NEW YORK — Shortly before he took his final bow on this earth, the wily Alexander Cohen tried to sell me on the idea that the Dramatists Guild Awards gala would one day replace the Tony Awards. Aware of the producer’s infamous League-o-phobia, I passed on writing up that one.
Cohen, however, was right about one thing. Playwrights know how to put on a great show. Now in its fourth year, the DG event remains one of my favorites precisely because it bears so little resemblance to any other awards fete.
Playwrights, lyricists and composers always entertain by performing scenes and songs cut from their most famous productions. I doubt they’d be so generous in exposing the creative process if the event were being broadcast.
Last year, Stephen Sondheim exhumed the lyrics that, once upon a time, graced Leonard Bernstein’s prologue to “West Side Story.”
For last week’s fete at the Hudson Theater, Alfred Uhry, Richard Greenberg and Terrence McNally exposed to the spotlight material never before performed. Likewise, John Kander unveiled “It,” replaced back in 1975 by “Nowadays,” the grand finale of his and Fred Ebb‘s “Chicago.” With razzle-dazzle lyrics like “We want to get it/Please give us some of it/Girls without it might as well quit,” Kander deemed the tune “unbelievable in every sense.”
Debbie Gravitte and Karen Ziemba proceeded to perform the hell out of “It,” even though Kander claimed their sassy rendition, or any other, “the first and last time ever on stage” for this number. Despite that, most Broadway tuners nowadays could use a lot of “It.”
Wendy Wasserstein, book writer on the new “Pamela’s First Musical,” introduced Cy Coleman and David Zippel‘s excised song “I Know What I Like” from that show, recently workshopped at Lincoln Center Theater.
Sung by Tony Roberts at the guild gala, it lampoons a famous, nasty theater critic named Simon Crankly. Most intriguing was Wasserstein’s take on the song’s inspiration, which gave us a special look into the mind of LCT’s artistic director.
During press previews, the scribe revealed, “Andre Bishop always gives a running dialogue of what every critic is thinking.” And they say cell phones are disruptive.
Alan Menken performed his and Howard Ashman’s “We’ll Have Tomorrow,” cut from “Little Shop of Horrors.” It has been more than 20 years since I last saw the frothy, campy show, but I don’t recall anything as hauntingly gorgeous as this tune.
Menken said the lovely ballad went out the door in rehearsals at the WPA. “At that point in the second act, we were hurtling forward and Howard said not to stop the train,” he recalled later in a phone interview.
Might we hear it in the upcoming Broadway revival? “Howard is not here,” Menken said of his late writing partner. “How can we justify changing the show now?”
The DG gala bestowed honors upon Jonathan Reynolds (Flora Roberts Award), Jerry Herman (Frederick Loewe Award) and Dael Orlandersmith (Hull-Warriner Award).
In receiving the guild’s lifetime achievement award, Neil Simon mentioned the night’s host, Nathan Lane, and many playwrights who have inspired him over the years. What lingers in the memory is the way Simon captured the poignant isolation of his art.
“I must have written 186 plays, which hasn’t left me much of a life,” he said. “I don’t feel alive unless I’m writing.”
He couldn’t resist a jab at legit reviewers: “No sooner does the critic find something in my work that he likes than he is replaced by someone who doesn’t.”
His toughest critic, of course, is always on the job.
“When they’re good, they’re not good enough,” he said of his plays. “When they’re bad, there’s no pain like it.”
Simon was in town not just to pick up his award but to secure a not-for-profit berth in Gotham for his latest play, “Rose and Walsh,” which had a recent successful run at the Geffen Playhouse.
Despite the gala’s chockablock talent, producers once again remained few and far between at this event. Jane Harmon always shows up, and it was nice to see “Chicago” producer Barry Weissler and Emanuel Azenberg, who goes way back with the man of the hour.