DIVA TALK: 2008 Tony Awards Recap, Butler and Akers on CD and News of Buckley, LuPone, Peters

News   DIVA TALK: 2008 Tony Awards Recap, Butler and Akers on CD and News of Buckley, LuPone, Peters
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Patti LuPone and her second Tony Award.
Patti LuPone and her second Tony Award. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Let's face it. How much a theatre fan enjoys the annual Tony Awards has a great deal to do with how many of the shows/performers he or she was rooting for actually won. And, since most everyone I had hoped would win did, I thought the 62nd Annual Tony Awards were pretty darn good!

Certainly, there were about as many musical performances presented as the running time would allow. Would I have preferred a Stephen Sondheim tribute rather than another performance of "Circle of Life"? Yes, but I'm still not sure that would have been enough to induce the greatest composer-lyricist of our time to accept his Lifetime Achievement Award in person. And, I actually had forgotten just how visually thrilling the Lion King opening is.

More than any other Tony ceremony in recent history, the 2008 Tony Awards seemed to strive to include most every musical production currently running on The Great White Way. Not only did we get the chance to enjoy musical numbers from the eight nominated productions, but the telecast included brief performances from The Little Mermaid, Young Frankenstein and A Catered Affair, spotlights on Chicago, Legally Blonde, Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys as well as Phantom of the Opera, Spring Awakening, Mary Poppins and Spamalot segments featuring host Whoopi Goldberg.

The first award presented on air went to Chicago actress Rondi Reed for her work in Tracy Letts' August: Osage County. Reed, who played her final performance the afternoon of the Tonys, seemed shocked by her win, repeatedly saying, "Oh my God," but it was her final statement that touched me as she raised her Tony up to the heavens and said, "This goes, part of it, to [the late] Dennis Letts. Happy Father's Day."

Cry-Baby was the first Best Musical nominee spotlighted. James Snyder led the cast in "A Little Upset," which allowed the audience a chance to see some of Rob Ashford's terrific choreography. I appreciated that all of the nominated musicals were given a decent amount of air time and didn't have to rush through their numbers or offer shortened renditions of songs that never make quite the same impact as the complete version. Jim Norton was awarded the Best Featured Actor in a Play Tony for his performance in The Seafarer, which preceded Adam Duritz's (of the Counting Crows) introduction of friend Stew's Passing Strange performance. I was again impressed by Daniel Breaker's work and the purity of his tone, although I wondered how the number played in the heartlands. "This is how Passing Strange does it," Stew said at the end to an enthusiastic response.

Following Bartlett Sher's acceptance of the Best Director of a Musical Tony — for the Tony-winning revival of South Pacific — Jack Klugman introduced what would be the evening's highlight, a performance from the current revival of Gypsy. Klugman's inclusion was a terrific idea and lent a great sense of theatre history to the evening.

Okay, now to LuPone: It was a great choice to allow LuPone to perform a brief part of the scene that precedes "Everything's Coming Up Roses." It made what was to come even more powerful, and powerful it was. I've watched the now-two-time Tony winner's performance several times since the Sunday broadcast, and it's thrilling each and every time. I'm particularly struck by the ferocity and madness that overcome LuPone (as Rose) as she rips June's letter before belting out with tremendous force the final, "Everything's coming up roses for ME and for youuuuuuuu!" Even if you weren't watching the Tonys, I still think you would have heard that final note. One criticism, though: Who was the cameraman that didn't capture LuPone's response to the standing ovation? We could hear LuPone say, "Let's take a bow," but where was the shot?!! I did enjoy, however, the camera panning to Laura Linney, Liza Minnelli and Mandy Patinkin, who all seemed equally amazed by LuPone's breathtaking performance.

During the "Year in Plays" sequence, I was reminded how many non-musicals opened this season. I had already forgotten that The Farnsworth Invention, which I quite enjoyed, was part of the season, as was the revival of Old Acquaintance that featured a hilarious turn by Cry-Baby's Harriet Harris.

One of the evening's most emotional speeches followed: Lin-Manuel Miranda's acceptance of the Best Original Score Tony. At first I thought a spoken acceptance would have been better than a rap, but by the time he got to "Mr. Sondheim: Look, I made a hat/where there never was a hat/and it's a Latin hat at that . . . Thanks for being here today Vanessa, who still leaves me breathless/Thanks for loving me when I was broke and making breakfast," there were tears rolling down my face. The look of joy on the faces of his co-creators/producers/co-stars was also extremely moving.

Harry Connick, Jr. introduced the production number from South Pacific, a particularly effective medley that included the spirited "Nothin' Like a Dame," the lush baritone of Paulo Szot in "Some Enchanted Evening" and the glorious soprano of Kelli O'Hara in "A Wonderful Guy." It's also amazing to think that those three songs are only a fraction of what the Rodgers and Hammerstein score has to offer.

Some of host Whoopi Goldberg's funniest lines of the evening were delivered during the segment that saw her flying through the air as Mary Poppins. "Yeah, I can watch the kids," Goldberg deadpanned in full Poppins garb, "but I won't be cleaning your house." And, whe she was finally airborne, she joked, "I'm higher than the momma from Osage County!"

Laura Benanti and her Tony
photo by Aubrey Reuben

The always lovely Kristin Chenoweth presented the Best Featured Actress in a Tony to the equally lovely Laura Benanti, who also delivered a memorable speech. I was particularly moved by her reference to her mother, "the anti-Mama Rose and the most amazing woman I know." Also lending a touch of history to the proceedings was Barry Bostwick, who created the role of Danny Zuko in the original production of Grease. Bostwick introduced the performance from the Tony-nominated revival of the fifties-set musical, which came off quite well. The medley of "Grease Is the Word" and "We Go Together" was simply entertaining and fun.

Brooke Shields presented the Tony for Featured Actor in a Musical, and as the camera panned each of the nominees, I thought, "This is the happiest group of people!" All five men looked so thrilled to be there: Both Danny Burstein and Boyd Gaines kissed their wives as their names were read, Robin De Jesus pointed to his mom, and Christopher Fitzgerald and Daniel Breaker also enjoyed their Tony moments. Gaines, who won the award, is now a four-time Tony winner, and I was pleased that he acknowledged the other actors in his category, giving a special nod to Burstein, saying, "You will not find a finer actor or a finer person."

Marisa Tomei introduced the snippets of songs from The Little Mermaid (Sierra Boggess singing "Part of Your World"), A Catered Affair (Faith Prince offering "Vision") and Young Frankenstein (Megan Mullally belting out "Deep Love"). Of the three, I thought Mullally's powerful belt and terrific comic timing was the most effective, although in the theatre it's Prince who's offering one of the season's greatest performances.

Whoopi Goldberg's introduction of the four nominated plays — which featured striking visuals of the show's sets — was quite effective, and that was followed by Gabriel Byrne's presentation of the Best Director of a Play Tony to August: Osage County's Anna D. Shapiro, who drew laughs when she said, "I would really like to thank my six nieces and nephews, who mercifully think of me as just Aunt Anna and don't care about any of this. They just wanted tickets to Little Mermaid. And I got 'em!"

Mary Louise Parker presented the Best Leading Actor in a Play Tony to Boeing-Boeing's Mark Rylance, who confused the entire audience — including his co-stars (the look on Mary McCormack's face was priceless) — with his speech, which turned out to be the prose work of Minnesota poet Lewis Jenkins.

Another Broadway debuter who won a Tony Award was Chicago actress Deanna Dunagan, who was honored for her tremendous performance as the monstrous, pill-popping mom of August: Osage County. Dunagan also recognized her fellow nominees, including her August co-star Amy Morton, and ended her speech stating, "Since I was a little girl, all I've ever wanted to do was get people together and put on plays. And now I get to do it on Broadway!"

The musical number from In the Heights, "96,000" — the spirit-raising song about the hope of a lottery windfall — followed. Not only did the song allow audiences the chance to enjoy the many talents of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the soaring vocals of Karen Olivo and the sass of Andrea Burns, it also clearly demonstrated the collaborative process that is musical theatre: how the score, the performances, the choreography and the lighting coverge to create an extremely powerful moment.

Richard Griffiths and Daniel Radcliffe — who will arrive on Broadway this fall in the revival of Equus — presented the Best Play Tony Award to August: Osage County. It seemed a good portion of the audience joined playwright Tracy Letts onstage to accept the award; in fact, the now Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer joked, "I don't know all these people. I assume they're associated with the play."

Mandy Patinkin then read a gracious and refreshingly candid letter from Lifetime Achievement award winner Stephen Sondheim, who was not in attendance. Patinkin, who had co-starred in the original production of Sunday in the Park with George with the one-and-only Bernadette Peters, introduced the stars of the current revival, Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell, who delivered a powerful "Move On."

Glenn Close presented the Best Revival of a Musical Tony to the producers of South Pacific, and then Lily Tomlin introduced the Xanadu production number, "Don't Walk Away," led by Cheyenne Jackson, who sounded as great as he looked. Kerry Butler was also in fine voice, and it was a cute touch that the Radio City Music Hall stage — like the stage at Xanadu's Helen Hayes home — featured audience members.

One of the more moving sections of the evening was the celebration of Rent, which will end its lengthy run at the Nederlander Theatre in September. Particularly touching was the inclusion of the show's original cast members, who spoke about the late creator of Rent, Jonathan Larson. And, I have to admit I'm a sucker for "Seasons of Love." My eyes fill up with tears just at the sound of the song's opening chords.

Lin-Manuel Miranda with Patti LuPone
photo by Aubrey Reuben

The final performance awards were presented by Liza Minnelli and David Hyde Pierce. Minnelli announced South Pacific's Paulo Szot as the winner of the Best Actor in a Musical Tony, and Hyde Pierce announced the winner of the award every diva fan had been awaiting: Best Actress in a Musical. Patti LuPone, winning her first Tony in nearly 30 years, gave the most exciting speech of the evening. I've been a fan of LuPone's since I was 11, so watching her accept this Tony was thrilling. In fact, her speech was so good, I thought I'd reprint it in its entirety: "Thank you so much! It's such a wonderful gift to be an actor who makes her living working on the Broadway stage and then every 30 years or so, picks up one of these! [Laughs.] I was afraid to write a speech because I've written a couple before, and they never made it out of my purse. So I'm going to use one of the old ones and add a few names! [Laughs.] I want to send out first and foremost all of my love to my husband Matt and my son Joshua. I would be dead without both of you and to our extended family of friends. This won't take long, I promise. I want to thank my singing teachers, the one I forgot to mention the last time I stood up here 28 years ago, David Vosberg; Esther Scott, my high school inspiration; and the teacher who taught me how to sing, Joan Lader. All of my agents — especially Nevin, Gary and Philip. Carole Shorenstein Hays because I said I would! The Acting Company — John and Margo. Second Stage Theatre — Robin and Carole. Lincoln Center Theater — Bernie and Andre. City Center Encores — Jack, Michael, Judy and Arlene. The Ravinia Festival, where my involvement with Gypsy first began — thank you Wels and Lonny. And, for Gypsy itself, thank you Jule, Steve, my beloved Arthur, who assembled and directed the finest, most dedicated cast of actors I have ever had the privilege of working with and who is an inspiration to all of us in the theatre. Thank you Bonnie, to the designers of Gypsy, the backstage crew, front of house, stage management, ghosts of the St. James Theatre, my trusted friend and company manager Sammy, the dressing room, Angelina, Vanessa, Lyle and my very own Thelma Ritter. Friend and wrangler Pat, who gives me a shot every single night. I don't know what's in it, but I'm giving the performance of my life!! [Laughs.] My gratitude to my producers Roger, Roger, Richard, Tom, Jack, Steve, Boyd, Ted, Scott. [The orchestra begins to play.] Shut up, it's been 29 years! [Laughs.] Who took the risk with me — my acting partner, sweet Leigh Ann, beautiful, Sicilian sister Laura, and the very wise anchor of our show, my favorite leading man who breaks my heart every night, Boyd. To the real Rose Hovick, who gave all of the women that ever played this role the part of a lifetime. Thank you. Good night!"

Whoopi Goldberg presented the evening's final award, Best Musical, to In the Heights, a joyous musical that ended the evening on a joyous night.


Cover art for "faith, trust & pixie dust"

Kerry Butler: "faith, trust & pixie dust"
It's been quite a year for Kerry Butler, the original Penny Pingleton of Broadway's Hairspray, who drew terrific reviews and her first Tony Award nomination for her performance as Clio/Kira in the new musical Xanadu, which recently celebrated its first anniversary at the Helen Hayes Theatre. New mom Butler has also just released her debut solo recording, "faith, trust & pixie dust," on the PS Classics label. The 12-track recording features songs from the Disney canon: both well-known classics ("When You Wish Upon a Star" and "Colors of the Wind") and less-familiar fare ("I'll Try" and "Disneyland"). Butler, who boasts one of the smoother, rangier belts in the business, begins her Disney recital with "This Only Happens in the Movies," which was penned for an unreleased prequel to "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" Other highlights include a gentle version of "It's a Small World" that melts into a forceful "God Help the Outcasts"; a beautiful "When She Loved Me," Randy Newman's "Toy Story 2" theme song; and the aforementioned "Disneyland," from Marvin Hamlisch and Howard Ashman's Smile. Karen Akers: "Simply Styne"
Karen Akers recently ended a lengthy engagement in the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room with a brand-new program entitled Move On, which featured an eclectic mix of songwriters, including Stephen Sondheim; Maury Yeston; Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty; and Alan and Marilyn Bergman, among others. For the two previous seasons, however, Akers — whose Broadway credits include the original productions of Nine (Tony nomination) and Grand Hotel — has focused on the songbooks of John Kander and Fred Ebb and Jule Styne. Her Styne tribute, entitled "Simply Styne," was recently released on the DRG Records label and features a mix of classic and rare Styne tunes, including songs from such beloved musicals as Gypsy, Funny Girl and Bells Are Ringing.

A simple, lovely rendition of "Three Coins in the Fountain" begins Akers' exploration of the Styne catalogue, which climaxes in a terrifically moving medley of "Winter Was Warm," "The Party's Over" and "How Could I Know?" It's on the latter, which features a lyric by Bob Merrill, where Akers' skills as an actress enable her to mine the song for all its dramatic value.

Among the other highlights of the 16-track recording are touching renditions of "Time After Time" and "I Fall in Love Too Easily"; the little-heard "My Own Morning" from the Styne-Betty Comden-Adolph Green musical Hallelujah, Baby!; an upbeat "Ten Thousand Four Hundred Thirty Two Sheep"; and a wonderful pairing of "Make Someone Happy" and "Music That Makes Me Dance."

"Simply Styne" features musical director Don Rebic on piano and Dick Sarpola on bass. Eric Michael Gillett conceived and directed the original show upon which the new recording is based.

Betty Buckley — who scored raves for her performance in the new M. Night Shyamalan film "The Happening," the third highest-grossing film of the June 13-15 weekend (and the number one grossing film internationally) — will offer Broadway By Request next month at Lyric Stage in Irving, TX. Based on her recent By Request evenings at Feinstein's at Loews Regency in Manhattan, Buckley will perform July 9-11 at 8 PM. She will be accompanied by Chatterbox host and recent The Ritz star Seth Rudetsky on piano. The three evenings at the Irving Arts Center's Dupree Theater — directed by Richard Jay-Alexander — will celebrate the 15th anniversary of Lyric Stage. Tickets, priced $35, are available by calling (972) 252-2787 or by visiting www.lyricstage.org.

Patti LuPone, who won her second Tony Award June 15, is currently writing her memoirs, the Associated Press reported earlier this week. Harmony Books, a Random House imprint, is scheduled to publish the LuPone autobiography in 2010. The untitled book, according to the publisher, will cover LuPone's entire life to date: "From her beginnings in Northport, Long Island, where she discovered that being onstage was the one place she couldn't get into trouble, [LuPone] takes us on the roller-coaster of professional highs ... and emotional lows."

Bernadette Peters
photo by Timothy White

Two-time Tony Award winner Bernadette Peters began filming her role in the new Lifetime film "Living Proof" over the June 13 weekend in New Orleans. Executive-produced by Renee Zellweger, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, the star-studded film also boasts Angie Harmon, Amanda Bynes, Swoosie Kurtz, Regina King, Jennifer Coolidge, Trudie Styler, Tammy Blanchard, John Benjamin Hickey, Paula Cale and The Pajama Game's Harry Connick Jr., according to the Hollywood Reporter. Based on Robert Bazell's book, "Living Proof" casts Connick, Jr. as UCLA Dr. Dennis Slamon, who developed Herceptin, a drug to battle breast cancer. Peters plays the first woman to be saved by the drug. The Storyline Entertainment-Sony Pictures TV film is scheduled to air on the cable network in October. The opening-night gala celebrating the start of Carnegie Hall's 118th season will be held at the famed Manhattan venue Sept. 24. The all-Leonard Bernstein evening will feature the San Francisco Symphony conducted by musical director Michael Tilson Thomas. Also scheduled for the 7 PM performance are two-Time Tony Award winner Christine Ebersole, soprano Dawn Upshaw, baritone Thomas Hampson and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Tickets, priced $56-$190, are available by visiting www.carnegiehall.org. Carnegie Hall is located in Manhattan at 57th Street and Seventh Avenue.

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

Betty Buckley in "The Happening."
Betty Buckley in "The Happening." Photo by Zade Rosenthal <br>
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