding a faux cigarette lighter that was handed out to the crowd in honor of Rock of Ages — said, "The best thing tonight was being a little light among six thousand. The season on Broadway this year for me has been exactly that."

Tony winner Bebe Neuwirth introduced a heartfelt tribute to those the theatre community lost this past year, including actress Natasha Richardson and Shubert Organization chairman Gerald Schoenfeld. The Broadway Inspirational Voices sang A Chorus Line's "What I Did for Love" as photos of various theatre personalities reminded TV watchers of the many greats who passed away this year: Harold Pinter, Luther Davis, Estelle Getty, Dale Wasserman, A. Larry Hanes, Edie Adams, Bruce Adler, Horton Foote, James Whitmore, Sydney Chaplin, Clive Barnes, Marilyn Cooper, Tom O'Horgan, Bea Arthur, Ron Silver, Robert Prosky, Roy A. Somlyo, Robert Anderson, Lee Solters, Pat Hingle, Irving Cheskin, Anna Manahan, Sam Cohn, George Furth, Eartha Kitt, Hugh Leonard, Rodger McFarlane, William Gibson, Tharon Musser, Paul Sills, Lawrence Miller and Paul Newman.

Marcia Gay Harden
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Frank Langella, who went on a bit too long about his lack of a Tony nomination, presented the Best Leading Actress in a Play Tony Award to God of Carnage's Marcia Gay Harden. "I tell my kids every day that bad behavior and hysteria and tantrums and tears will get them nowhere," Harden said. "I don't know quite how to explain this. . . . As many of you know, the play is about marital strife, so I should probably start by thanking my husband Thaddaeus Scheel for preparing me so well for the role in our many dress rehearsals, thank you Thaddeus." Harden not only acknowledged the four other actresses in her category, but her three co-stars, playwright Yasmina Reza and director Matthew Warchus, who "without your sublime direction, we would have sent this play out to pasture long ago with all the milking for laughs, so thank you for your love of human foibles." Elton John introduced the Billy Elliot sequence, which featured Trent Kowalik — one of the three Tony-nominated leads — dancing Billy's frustrations with raw emotion.

The now five-time Tony winner Angela Lansbury introduced the recipient of the winner of the Tony for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre, composer-lyricist Jerry Herman. Following a few video clips of Herman productions, the veteran composer said, "Wow. Thank you. It just doesn't get any better than this, does it? . . . The journey...to this iconic stage has been filled with so much joy and excitement and laughter and life-long friendships that the only way I know how to say thank you to the hundreds of thousands of people who helped get me here is to say one enormous, heartfelt thank you to every soul who has touched my life in the musical theatre."

Twelfth Night star Anne Hathaway introduced the last of the evening's nominated musical revivals, Hair. The cast, led by Gavin Creel and Will Swenson, delivered a superb rendition of the musical's title song, another of the evening's many high points.

Tony and Emmy winner David Hyde Pierce presented the Best Leading Actress in a Musical Tony to Alice Ripley for her stunning work in the rock musical Next to Normal. Ripley, who began to choke up at the start of her speech, then delivered this high-voltage message: "There's a quote in the Kennedy Center by John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and it says, 'I'm certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we too will be remembered not for our victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit!' And he's talking about art . . . and so tonight, I'm just stunned and honored beyond belief to be here with my family: Mom, Dad, Dee, Rick, Cindy, Scott, Kim, Tina, Laura, Dan, Rob and Cal, and my mother and all my friends on and off stage here tonight. To accept this award is just beyond my wildest dreams. And I have to say something about art because I think that Next to Normal fits the category of things that [JFK] was talking about. . . . Musical theatre is a fine art, and so it needs constant adjusting and constant tuning. Michael Greif, David Stone, Tom Kitt, Brian Yorkey: You all led the show to that end result of it being a fine art, and I am so honored to be a part of the show. Everybody knows that I thank them because I've been thanking them all week. So goodnight everybody, enjoy the rest of the evening. Thank you so much."

Four-time Tony winner Audra McDonald presented the final acting award of the evening, Best Leading Actor in a Musical, to the trio of Billys — Trent Kowalik, Kiril Kulish and David Alvarez — who share the title role of Billy Elliot the Musical. The three young artists offered the sweetest acceptance speeches of the night. After overcoming their initial shock, the Billys thanked the show's creators, their families — Kulish: "My mom, my dad, my brother and sister"; Alvarez: "Mom, Dad, two sisters"; Kowalik: "My mom and my dad and my three sisters" — and their teachers. And, Kulish added, "We want to say to all the kids out there who might want to dance, never give up." Three road productions — the touring companies of Mamma Mia!, Legally Blonde and Jersey Boys — also had the chance to perform. Although enjoyable — it was especially fun to see five different Frank Vallis — wouldn't it have been better to showcase some of the other new musicals of the season ( 9 to 5, et al.) or use the time for a proper tribute to Lifetime Achievement Award winner Jerry Herman? Lansbury was already there, and having her re-create a moment from Mame would have been thrilling.

Producers also still seem to be struggling with the best way to present the nominated Best Plays. This year, actors from the four nominated productions — God of Carnage, 33 Variations, Dividing the Estate and Reasons to Be Pretty — introduced brief film clips. Perhaps the playwright could speak about an interesting aspect of the creation of a particular scene, which could segue into the play's cast performing a minute or two from that very scene.

Top prizes of the 63rd Annual Tony Awards went to Billy Elliot the Musical (Best Musical), God of Carnage (Best Play), Hair (Best Revival of a Musical) and The Norman Conquests (Best Revival of a Play).

One of the evening's most enjoyable moments was saved for the very end when host Neil Patrick Harris finally had the chance to show off his musical theatre chops, singing Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's revised lyrics to "Tonight" and "Luck Be a Lady Tonight." Those lyrics follow:

Tonight, tonight
The Tonys were tonight
And Elton's Billy was all the rage
What class, what drive
Now Angela won five
And she hooked up with Poison backstage

With heels as sore as poor Achilles
Three tutu-wearing Billys
Were such a winning sight

Tonight, all three
Won Tony plus they hit puberty

[to "Luck be a Lady Tonight"]

And Geoffrey won a Tony tonight
Karen won a Tony tonight
Liza at the Palace
Mr. Ripley's daughter Alice
They all won a Tony tonight

Credits! That's not going to stop me!

[to "Tonight"]

Chris Sieber - please!
Performing on your knees?
Dude, that only works
To win Golden Globes

I hope, tonight,
When they're high as a kite
To be there when the Hair cast disrobes

This show
Could not be any gayer
If Liza was named mayor
And Elton John took flight

The curtain falls
I'm off to hit some big Tony balls
Goodnight

Congratulations to all the winners, and let the 2009-2010 theatre season begin!

[By the way, if you're interested in reading my Tony night blog, click here.]

DIVA TIDBITS
Stephanie J. Block, who co-stars in the new musical 9 to 5, is the final addition to the starry line-up for the "all-new" Nothing Like a Dame concert, billed as "an intimate benefit concert event for The Phyllis Newman Women's Health Initiative." Block joins the previously announced Kelli O'Hara, Andrea McArdle and Tony winners Betty Buckley, Audra McDonald and Bebe Neuwirth. Guys and Dolls' Nick Adams will also be part of the evening. (The previously announced Kristin Chenoweth has withdrawn from the concert due to a film scheduling conflict.) Hosted and "re-constructed" by Seth Rudetsky, the evening will be held June 15 at New World Stages. Show time is 7:30 PM. For tickets, priced $75, $150 and $250, call (212) 221-7300, ext. 133. Visit www.actorsfund.org for more information. New World Stages is located in Manhattan at 340 West 50th Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues.

The first annual Born for Broadway fundraiser — to benefit the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation — will be presented June 22 at 8 PM at New World Stages in Manhattan. Richard Kind will host the concert, which will be directed by Ragtime's Marcia Milgrom Dodge. Larry Yurman is musical director. The evening will boast the talents of James Naughton, Randy Graff, Douglas Sills, Malcolm Gets, Julia Murney, Aaron Lazar, Kate Baldwin, Annaleigh Ashford, Adrian Bailey, Patrick Boyd, Barbara Folts, Rosena Hill, Doug Kreeger, Marissa Perry, Michele Ragusa, Michael Rice, Steve Rosen, Graham Rowat, Rob Sutton, Emily Swallow, Noah Weisberg, Kathleen Monteleone, Ali Stroker, Chris Pinnella, Claire Howard and Sarah Galli. New World Stages is located in Manhattan at 340 West 50th Street. Tickets, priced $50-$100, are now on sale by visiting www.telecharge.com or www.bornforbroadway.com.

BBC Radio 2's Friday Night Is Music Night concert series will continue July 1 with Lorna Luft and Friends Celebrate the Music of Judy Garland. The concert will be held at London's Mermaid Theatre and will be recorded for subsequent broadcast on BBC Radio 2 on July 31. Currently scheduled to interpret songs associated with the late singer-actress are Garland's daughter, Lorna Luft, as well as Linzi Hateley, Francis Ruffelle and John Barrowman. The singers will be backed by the 70-piece BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Mike Dixon. For ticket information call 03700 100 200 or visit www.bbc.co.uk.

Stars are lining up to take part in the 15th annual Help Is On the Way benefit concert, which is set for Aug. 2. The 7:30 PM concert, entitled Help Is on the Way XV: No Business Like Show Business, will be held at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, CA. Those currently scheduled to take part in the one-night-only event include Susan Anton, Jim Bailey, musical comedy duo Baulpointpen, Carole Cook, Tyne Daly, Frenchie Davis, Joely Fisher, Deborah Gibson, Ricki Lake, Kimberley Locke, Maureen McVerry, Shawn Ryan, Wesla Whitfield and John Lloyd Young. David Galligan will direct the largest annual AIDS benefit concert, which is presented by The Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foundation, a non-profit organization established to raise funds for AIDS service provider agencies. Michael Orland will be the evening's musical director. This year's beneficiaries include Aguilas, AIDS Legal Referral Panel, PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support) and Shanti. The Herbst Theatre is located at 401 Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco, CA. For ticket information visit www.helpisontheway.org or www.cityboxoffice.com.

Megan Hilty, who plays Doralee in the new musical 9 to 5 at the Marquis Theatre, will host the June 29 Monday Nights, New Voices concert at the Duplex Cabaret Theatre. The evening, which begins at 7 PM, will celebrate the work of composer Will Reynolds. Vocalists will include Alysa Marsiella, Jennifer Hallie Rosen, Emily Senn, Zach Trimmer and Bradley White-Dale. Reynolds will also be on hand to accompany the performers and relate stories associated with each of the presented songs. The Duplex Cabaret Theatre is located in Manhattan at 61 Christopher Street. There is a $12 music charge and a two-drink minimum; for reservations call (212) 255-5438 or visit theduplex.com.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

Tony Award winners David Alvarez, Kiril Kulish and Trent Kowalik
Tony Award winners David Alvarez, Kiril Kulish and Trent Kowalik (Photo by Aubrey Reuben)