Nominees Galore Pack Sardi's At May 14 Tony Brunch

Tony Awards   Nominees Galore Pack Sardi's At May 14 Tony Brunch

Clockwise from top left: Pamela Isaacs, Cy Coleman, and Sam Harris; Alfred Uhry, Dana Ivey, Celia Weston, and Terry Beaver; Daniel McDonald and Karen Ziemba; Robert Cuccioli, Bebe Neuwirth, Dana Ivey, and James Naughton

Photo credits: Starla Smith

For three hours May 14, the fourth floor of Sardi's theatrical restaurant in New York was more like Grand Central Station -- if you could fill Grand Central Station with stars, composers, choreographers, producers, press agents and paparazzi. The occasion? The official 1997 Tony Nominess Brunch, hosted by the League of American Theatres & Producers and the American Theatre Wing as a prelude to the big night, June 1, when the Tony winners are announced from the stage of Radio City Music Hall. Stars gobbled slices of turkey, scoops of eggs Benedict, grapes and cookies -- all while holding their framed, commemorative plaques, smiling for flashbulb bursts, and being jostled by journalists.

Playbill On-Line was there, and here's what we heard:

* Though Jekyll & Hyde received just four Tony nominations, you wouldn't know it from the smile of pride carried by best actor in a musical nominee, Robert Cuccioli. "No matter what the critics say," Cuccioli said, "we're getting standing ovations every night. There are lines outside the door. We have returnees coming back five, ten times. It's a word of mouth show."

In a conference run by the American Theatre Critics Association earlier in May, Cuccioli told the assembled that his character(s), of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, went through a transformation as the show toured across America, with Jekyll becoming more of a passionate, troubled man. Now that the show is frozen on Broadway, Playbill On-Line asked, is there any more room for character growth? "Oh, these guys are so diverse," said Cuccioli, "so intricate, I'm just scratching the surface. I could dig into these characters for years and never get bored."

* If Steel Pier ends up winning a Tony for best new musical, some of the credit will surely go to Tony-nominated choreographer Susan Stroman, who said the show was challenging and fun to work on, "because 1933 was a wonderful period for choreography. You had the lindy, the fox-trot, and all these animal-named dances. The hardest part of teaching my extraordinary dancers was to get them to dance together -- people don't do that anymore. With this musical, it was also important to make a metaphorical connection between the dancing and the relationship. It's about the abuse of dance, which mirrors the abuse of power in relationships."

* Though Alfred Uhry has much to be ballyhooing about -- his Last Night Of Ballyhoo is a strong contender for Best Play -- he's also excited about his next project, Parade, about the Leo Frank case. "I'm working with a 26 year old composer and lyricist, Jason Robert Brown -- he's exceptional." The show will have a reading the first week in June, with Matthew Broderick in the lead, joined by Evan Pappas (My Favorite Year, I Can Get It For You Wholesale) and Carolee Carmello. After going out of town in spring 1998, Livent is targeting the Harold Prince-directed production for Broadway in Sept. 1998.

* Ballyhoo received several nominations, including Dana Ivey for best actress and for Celia Weston featured actress. Weston told Playbill On-Line the key to her character, who can be slow and naive but is also fully conscious of her limitations, has to do with dignity. "The answer was not to make her obtuse or one-dimensional. She won't be derided."

Asked how Ballyhoo is holding up in a Broadway economic environment that doesn't exactly favor straight plays, Weston said, "I wish we had a budget for full-page ads and TV commercials, but only the big musicals can really do that these days. Our house holds under 600 people. But I love the character, and if the show runs, we're all contracted to be with it through the fall."

* Weston's Ballyhoo character might be the least imposing on Broadway; Chuck Cooper's might be the most. In The Life, he plays the menacing Memphis, who sings the bluesy "My Way Or The Highway" -- and then beats up the show's lead, Pamela Isaacs. In person and off the stage, Cooper is still imposing but much nicer. "I've been with this show [during its development] for seven years. And throughout there were moments we were balanced on the precipice and others where we knew we'd blossom and do well." Surprisingly (or maybe just humbly), Cooper's favorite moments in the show are not his own: "I love it when Pam [Isaacs] sings `He's No Good,' and when Lillias [White] does `The Oldest Profession.'"

* Cooper may be a Life veteran, but co-star and best actor nominee Sam Harris just joined the project in November 1996. "Director Michael Blakemore wanted to beef up the diablo character, so my role grew, and I got more pieces and reprises. My favorite moment in the show is when the audience -- who have suspected that JoJo is a bad guy but don't want to believe it -- really discover he's a bad guy."

"The best advice Blakemore gave me," added Harris, "was at the end of rehearsals. He said, `I'm leaving you now, so there's just one thing. Listen. Listen to each other, and it will help you stay in the moment."

* Perhaps more than any of the other musicals, Titanic may need the best musical Tony to stay afloat. The show received five nominations, including one in a brand new category: orchestration. Nominee Jonathan Tunick took a moment to explain the basics of this tricky category to evaluate.

"One mistake made by green orchestrators is they do too much," said Tunick. "It's a common error, but you must leave room for the voice to be heard and the music to breathe." Surprisingly, Tunick said the amplification of Broadway musicals hasn't changed the process of scoring (that is, arranging the piano accompaniment for a full orchestra, with separate parts for different instruments).

Tunick will be putting his years of experience to further use on his upcoming projects, including Betty Buckley's next album, and a project with Sir Paul McCartney.

* Andre De Shields -- Nominated for his role in Play On!, De Shields isn't wasting valuable time mourning over the show's early demise on Broadway. He's readying his one-man show about Louis Armstrong, "West End Blues," for a summer stint in North Carolina.

* Choreographer Wayne Cilento, nominated for Dream (its sole nomination), told Playbill On-Line the project was all-consuming for awhile. "I had a vision in my mind and all these great dancers, to do a dance piece to illustrate these Johnny Mercer songs. I think people were expecting just a bunch of songs around a piano, but that wasn't what I was after."

Asked whether the show wasn't frozen a bit too early, Cilento said, "Well, when we get to the Hollywood number, there was supposed to be a huge curtain call scene after it. But by then we figured the audience may have been saturated with choreography, so instead we just had the actors take their bows. And I was so involved in the process, sometimes you can't really step away... But at least this nomination recognizes the show's soul. And it really keeps the company's morale up, because dance is the show."

* Tonya Pinkins -- Though the short life of Play On! was something of a trial by fire for Pinkins, the actress is titling her upcoming memoir, Trial Of Faith. Pinkins, nominated for best actress in a musical, has a decidedly non-musical agenda: she's busy finishing up her law degree. That said, she did a reading a few weeks ago at Manhattan Theatre Club on a Sheldon Harnick/Michael Montel piece called, Good Company, which will likely be developed further.

* Luther Henderson -- was a bit more elegiac, yet still honest about the show. (He has reason for optimism: the show will almost certainly come to London's West End late Sept. 1997.) Nominated for his orchestrations for Play On!, Henderson saw the show as his connection and homage to Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, who helped get him started in the business. He sees the show as a continuation of the evolution of European and African influences and disciplines on the Ellington legacy.

Asked why he thought Play On! just couldn't make it commercially on Broadway, Henderson said, "Well, I think it was a little undercapitalized, especially for this climate. With so much going on, staying power is important. Also, when I first started, there were four or five newspapers in New York, so one review didn't make or break a show. Now we're basically subject to the New York Times, which isn't always bad, just different."

Henderson also saw New York as having trouble with the musical's basic conception. "The perception of black musicals is still evolving, but we still think of them as just `revues.' Ain't Misbehavin', Sophisticated Ladies, even Jelly's Last Jam had a kind of `revue' label. Play On! just didn't take it an extra step. It's a good show, but the public needed to be better educated about Ellington's genius."

* Helen Carey squeaked in just under the wire. She was nominated for Best Featured Actress in London Assurance, a Roundabout Theatre show that became the last Broadway production eligible for the 1996-97 Tonys. The play itself nabbed a best revival nomination, as did co-star Brian Bedford, for best actor.

Asked how she approached her rambunctious character, Carey said, "Well, the name Lady Gay Spanker had a different meaning at the time of the play. `Gay' just meant happy; a `spanker' was a kind of spirited horse. I definitely used that horse metaphor, because the character deals a lot better with horses and dogs than with humans."

* A much more sedate character is Pete Davenport in The Young Man From Atlanta. Featured actor nominee William Biff McGuire told Playbill On-Line he sees the Davenport character as one who brings a certain balance, "an equilibrium," to the household. Asked how he got the role, McGuire said, "I've known Horton [Foote] since I was twenty. I did his TV plays, historical dramas, in the 1950s. Recently I was doing a production of Uncle Vanya, and I got the call from Horton to come do Atlanta."

The 1996-97 Tony Awards will be broadcast on PBS from 8-9 PM (EST) and on CBS-TV from 9-11 PM (EST), June 1. Rosie O'Donnell will host the Radio City Music Hall event.

See more photos of your favorite stars at the Tony brunch by clicking on More Photos of the May 14 Tony Brunch in Tony News.

Playbill On-Line posts news, features and selections from the exclusive Tony Playbill every day in a special directory at: which can be found under "Tony News" on the navigation bar on the left size of every page on the website. Take a moment to glance over and check it out, under "News."

--By David Lefkowitz

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