Notes from behind the scenes

On Sunday afternoon there was a typical Manhattan street fair all along Sixth Avenue — right in front of Radio City Music Hall, already bustling with arrivals for the 63rd Annual Tony Awards.

So at least if some ceremony attendees didn’t snag a Tony, at least they could pick up an arepa.

Around the corner on 50th Street gawkers were applauding legiters getting out of limos.

* * *

Of course, theater celebrity being a little less global than Hollywood fame, several onlookers weren’t sure who they were cheering.

“Who’s that?” said one tourist with a camera. “Is she in the movies? Does she write books?”

When Michele Lee arrived for the ceremony, the crowd let out a shout. “That’s Janet Leigh,” said one woman confidently.

  • The designers streamed backstage first, fresh from their wins announced during the pre-pre-telecast Creative Arts awards.

A large chunk of those design kudos went to creatives from “Billy Elliot,” including the honor of book of a tuner, which went to original writer of the screenplay Lee Hall.

“I was in the bathtub, thinking about my childhood,” he said, describing how the idea first came to him. “I saw a boy in a tutu walking down a back lane, and I sort of chased him and found out it was Billy Elliot.”

He added that yes, they are indeed thinking of making “Billy” back into a movie — this time, a musical version based on the stage incarnation.

“We’re thinking about it quite seriously,” he said. “But we’d have to think long and hard about how to do it.”

  • Of that first batch of musical laurels, one of the few that didn’t go to “Billy” went to Tim Hatley, the costume designer of “Shrek the Musical” – whose elaborate creations seem pretty tough to wear.

“I don’t set out to make their lives as difficult as possible,” he said with a smile. “But they’re difficult costumes to wear, there’s no doubt about that.”

* * *

Shirley Herz, the press agent who picked up an honorary Tony for sustained excellence, had no illusions about the standing of praisers in the biz.

“It’s so unusual, this award going to a press agent, because nobody every thinks of us,” she said. “Unless they want something.”

The PR veteran wouldn’t answer any questions about which of her clients proved most difficult. “I’m still working and don’t care to answer that,” she said.

Even before the ceremony began, Brian MacDevitt, the winning lighting designer from the revival of August Wilson play “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” thought maybe he’d be going home with a trophy Sunday night.

“I had a sense I might have a chance, just from talking to friends,” he said.

Much of the lighting in the show, which veers from realism to lyricism, is based on the paintings of Rufino Tamayo, he added. “I think a big reason I’m up here is the show allows a lighting designer to express bigger ideas than kitchen sink realism.”

* * *

Derek McLane’s winning set for “33 Variations” had similarly non-realistic flourishes.

The play takes place largely in a Beethoven archive in Bonn, Germany — but don’t look to his set design for an accurate picture of the real-life place.

“It actually doesn’t look anything like the archives in Bonn,” McLane admitted. “But it’s what I wish they looked like.”

* * *

Roger Robinson, the thesp who snagged the Tony for featured acting in a play for “Joe Turner,” savored performing the show for President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama.

And he was particularly struck by the fact the Commander in Chief was sitting in the Belasco Theater, given that venue’s history.

“It’s the only theater in New York that has a separate entrance for the balcony, and that’s because the balcony used to be reserved for black people,” he said. “So back then, the president of the United States could not have sat in that orchestra.”

* * *

Legit industry fave Angela Lansbury walked away with her fifth Tony for her featured perf in the revival of “Blithe Spirit.”

She’s already got a crowded mantle, but don’t worry – she’ll find a place for number five.

“It’s going to be great on this little shelf I have, because I needed the fifth to fill it out,” she joked.

Her other four Tonys have been for starring roles, but winning for a supporting part is no less of a thrill. “It doesn’t make any difference. It’s still silver. It’s still got my name on it!”

When asked when she’d be back on the boards to try for Tony no.6, she acknowledged it was a possibility. “But don’t count on it,” she laughed.

But there is a lot of Rialto talent she’d like to share the stage with sometime.

“I’d love to work with James Gandolfini,” she said, in the tones of a besotted admirer. “That’d be very nice.”

* * *

“Next to Normal” creatives Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey managed to throw a wrench in any potential “Billy Elliot” sweep, picking up the trophy for score. (Kitt also scored a shared kudo for orchestrations.)

“Normal,” a risky, small-scale tuner about a family grappling with a mother’s bipolar disorder, benefited from a long gestation process, including an unusual trajectory that went from an Off Broadway run at Second Stage to a regional stint at Area Stage in D.C., followed by the current Main Stem engagement.

“That period, from Second Stage through Arena to Broadway, is really where we found the show,” Kitt said.

“There were two huge elements that contributed to the show’s success,” Yorkey added. “One was producers who were willing to take a chance on us — David Stone, Second Stage, Arena — and two was audiences who were willing to take a chance on us.”

* * *

Matthew Warchus came off the Radio City stage as both a winner and an also-ran.

He won for his direction of play “God of Carnage.” But he was competing against himself, also nommed for the revival of trilogy “The Norman Conquests.”

“I actually am surprised that ‘God of Carnage’ got it,” he said. “Because ‘Norman Conquests’ is three plays. I figured bigger would get it.”

* * *

Liza Minnelli said she really was as unprepared as she seemed for her win for special theatrical event, which she picked up for “Liza’s at the Palace.”

“I didn’t know if it was going to be Will or myself,” said Liza with a Z, referring to fellow nominee Will Ferrell. “I thought maybe we’d split the vote and it would go to someone else.”

A lot of legiters figured she was a shoo-in for the kudo, given her iconic status. But she’s still not used to being billed as a cultural treasure.

“I don’t understand it. To me I’m just a gypsy,” she said. “Every time people say something like that, I’m started and thrilled and grateful. And all that jazz,” she added, with a wink to “Chicago,” the tuner by Minnelli’s longterm collaborators Kander and Ebb. “Me? An icon? A gay icon? I love it!”

* * *

Karen Olivo, who won the laurel for featured actress in a tuner, read the pre-Tony predictions in the papers. But that didn’t mean she expected to win.

“I guess I read the wrong one!” she said.

For the hit revival of “West Side Story,” Olivo had big shoes to fill stepping into the familiar role of Anita, previously played by Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno, among others.

“Someone told me to approach ‘the mantle of Anita’ you have to break it, and you have to build it from the ground up and really make it your own,” she said.

The Spanish-language elements help with that. “When I speak and sing in Spanish, it’s my Anita, because no one’s every done that before.”

* * *

Geoffrey Rush, taking home the trophy for lead actor in a play for his regal role in “Exit the King,” said he loves Gotham and the Broadway community — so much so, he wants to return soon.

“I definitely wa
nt to come back in the next couple of years,” he said, adding that he isn’t surprised Manhattanites took to the surreal work of “King” scribe Eugene Ionesco.

“People say Broadway is conservative, but I say: Did you see ‘I Am My Own Wife?’ ” he said, referring to the Tony-winning show about a German transvestite.

His Tony, of course, will share mantle-space with the Oscar he won for “Shine.”

“The big difference is, with a film award, it’s for something you’ve shot 15 months before,” he explained. “Here, our curtain today came down at 5:20, and we do it again Tuesday evening. So you’re really in the thick of it.”

* * *

Broadway vet Gregory Jbara, who plays the father of the title character in “Billy Elliot,” brought his wife up onstage with him when he won for featured actor in a musical.

“I brought her up because I wanted to acknowledge the fact that she’s spent the last year basically alone, raising our kids in L.A., which is where I live,” he said backstage.

He added that he enjoyed doing a show in which a major role — that of young Billy — is played by a rotating trio of thesps.

“You’re on your toes. You’re not allowed to let things get rote,” he said. “I think that’s a bit of a privilege for an actor.”

So where’s he going to put his new trinket?

“That’s a good question,” he said, looking over toward his wife. “I have to ask the boss.”

* * *

Two Tony winners — Jerry Herman, a lifetime achievement award winner, and Sonia Friedman, producer of the winning revival “The Norman Conquests” — broke news of an upcoming Broadway production.

The recent, well-received London staging of Herman’s “La Cage aux Folles” is on its way to Gotham, aiming for a spring berth on the Main Stem with Olivier-winner Douglas Hodge reprising the lead part he played in Blighty.

“They’re going to bring that production to this side of the world in a year or so,” Herman said.

The composer-lyricist became reflective backstage when he acknowledged, quite happily, that he’s not working on anything new.

“I think that my style of music has come, and was very, very good to me, and is gone now,” he said. “I think it’s better to know when to leave.”

Friedman was backstage with Tom Viertel, both of whom won as producers of revival “Norman.”

There was a whole herd of producers up on the Radio City stage with them. “I have to be honest, I didn’t recognize everybody,” Friedman cracked.

* * *

Alice Ripley, the shoo-in winner for actress in a tuner, plays a tempestuous mother grappling with bipolar disorder in “Next to Normal.”

But that character, Diana, isn’t much different from the woman who made the fiery acceptance speech on the stage of Radio City.

“That passion is in Diana,” she said. “But it comes out twisted.”

The thesp added she mostly drew on her own experience to play the part.

“I do have a Diana inside me. My husband is very patient.”

* * *

You’d think Elton John would be used to all the awards for “Billy,” with the show (for which he composed the music) already being a big hit in London and Australia.

But the Main Steam is still different. “The real test of a show’s stamina, and its legs, is always Broadway,” he said.

Turns out this is the first Tony ceremony John has ever attended. “It’s a lot more enjoyable than the Oscars!”

* * *

Marcia Gay Harden, clutching her Tony for lead actress in play “God of Carnage,” noted there were similarities between the role for which she won the Tony and the one for which she won the Oscar in “Pollack.”

“I’ve played women who fight with their husband a lot, and I’ve been rewarded for it!” she said. “I’ll have to remind my husband of that, the next time we get in a fight.”

* * *

Yasmina Reza, the French scribe of top play winner “God,” pointed out that her play turned out much funnier on Broadway than when she directed her own script in Paris.

“It was very dark, very violent, and not as funny,” she said. “It was much more cruel.”

This is Reza’s second Tony, following her trophy for “Art.”

“I don’t know why, but the Tony for me is the very best award,” she said. “It’s the only award, frankly. Nothing compares, because it is Broadway. It’s like a phantasme.”

* * *

Winning “Billy” helmer Stephen Daldry came backstage with “Billy” book-writer and lyricist Lee Hall, and while they were there news of another Broadway-bound project slipped out.

Hall’s play “The Pitmen Painters,” which ran at London’s National Theater in 2007, is on its way to the Rialto, with the show targeting a March run.

* * *

The trio of “Billy Elliot” boys looked shell-shocked by their shared win for lead actor in a tuner.

“I can’t even believe it was even real,” said one Billy, Kiril Kulish.

“It’s a dream come true just two minutes ago,” added another, David Alvarez.

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