On Tuesday I attended the most remarkable and celebratory of all the annual awards ceremonies that proliferate in New York at this time of the year: the Theatre World Awards, presented in the name and under the auspices of the annually published book, founded by the late John Willis, that provides a running archive of all the shows that open in New York every year.
It’s a shame that London has no equivalent publication (and I hereby publicly volunteer to start one!), but the amazing thing is that it’s not the only one here in New York: Playbill (publishers of the free programmes that are distributed in most Broadway houses, and also a website for which, to declare an interest, I am the London correspondent) also publishes a Broadway yearbook, and there’s also the superb Best Plays Theater yearbooks that’s been oldest of them all, in existence since 1920.
But Theatre World is the only one that also links the annual account of New York theatre between hard covers to a live awards ceremony, and one that, unlike all the other ceremonies about town, has a very specific and narrow range of focus: only those making their New York theatrical debuts are eligible for consideration.
This week’s event was its 68th year, and even if its veteran founder died two years ago, it continues as both his own personal legacy to New York theatre but also even more importantly as an occasion in which the torch of talent that keeps the theatre alive can be passed, almost literally, from one generation to the next. Each awards honoree receives their award from a previous winner, often from the most famous company member of the show in which they have appeared, like Finn Wittrock who received his award for his performance as Happy in Death of a Salesman that closed last weekend from Philip Seymour Hoffman who played Willy Loman in the same production, but who won his own Theatre World Award in 2000 for his appearance in True West, or Philip Boykin, who received his award for playing Crown in Porgy and Bess from David Alan Grier, who plays Sporting Life.
While most of the names are inevitably new to me, just as they are new to New York, one of the anomalies of the system is that someone may be new here but long established elsewhere, like Tracie Bennett who is currently making her Broadway debut in End of the Rainbow on the same Belasco stage where this year’s awards ceremony was held and where she duly picked up one. She already has two Oliviers; now she also has a newcomers award, too (and on Sunday, is in contention for a Tony Award as well)!
The overpowering sense that prevailed on Tuesday, both from presenters of the awards (who, as I mentioned already, had won them before) to the winners, was of a sense of a community that they now all belonged to; not just of the club of Theatre Word winners, but of the bigger club of New York theatre itself. And it’s true that Broadway creates a sense of community around the theatre, bound together as much by pressure and proximity as by the rivalries that the annual awards rounds create, too.
Of course it is a highly competitive industry, both at the audition stage to get a job at all, but then once you’ve got one, to reach an audience amongst all the shows clamouring for them. Jeremy Jordan, who won an award yesterday for his lead Broadway debut in last year’s short-lived Bonnie and Clyde, spoke of how heartbroken he and the company were when it closed so quickly. But for him, it’s been a bittersweet year as he’s now in contention for a Tony for the show that he went back into for its Broadway run, Disney’s Newsies, which he’d done before at Paper Mill Playhouse last summer and was able to return to for its Broadway run after Bonnie and Clyde failed. So, as always in the theatre, when one door closes another can open.