TBA Online: News & Features: May 2014

Tonys by the Bay

Monday, June 2, 2014   (0 Comments)
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By Chad Jones

When host Hugh Jackman kicks off this year's Tony Awards ceremony from Radio City Music Hall on June 8, we'll see a lively parade of what's happening on Broadway. But for those of us in other parts of the country where a great deal of theatre happens, we like to note the local connections to what are arguably American theatre's highest-profile awards. For instance, this year, we may see a Bay Area native nominated for a splashy Disney musical (hello, Hayward native James Monroe Iglehart in Aladdin). Or we might see a musical nominee that had its world premiere in downtown San Francisco (you've got a friend in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical).

Such connections go way back, maybe not to the beginning of the Tony Awards in 1947, but the last nearly seven decades boast enough Bay Area ties to bolster local pride. Award-worthy theatre and theatre people are abundant here.

Here's how you can fall down the Tony Awards rabbit hole: San Francisco native Carol Channing said, "Hello, Tony" in 1964 when she won a best actress in a musical award for her now-legendary turn in Hello, Dolly! She would go on to win a special Tony in 1968 and a lifetime achievement award in 1995. In 1963, basso-voiced Ruth Kobart, a longtime San Francisco resident who began working with American Conservatory Theater in 1967 and continued off and on until the 1990s, was nominated as best featured actress in a musical for playing Domina in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Former ACT company member and San Francisco native Manoel Felciano received a Tony nomination for his featured turn as Tobias in John Doyle's revival of Sweeney Todd in 2006, and Bill Irwin, a breakout star of San Francisco's Pickle Family Circus in the 1970s, received four Tony nominations for Largely New York—one of which (choreography) he shared with Kimi Okada, a founding member of San Francisco's ODC. Irwin won the best actor in a play Tony in 2005 for a revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? San Francisco native BD Wong won the Tony for best featured actor in 1988 for M. Butterfly, and two actors born in San Francisco and raised in Oakland were both Tony nominees: Barry Nelson (featured actor in the 1977 Liza Minnelli vehicle The Act) and Kathleen Chalfant (featured actress in the 1993 Broadway production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, a play that had its world premiere at San Francisco's Eureka Theatre). Whew.

Pickle Family Circus veteran and frequent American Conservatory Theater performer Bill Irwin, who won a 2005 best actor Tony for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Photo: Santos Irwin

American Conservatory Theater was the first of three Bay Area theatres to win the Tony presented for excellence in regional theatre, an award category instituted in 1976, with winners selected based on a recommendation from the American Theatre Critics Association. Bill Ball, ACT's founder, accepted the award in 1979 for both theatre performance and training.

ACT artistic director Carey Perloff says that award was meaningful at the time. "Very few theatres outside of New York received any kind of national recognition," she says. "It's like a Good Houskeeping seal of approval if you're a Tony-winning theatre. Like any recognition, it's very nice. It makes your board happy."

Ellen Richard, ACT's executive director, says the Tony for regional theatres represents a significant moment "when New York finally decided that there's theatre outside of New York. It's a real point of pride for an institution and makes people who work there feel good."

Does being a Tony-winning theatre help you sell more tickets? 

"Probably not," Richard says. "But it's a nice honor. Most people would rather have one than not. It's important to recognize national theatres because these days, so much of the product in New York is coming from these theatres."

Richard, who joined ACT in 2010, spent 22 years as the managing director of New York's Roundabout Theatre Company, one of the country's largest nonprofit theatres. During her tenure there, Richard won six Tony Awards for A View from the Bridge (1998 best revival of a play), Cabaret (1998 best revival of a musical), Side Man (1999 best play), Nine (2003 best revival of a musical), Assassins (2004 best revival of a musical) and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005 best revival of a play). She keeps most of her actual awards in the home she has in Connecticut, but she brought one with her to San Francisco to keep on her desk.

"I can tell you that Tony Awards are never part of the conversation here at ACT," Richard says. "But does a Tony make you feel good? Yes. That part is important."

The ACT Tony is displayed in a wall case in the stairwell from the lobby down to the basement bar. Berkeley Repertory Theatre's regional Tony, won in 1997, is in a case in the lobby of the Thrust Stage.

In New York for that year's ceremony, Berkeley Rep's then–artistic director Sharon Ott, along with Tony Taccone and Susan Medak, were in a town car arriving at the theatre.

"As your car pulls up on the red carpet, a barker sticks his head in the window to see who is in the car and shouts to the army of photographers who is in the car," says Taccone, who has been Berkeley Rep's artistic director since Ott's departure in 1997. "When our barker looked in and discovered who we were, he lifted his head and announced to the gathering: 'NOBODY!'"

Medak, Berkeley Rep's managing director since 1990, says Tony recognition is a nice validation for a company's years of work.

"But in the end, the reason the Tony was valuable and the reason we are careful to affix our name to any of our productions that go to New York is that it increases awareness of what we do here—the eclecticism and quality that is our trademark," she says. "That awareness helps us attract projects and artists and plays that we can, in turn, produce here in Berkeley."

Leslie McDonel, Gabrielle McClinton, Krystina Alabado, Talia Aaron, Nicci Claspell and Jillian Mueller in the 2012 touring company of American Idiot at the Orpheum Theatre. The musical premiered at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2009 before picking up two design Tonys on Broadway. Photo: Doug Hamilton

Two examples Medak cites are the Green Day musical American Idiot, which premiered at Berkeley Rep in 2009 and went on to win two Tony Awards (for Christine Jones's scenic design and Kevin Adams's lighting design), and last year's star-studded No Man's Land starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, which recently concluded its Broadway run (in rotating repertory with Waiting for Godot, which was not seen in Berkeley).

Those projects, Medak says, were the direct result of producers having seen other work Berkeley Rep sent to New York. American Idiot producer Tom Hulce saw the Stew musical Passing Strange, which debuted at Berkeley Rep in 2006 and went on to nab seven Tony Award nominations (winning one for best book), and that led him to think Berkeley Rep might be a good fit for American Idiot

"We've built a reputation for doing a really wide range of work, with shows like Sarah Jones's Bridge and Tunnel, Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room or Tony Kushner and Maurice Sendak's Brundibar," Medak says. "When they go to New York, they serve to illustrate just how expansive our taste is. They also are proof that we have a capacity to give those shows a longer life in other theatres. That makes us a very attractive place to originate new work."

On a more personal note, Medak says she remembers the Berkeley Rep staff marching in the How Berkeley Can You Be? parade around the time of the company's Tony Award. "We were forced to stop at an intersection to allow traffic to pass," Medak says. "The police officer handling traffic stopped all the cars and asked everyone within hearing distance to give a shout out to our ‘Tony Award–winning theatre.' I loved that in Berkeley, even our police officers were taking pride in our achievement."

ACT has also hosted pre-Broadway runs of Tony-nominated shows such as David Hirson's play Wrong Mountain (nomination for Daniel Davis as best featured actor in 2000), the Cole Porter musical High Society (1998 nominations for featured actors John McMartin and a young Anna Kendrick, who went on to be an Oscar-nominated movie actor), David Henry Hwang's play Golden Child (1998 nominations for best play, featured actress Julyana Soelistyo and Martin Pakledinaz's costumes) and August Wilson's drama Seven Guitars (1996 award to featured actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson and nominations for best play and featured actors Roger Robinson, Viola Davis and Michele Shay as well as Scott Bradley's sets, Christopher Akerlind's lights and Lloyd Richards's direction).

With its MFA program in acting, ACT can also boast students who go on to Tony glory, including Annette Bening (best featured actress nomination in 1987 for the play Coastal Disturbances), Christopher Fitzgerald (best featured actor in a musical nomination in 2010 for Finian's Rainbow) and Anika Noni Rose, who won the Tony for best featured actress in a musical in 2004 for Caroline, or Change.

Michael Gene Sullivan, Kevin Rolston, Velina Brown, Lisa Hori-Garcia, Victor Toman and Ed Holmes in the San Francisco Mime Troupe's Making a Killing, 2007. SFMT won a regional theatre Tony in 1987. Photo: Courtesy of the San Francisco Mime Troupe

The third and perhaps most surprising Bay Area company to win the regional theatre Tony is the San Francisco Mime Troupe. The surprise factor has nothing to do with the level of work the storied company has accomplished since its founding in 1959 but rather from its revolutionary, nonestablishment stance. The Mime Troupe's award came in 1987, and the collective voted to send members Sharon Lockwood and Eduardo Robledo to accept it on national television (unlike recent years, the regional theatre Tony presentation was included in the CBS telecast).

In true Mime Troupe fashion, Lockwood and Robledo's speech garnered boos as well as cheers.

"What we said now seems so tame," Lockwood says. "Eduardo made a dedication to Ben Linder, an engineer who was doing work in rural Nicaragua setting up hydroelectric power and was the first American killed by the Contras, the Reagan-backed, CIA-funded rebel group. I think, from what I understand, most of the boos came from the Andrew Lloyd contingent. But there were also a lot of people from the Royal Shakespeare Company there doing Les Liaisons Dangereuses on Broadway, and they congratulated us."

Lockwood and Linder were also required to thank American Express, who donated the $25,000 that accompanied the award. "We thanked AmEx for taking some of its money out of South Africa—there was still apartheid at the time—and giving it to us. We were able to thank them and criticize them at the same time."

Ed Holmes, who is now in his 28th year of working with the Mime Troupe, remembers hearing news of the Tony Award followed by cheers and a few grumbles. "Wait a minute. We're supposed to be outside the mainstream and this award is so mainstream," he recalls. "Does this blow our revolutionary street cred?" But after the question was asked, he says a response quickly followed: "Ah, f– it. The Troupe deserves this."
"We got some flak from old-time Mime Troupe folks saying we had sold out," Holmes says, "but it felt good to have our work recognized on a national level. I remember watching the broadcast that year. Kathleen Turner introduced a montage about us, then after Sharon and Eduardo accepted the award, they were followed by a musical number from Les Misérables with people waving giant red flags."

Keiko Carreiro, who was among a new wave of young Troupe members in '87, took photos holding the award once it arrived back in San Francisco and, like so many of her cohorts, took great pride in the award.

"It's a badge of legitimacy," she says. "For me personally, it has felt like something we have to continue to earn with each season, each show, each new audience. Really the audience is the test. If they don't stay until the end of the show and put money in the hat because they appreciate what they see, no number of awards will keep the company going."

Multiple Tony winner Wicked premiered at San Francisco's Curran Theatre in 2003 before its Broadway debut. Photo: Joan Marcus

In the realm of commercial theatre, the Bay Area has its share of major players as well. For instance, Deborah Taylor, an East Bay–based producer, won a Tony as one of multiple producers on the most recent revival of La Cage aux Folles and scored nominations for American Idiot and One Man, Two Guvnors. This season she is represented on Broadway with the Idina Menzel musical If/Then and the revival of The Glass Menagerie.

But the Bay Area's queen of the Tonys is indisputably Carole Shorenstein Hays, founder of SHN, the region's largest for-profit theatre company. As a producer, she has been scoring Tony nominations since 1981 (Woman of the Year) and counts among her awards two wins for August Wilson's Fences, the original production in 1987 (the year of the San Francisco Mime Troupe's award) and its revival in 2010 starring Denzel Washington, a former ACT student, who also scored a best actor award. Among Shorenstein Hays's other wins are Proof; The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?; Take Me Out; Doubt and War Horse. Her SHN season has also hosted out-of-town tryouts for big, Tony-winning hits like Wicked.

Palo Alto–based TheatreWorks got into the business of big Broadway hits with the rock 'n' roll musical Memphis, a show that started in the company's 2002 New Works Festival and then received its world premiere on its main stage in 2004 (a coproduction with the now-defunct North Shore Music Theatre). Under the guidance of producer Randy Adams (TheatreWorks' former managing director), the show made its way to Broadway, where eight Tony nominations resulted in four awards, including best musical, in 2010.

"We were thrilled that the five leads of our original production stayed with the show all the way," says TheatreWorks' founding artistic director, Robert Kelley. "Its success validated our commitment to new works as a core value of TheatreWorks. Our belief in Memphis and our pride in helping it grow remain primary accomplishments of the company, memories that will never fade."

Memphis came out of TheatreWorks' New Works Festival and played its main stage season in 2003 before heading to Broadway, where it won the 2010 Tony for best musical. Photo: David Allen

It seems that TheatreWorks is one of several Bay Area companies, along with California Shakespeare Theater and Magic Theatre, primed for a regional theatre Tony. Would Kelley mind such recognition?

"It would be the thrill of a lifetime to share a regional Tony with the dedicated artists and supporters of TheatreWorks throughout the Bay Area," he says. "There are very few theatres outside major cities that have achieved such recognition. I'm sure it would attract even more extraordinary writers, composers, actors and designers to inspire our work and share their own."

You can watch the Tony Awards live at Theatre Bay Area's Blushing Orchid Ball at the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco on June 8. Visit the Blushing Orchid Ball information page.

Chad Jones has been writing about Bay Area theatre since 1992. He blogs at theaterdogs.net.