Broadway galas are one-night only extravaganzas. Top talent assemble to lift up their own. And they give their all. At the Drama League’s “Embrace the Season” Gala, we were regaled by Broadway stars from appetizer to desert, with insider stories along the way.
The evening honored Jeffrey Richards. From publicist to eight-time Tony Award winning lead producer, he’s got five decades and 35 big ticket plays and musicals under his belt. He shepherded the revivals of Porgy and Bess, Sunday in the Park with George, Fiddler on the Roof, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Next, Leslie Odom will reprise the title role of Purlie Victorious (that my old friend Cleavon Little created many years ago).
One after another, Broadway names sung and sung his praises. The lineup: Tony and Drama League Award past and future winners and nominees.
Annaleigh Ashford (Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George), Tony Award winner and/or nominees Norm Lewis (Porgy and Bess, Phantom of the Opera), Leslie Odom Jr. (Purlie, Hamilton), Danny Burstein (Moulin Rouge, Fiddler), Jessica Hecht (Summer 1976, Fiddler), Arielle Jacobs (Here Lies Love, Aladdin), Andrew Durand (Shucked), and Betsy Aidem (Prayer for the French Republic).
There were “sneak peek” performances from upcoming Broadway musicals How To Dance in Ohio and Water For Elephants and Real Women Have Curves. All produced by Drama League Artistic Director Gabriel Stelian Shanks under the auspices of Executive Director Bevin Ross.
“The Drama League is an artistic home for Broadway directors in their early but not too early careers,” Board President Bonnie Comley told me. Comley’s a three time Tony Award winning producer with husband Stewart Lane.
She’s also the visionary/CEO of BroadwayHD, the streaming service she and Stew co-founded that has exceeded expectations and brought a wider audience into theaters. “Top name directors mentor our fellows as they direct productions. When the big name directors go on to create new shows, our fellows can become the resident directors. You can’t put a price tag on that kind of education. The resident director on Hamilton is one of ours.”
“In the past 10 years, our Fellows Program has mentored about 1/3 of the Broadway and Off Broadway show directors. We have a record success that is the gold standard of artistic development in the United States.
“I’m a proud drama mama!” exclaimed Bonnie.
When this proud drama mama and proud papa, Stewart, stepped out of their car for the Gala, they were met with a sea of flashlights … behind them. Across the street from the Edison was the Broadway opening of Barry Manilow’s in demand musical Harmony.
Spying them, the star, Sierra Boggess stepped off the red carpet and ran over. “These beautiful people gave me my first professional job,” she proclaimed to the crowd! That was in the regional company of Princesses, 20 years ago. She went on to create the role of ‘Ariel’ in The Little Mermaid on Broadway in 2007, starred in School of Rock and played Christine Daaé for years in Phantom.
Sentimental Stew was touched. “It’s kinda what you do theater for,” he said.
That success for the 450 Drama League alumni includes 24 Tony Award Nominations, nine wins, 48 Drama Desk Award Nominations, 10 wins, 20 Obie Awards, multiple Oscar, Emmy, Golden Globe, Peabody, Jefferson, Drama-Logue, Helen Hayes, NAACP, GLAAD, Princess Grace Nominations and Awards.
“They really open the door for you,” Diane Paulus, well-known Tony Award-winning director and Directors Fellows alumnus told the room. “They don’t just take you to shows. You go backstage. You meet actors, go to dinner with producers.”
Jeffrey Richards was another step in her career. “My first Broadway show was the revival of the musical Hair, she continued, eyes on the honoree. “Jeffrey joined our producing team … I remember being back in the Hirschfeld theater and you would slip in and we would watch parts of the show together …. Opening night, I remember being backstage in a crowded dressing room changing clothes to get ready when you called.”
“‘Dianne,’ you said, “I don’t give opening night presents. I give you your next project.” It was a play. “I called back and said, ‘You know, I think I’m hooked on musicals … that’s what’s beating in my heart.’ Can you believe I was turning down a Broadway producer sending me a play? A couple of weeks later you took me to lunch, sat me down and said, ‘How about Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess?’ ‘Now you’re talking!’”
Hair won Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Best Revival of a Musical. Paulus was nominated for Best Direction of a Musical for her revivals of Hair and Porgy and Bess, and won the award for Pippin.
Next, Norm Lewis testified. He played Porgy opposite Audra McDonald’s Bess. “We had just started rehearsing and Stephen Sondheim wrote a letter to the Times saying, I can’t believe that you are going to change and make these archetypes into something else,” he told the room. “Some of our investors were a little nervous about that. Jeffrey came to us and said, ‘Just stay the course, do your work and we’re going to be fine.’”
They got 10 Tony Award nominations. Audra won Best Actress in a Musical. To illustrate the flavor of the revival, Lewis sang a few bars of the original “I Got Plenty o’Nuttin,’” then his interpretation.
Also on the program: Danny Burstein and Jessica Hecht reprising “Do you Love Me” from Fiddler and Annaleigh Ashford closing the evening with Alana Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket,” complete with audience participation. Love for theater ignited a room filled with Broadway producers, investors, marketing professionals and aficionados. It was a real New York night.
We turned from Broadway People to City People, the title of Elizabeth Topp’s new book about the rarified world of Manhattan’s privileged moms.
Applications, tests, interviews, competition, pressure. Getting into the right school is everything. College? No, kindergarten: in New York. Elizabeth Topp — pedigree: Dalton, Harvard, Park Avenue — used the process as a jumping off point for her new book about the world of Manhattan’s privileged moms. In fact, jumping off is just where the book begins: when one fictional mom leaps off a high building. It’s based on one of Topp’s “mommy friends,” who left her two and four-year-olds motherless.
Barbara Tober threw Liz a book party. They hugged like old pals who know each other very well. Liz has been Barbara’s right hand for 20 years. They have shorthand communication.
The whole extended family was there, Millie Martini Bratten, dubbed Barbara’s “adopted daughter” from two previous decades together at Conde Nast, and other assistants Lisa Vita, a former marketing big wig and Joanna Johnston, the opera singer who runs Barbara’s Yellow Frame Farm.
“The book is about diversity, the objective of rainbow colors in the classroom,” Liz told me. “But what does it mean to have a community that really cares about one another? Can there really be equity in private schools?
“In the book, there’s a fictitious letter based on a real letter addressing diversity, equity and inclusion, a reckoning that roiled private schools, and was reported in Vanity Fair. The actual letter, written anonymously, claimed anti-racism had overtaken and corrupted the curriculum — in seven detailed pages. ’Many of us do not feel welcome anymore,’ it ended, signed ‘with loving concern.’ I don’t feel that way. Everybody knows you need to have a diverse classroom, but not everybody is going to like it.”
This is a departure from Topp’s first book, Perfectly Impossible, a comical look at the world of philanthropy through the eyes of a Park Avenue assistant, “a fun romp down Park Avenue peeking in the windows,” Liz characterized.
How did Barbara characterize it? “I am NOT that woman in the philanthropy book,” she told the room, laughing. I laughed through the whole smart and funny book.
For City People, the kindergarten admission process is no joke. “It’s the main point of entry from a numbers perspective,” Liz continued, “your best shot, because they accept the most kids. There is prestige associated, it’s part of your identity, your social circle for the next 15 years.”
And it’s not cheap. Moving to Connecticut or Larchmont, with their quality public schools, solves the problem. “In the book,” Liz told me, “everyone wonders, ‘did she kill herself because she had to move to Larchmont?’”
Where else would you hear THAT punchline?
And there you have it: two truly New York nights!