The 69th Annual Theatre World Awards opened with a stunning, site-specific coup-de-théâtre: the curtain at the Music Box rose on the Pippin set, with a familiar musical vamp and the faintly visible form of a Fosse-like dancer wearing a hat sitting on Charlemagne's throne. The lights came up, revealing 1972 Theatre World Award-winner Ben Vereen singing "Join Us" to an instant standing ovation.
The Theatre World Award differs from other annual awards in that the winners are not in direct competition with each other. Thus, two of this year's nominees for the Best Actor in a Musical both deserved — and received — awards. Three of the twelve winners were selected for work Off-Broadway. What immediately became clear in the ceremony, which was written and entertainingly hosted by author and columnist Peter Filichia, directed by John Tartaglia (Avenue Q), was the feeling of community among the winners, past and present.
This was accentuated by the pairings of presenter and winner. Many of this year's group had close professional and sometimes personal connections with each other, beginning with the 66-year-old Vereen and Rob McClure (Chaplin). When Vereen starred in I'm Not Rappaport at the Booth in 2002, one of the thugs who mugged him onstage was a young McClure. (The award is not necessarily for a Broadway debut but for a significant and reviewable debut performance). Following the closing of Rappaport, McClure told us, Vereen added him as a backup singer for his nightclub act. After a gracious speech, McClure exited stage left with a bit of the Chaplin walk.
This type of closeness was seen in the next award, when Courtney B. Vance presented the award to his Lucky Guy castmate Tom Hanks (who joked that he was receiving an award for his Broadway debut despite being "56, with the knees and hips to prove it"). Hanks charmed the crowd, asking, "How can you be an actor and not want to be on Broadway?" and suggested that this debut award hinted at more to come, "and I really hope so." In keeping with the community theme of the evening, Hanks raised the specter of James Earl Jones — a 1962 winner, who in 1987 presented the same award to his Fences castmate, Vance.
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