Electric. That's the best word to describe the feeling inside Broadway's Virginia Theatre before the curtain rose on the 8th annual Gypsy of the Year competition. An annual fundraiser for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Dec. 2 and 3, the competition also celebrates the theatre community's unflagging commitment to individuals facing the challenges of AIDS.
The cast of The King and I won the 1996 Gypsy of the Year Award by performing a Chorus Line parody that had the ethnic dancers singing "Look at all the Asians!" in "I Need This Job"; had Donna Murphy showing us what was really under Anna Leonowens' hoop skirt (a dancer's gams and Cassie's dance skirt; and, in the crowd-pleasing piece de resistance, Lou Diamond Philips in drag as Sheila.
"He looks like Nancy Kwan on steroids!" quipped host Nathan Lane.
The cast of Sunset Boulevard unseated 1995 champ Victor/Victoria to win the annual fundraising contest, compelling its audience to part with $101,930 during the last six weeks. Show Boat was a close second, raising $100,177, joining some two dozen Broadway, Off-Broadway and national touring shows in raising a record $1,262,633.40 to fight AIDS.
Here are more highlights of the 8th Annual Gypsy of the Year competition:
As the lights of the Virginia Theatre dimmed, strains of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Jesus Christ Superstar" were heard, and a group of chorus members clad in red robes strolled onstage to thunderous applause. Ty Taylor had lead vocals as the performers sang new lyrics to the Webber/Tim Rice classic: "Gypsies all
Far and near,
Who's gonna be
Gypsy of the year?"
Four women in white afro wigs joined Taylor and, one by one, the gypsy chorus members disrobed to reveal their show's cast t-shirts. As each singer/dancer removed a robes to reveal his or her show's logo, the audience cheered--Cats, Les Miz, Miss Saigon, Rent, Noise/Funk....
The company of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was up next, singing revised lyrics to Stephen Sondheim's "Comedy Tonight." Nathan Lane emerged from one side of the stage to rapturous applause, and then to a surprised audience and an equally surprised Lane, Whoopi Goldberg (who replaces Lane in Forum on Feb. 11) emerged from the opposite side. After the applause died down, Lane informed Goldberg, "Now you're going to discover the joys of eight shows a week." And, Goldberg, not to be outdone remarked, "Eight shows . . .Didn't they tell you? I made a deal, honey."
Lane, the co-host of the BC/EFA event, then introduced his "personal trainer and fitness guru" co-host and Forum co-star, Ernie Sabella. After Lane and Sabella welcomed the audience, it was time for the cast of Cats to present "La Vie in Cats."
The Cats skit began with a woman dressed in a business-like suit pronouncing that a new show has opened that is a "pretender to [Cats'] cutting-edge throne." The dancers from the show, dressed in Rent-like costumes with cat tails, then appeared and contemplated the rigors of performing in such a physical show as Cats. To the tune of Rent's "La Vie Boheme," the felines sang: "Everything is in pain/From our toes to our lats/La Vie in Cats." In this midst of their complaints, a poster was brought out, which detailed the "striking" similarities between Cats and Rent...Consider the parallels:
Felines East Villagers
Junkyard Vacant Lot
Lost Best Choreography Tony Lost Best Choreography Tony
An Anthony Rapp/Cats look-alike then announced, "The opposite of Cats isn't dogs, it's relaxation..." The critically-hailed revival of Chicago got a chance to strut their stuff next as its high-voltage, sexily clad chorus members strutted onstage, one at a time, reveling in Ann Reinking's Fosse-esque choreography. Then Marcia Lewis, who stars as the Matron in Chicago, appeared, to riotous laughter, in a similar slinky black top and shorts get-up. Joel Grey was next, wrapped in cellophane (his big solo in Chicago is "Mr. Cellophane"), and turned around to reveal his bare bottom!
The chorus members of Show Boat, which will close in January for an international tour, walked onstage, each carrying a poster of the Canadian flag and singing "O Canada." A voice-over then recited all the union benefits and regulations that Canada does not offer its chorus members. Suddenly, the Show Boat cast launched into an a cappella, stirring rendition of "America," and as the song reached its climax, the posters were all turned over to reveal sections of red, white and blue, that when joined together formed the American flag (with the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS name in the upper left-hand corner).
"A Christmas Surprise" was the offering that followed, from the company of Disney's Beauty and the Beast. The holiday tribute began with company members singing familiar Xmas songs as a cleaning woman swept the stage. When the singers exited, she began a rousing "Santa Baby" and was joined by four hot male dancers who removed her frock to reveal a sexy outfit underneath. The five then danced their hearts out to a roar of approval from those in the audience.
Co-host Nathan Lane then announced: "And now back again, like a recurring nightmare, the cast of Tony 'n Tina's Wedding" who proceeded to stage a wonderfully hilarious musical entitled "King of the Gypsies," allegedly having misunderstood the concept of the event, thinking it was about footloose, Bajour-type gypsies.
"The Paige Brigade" was up next, Elaine Paige, that is, the current star of Sunset Boulevard. That show's skit involved the cast members' preparation for the arrival of its newest Norma Desmond. In a rigorous routine, the Sunset company members announced: "I solemnly swear/on my Gypsy soul/That to welcome Miss Paige/is my only goal." After reviewing the differences between American and English expressions (knickers for underwear, lift for elevator, the loo for toilet) and the proper way to great their new leading lady, a beaming Elaine Paige appeared, who delivered a rap song that ended with the English star saying a la Savion Glover: "I got one thing to say, Big up New York!"
The winning skit of the competition came from The King and I company which entered the stage to deliver a revised lyric of "I Hope I Get It" from A Chorus Line. As the ethnic company sang, "Look at all the Asians, at all the Asians. How many Asians can they need....," Lou Diamond Phillips emerged in drag (a pretty woman he is not) to audition for the show. Tony winner Donna Murphy also joined the skit dressed as A Chorus Line's Cassie (in a red leotard, but with a gigantic hoop skirt--a la Anna Leonowens). Later, Nathan Lane quipped that Lou Diamond Phillips looked like "Nancy Kwan on steroids."
Linda Gabler Romoff was the sole performer representing the cast of Victor/Victoria. She performed a breath-taking balloon act that consisted of her blowing up a gigantic balloon and engulfing herself within it. (Recalling a scene from the show that was cut out of town.) When she was completely inside the balloon, the outside revealed the words "Demand, Imagine and work for..." Then the balloon popped, and on her T-shirt was the conclusion of the sentence: "A cure." It was a sobering reminder of the reason for the talent-filled event.
The three clowns from The New Bozena took the stage next. As the three men roamed aimlessly about the stage, a voice from the speakers asked, "Which company of Grease! are you from," referring to the recent City Center engagement of that show for the Thanksgiving holiday. The clowns then performed a strange act that included shoving entire Twinkees into their mouths, throwing white bread into the audience, and bursting through a large bullseye!
Tom Viola, the producing director of the Gypsy of the Year competition, came onstage to "cover a set change" and to discuss the new BC/EFA AIDS quilt panel that will serve to remember all the heart, soul and tireless efforts that the Broadway community has donated to the AIDS cause, "long after the disease has been eradicated."
Like the company of Cats, the cast members of Off-Broadway's Cowgirl chose Rent's "La Vie Boheme" to use in their skit. Their retitled song, however, was "La Vie Bovine"!
A high-energy performance from the cast of Miss Saigon followed. As "Kim" sang to "Thuy": "Season after season, I survive somehow. If you want the reason, I will show you know," Tam (Kim's toddler in the show) walked onstage, refusing to perform and followed by his agent. The Saigon company--dressed as cheerleaders--followed with a spirited cheer for Tam. After cheering, dancing, singing, and performing acrobatics, the cast pleaded with Tam asking, "What do you think?" And the little boy responded, "I'll do it!"
Nathan Lane returned to the stage and remarked, "This is better than the Tony Awards." Then, Lane introduced the company of Grease!, by joking that there is also a bus and truck company of the show that will come to your home, and "the family member of your choice can play Teen Angel."
The Grease! company's skit, a musical vaudeville, poked fun at its producers, Fran and Barry Weissler, who are also responsible for the Chicago revival. Fran Weissler was portrayed by Seth Rudetsky in drag, and a woman dressed as Barry sang Joel Grey's "Mr. Cellophane shoulda been my name." Other cracks at the Weisslers included hiring "stars who are not in their prime" and the plan to produce a new musical for Andrea McArdle, entitled Frannie.
The company of Rent then took the roof off the theatre with a high volume version of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." The audience exploded as some of the best voices in the business soared to the high notes of this moving anthem.
The costumes of the late Howard Crabtree, who lost his battle with AIDS this past summer, were then saluted by members of his current hit show When Pigs Fly. Company members sported Crabtree's wonderfully innovative and colorful costumes while one of the show's stars, Michael West, sang "Over the Top": "The show's a queer one/there's no doubt./To be in it/you've got to be out." It was a parade of Crabtree's unique genius.
A handful of theatre stars, including Mary Louise Wilson and Madeleine Potter, then took the stage to read a list of all the Broadway, Off-Broadway and national touring productions that raised funds during the six-week competition period but who chose not to perform.
Jimmy Tate of Bring in 'Da Noise/Bring in 'Da Funk followed and performed an ode to short people, composed by Lapdog. Accompanied by musicians Dave Leiter, Bruce Musser and Jonathan Silverblatt, Tate recited a list of vertically-challenged performers and choreographers and admitted that he often "lies about my height."
The voice of Fred Owens, who stars in the Leiber/Stoller hit, Smokey Joe's Cafe, was heard over the intercom announcing: "It's the year 2034, and Smokey Joe's Cafe is still a big hit on Broadway. . . 75,000 performances of "Don Juan" later, here is the very elegant, very classy and very old Brenda Braxton." Braxton then emerged, made up as a haggard old woman, and delivered a hilarious monologue about the evolution of her performance of the song.
Before the final act of the evening, hosts Lane and Sabella returned to the stage to speak about the reason for the competition and asked for a moment of silence to remember all those we have lost from this devastating illness. The theatre, which moments before had been filled with peals of laughter, was now completely silent, a moving remembrance of all the wonderfully talented people the theatrical community has lost.
The finale of the competition was from the much-in-the-news cast of Les Miserables. The always wonderful Florence Lacey led a stirring version of Jerry Herman's "I'll Be Here Tomorrow," in which the cast announced "I'll be here tomorrow/My talent is surviving." The song segued into the lyric "when tomorrow comes" from Les Miz, and as the cast belted the final notes, the audiences roared its approval.
Here's a little history of the Gypsy of the Year competition, which began at the St. James Theatre on November 28, 1989. The first competition was hosted by Jonathan Hadary, Tyne Daly and the company of the revival of Gypsy and featured chorus members/gypsies from the companies of A Chorus Line, Black & Blue, Cats, Grand Hotel, Gypsy, Jerome Robbins' Broadway, Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd, The Heidi Chronicles, Three Penny Opera and Vampire Lesbians of Sodom/The Lady in Question. This fledgling competition raised $67,000 to benefit BC/EFA; subsequent competitions grew bigger in size, and proceeds doubled, tripled, quadrupled... and last year, Gypsy of the Year brought in a then-record-breaking $1,213,000.
Runners-up this year were Victor/Victoria which raised $93,528, Rent with $80,916 (accepted by Anthony Rapp), and Phantom and Forum with $76,900 each.
A special award was made to When Pigs Fly, which raised $11,330, the most of any Off-Broadway show.
It was a super performance from a community that is both talented and compassionate, a true reminder of the great humanity that exists in us all. Bravo gypsies.--