Stage Scene

June 3, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: Last night’s Tony awards were a study in contrasts. The big winner: An extravagant musical reinvention of an old Julie Andrews movie.

MARY TYLER MOORE: And the 2002 Tony Award for best new musical goes to "Thoroughly Modern Millie."

GWEN IFILL: "Thoroughly Modern Millie," an old-fashioned story of a small-town girl in the big city, won six Tonys, including best musical, and best actress for newcomer Sutton Foster.

SUTTON FOSTER: To say that this is a dream come true is an understatement. I could not be more honored to be a part of this show. It is truly a thrill to work with this incredible company every night. I want to personally thank the entire creative staff and the producers for trusting their work to take a risk on hiring me.

GWEN IFILL: The runner-up in the musical category was "Urinetown," a satire with an unlikely title, that got its start on the lower east side of Manhattan.

SPOKESPERSON: Tony goes to "Urinetown: The Musical."

GWEN IFILL: "Urinetown," a spoof about a town which bans the use of private restrooms, won for best book of a musical, best direction, and best original score.

JOHN RANDO: I have to thank my extraordinary cast. They were there from the beginning, way down in the trenches. They all shared the same dressing room, all 16 of them– the same toilet, which is very fitting for our show.

GWEN IFILL: Unlike last year’s box office and critical phenomenon, "The Producers," no single production swept this year’s Tonys. Instead, 11 shows shared the awards. Almost 40 years after winning his first Tony for "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf," Edward Albee won his second last night, for the drama "The Goat or Who is Sylvia," beating out Pulitzer Prize-winner Suzan Lori Parks’ entry, "Top Dog/Underdog." Mary Zimmerman won the Tony for play direction for "Metamorphoses," a retelling of the stories of King Midas, Hermes, and Orpheus.

Broadway theater took a hit after the September 11 attacks. Attendance was down 8 percent in 2001. But revenue was down less than 4 percent, in part because tickets cost more.

GWEN IFILL: So was Broadway’s big night a reflection on the state of the American theater? For answers and opinions, we turn to two theater vets: Carey Perloff, the artistic director of the American conservatory theater in San Francisco, and playwright Wendy Wasserstein. She won a Tony and a Pulitzer prize in 1989 for her play, "The Heidi Chronicles." Welcome, women. What if anything… I’ll start with you, Wendy Wasserstein, did last night’s Tony awards have to do with the state of American theater, but the state of Broadway especially, right now?

WENDY WASSERSTEIN: Well, I think in the way that so many of the Tony winners actually had honed their skills not on Broadway. Someone like the director Mary Zimmerman has worked in Chicago for years. The writers of "Urinetown" worked, you know, on the lower east side. I think many of the people who go on to win Tony awards, in fact, have worked in the lively American theater across the country, including Carey Perloff.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Carey Perloff, there were all piece revivals and musicals turned into musicals, like the "Thoroughly Modern Millie," which made such a good splash last night. What does that tell us about the state of Broadway right now?

CAREY PERLOFF: Well, it’s a cautious moment because we’re in an economically troubled time in this country. I think the first thing we should say is it’s thrilling that given the trauma in the country this year that we were able to come together and celebrate the theater last night and that the theater has survived and it’s flourishing and is providing a place in this country for people to come together. And that was very heartening to me.

There will always be more traditional material, or safer material, than cutting-edge material by the time it gets to the level of Broadway, but I would reiterate what Wendy said, that there were some great surprises that Edward Albee was there with a radical play like "The Goat." That "Urinetown" is such a lively and unpredictable show, and that it made it not only to Broadway but to the Tonys I think is a very hopeful sign.

GWEN IFILL: But "Urinetown" which you pointed out, which is kind of offbeat, to put it mildly, didn’t hold a candle in the end to the very traditional "Thoroughly Modern Millie." What did you think of the fact of….

CAREY PERLOFF: That’s not true. It won… look, it won the best book, the best music, and the best director, so how it could not win the best musical is a little peculiar, but that’s the way that voting goes. You know, I think that people are excited about two very different kinds of shows, you know, one much more traditional and more appealing probably to certain constituents and one that represents the new, I think.

GWEN IFILL: Wendy Wasserstein, you’re a New Yorker, how did Broadway theater rebound, or did it rebound, after September 11?

WENDY WASSERSTEIN: I actually think it’s truly rebounded because I’m a Tony voter so I spent the past weeks going to the Broadway theater. And actually the audiences there have seemed very excited about, you know, very different things. Sitting in the audience of "Private Lives" last week, for many of those people, it was the first time they had ever seen that play, and they were, you know, thrilled with it, clapping in between the scenes. And I thought that was remarkably healthy.

And I felt that same way seeing "The Crucible" and even seeing Edward Albee’s play "The Goat." Afterwards I heard people talking about it. I mean, I think at issue here is, you know, "where are the new plays? How many new plays are being done on Broadway? How many new musicals there are." A lot of revivals. But the atmosphere is one– I agree with Carey– there’s an upness to it and I think there’s a joy in coming together, in rediscovering that sort of communal effect the theater has.

GWEN IFILL: Well, help us with your own question.

CAREY PERLOFF: I also think…

GWEN IFILL: One second, Carey. I’ll be with you in a second. Where are the new plays, Wendy?

WENDY WASSERSTEIN: I think the new plays… I don’t know any playwright who writes a play specifically for Broadway. I mean, maybe Neil Simon, but in terms of the next generations of playwrights, they were all done at the regional theater at the off Broadway theater, at the non-for-profit theater. They are developed in places that specifically nurture new writing. Then along the road, maybe one or two of them lands up on Broadway, but that doesn’t ten to be the norm.

GWEN IFILL: Carey Perloff, you wanted to jump in.

CAREY PERLOFF: One of the things I think that was exciting about watching the awards last night is to see new talent emerge on the acting front as well, like Sutton Foster who was an understudy in "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and got her chance. And I think that’s always a sort of glorious moment in the theater when artists can breakthrough. I think, as Wendy said, in terms of playwrights, it’s really important to nurture writers in communities that are accustomed to new work over a long period of time so that those works can actually breathe before they’re sent into the marketplace.

GWEN IFILL: You can take this chance to plug yourself if you like, but where are those communities where this kind of new work is taking place?

CAREY PERLOFF: Oh, I think there are fertile communities all over. I think Seattle is one. We do a lot of new work in San Francisco. There’s new work happening in Los Angeles, in Chicago, in Dallas, in Hartford, in Providence, you know, particularly in theaters that are also attached to playwriting programs or that have theater labs somewhere attached to them.

Every theater has its sort of cadre of writers about whom it’s particularly passionate. And I think if you travel around the country, what’s interesting about the ecology of the American theater is how particular it is from community to community. Depending on what the gestalt of that community is, you’ll see either much more scripted new work or there are communities in which the theater is more ensemble-based and less based on plays particularly. But I think, you know, Broadway represents just one aspect of a very fertile, broad ecology in the American theater.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Wendy Wasserstein, respond to that. What is your take on the ecology of the American theater?

WENDY WASSERSTEIN: Well, I think even if you look at last night’s awards, as I said, Mary Zimmerman worked in Chicago. "Metamorphosis" was done at the Second Stage Theater, a small off-Broadway theater. Suzanne Lori Parks, who won the Pulitzer, has worked at the public theater with George Wolf for years. I mean, I think that you have to look at these relationships and artists across the country in various… in the large regional theaters and in the smaller theaters as well. Plays take time. Plays need to be nurtured, but I think what’s very true is there is a yearning, not only to be in the community, but also to have that experience of an individual’s voice hitting you, that it’s not something that processed in a way. Playwrighting and the theater is still an art form, and therefore, it has… it works in a very distinct way.

GWEN IFILL: Is there a financial disincentive — I’m going to stay with you a minute, Wendy — is there a financial disincentive to risk taking on Broadway or in theater or in any other city?

WENDY WASSERSTEIN: There is in a way. I was thinking about, there was once a workshop of a play of mine "An American Daughter" at the Seattle Rep. And for $5 you could have come to city Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore and Liev Schreiber, and Adam Arkin in a reading of that play. And it wasn’t even a big deal. In Seattle, it wasn’t a big event or anything. It was just a reading of a play. I think in that… that’s very hard to happen in New York. That’s much easier in towns across the country.

GWEN IFILL: Carey Perloff, there has been some criticism, at least among the critical glitterati in New York, about "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and about the great big popular musicals which walk away with awards so often. Last year there was the same criticism of "42nd street," as I recall. Where is the creative work that’s going to happen that’s going to revive Broadway to original work, or does that even have to happen?

CAREY PERLOFF: Well, you know, there are artists bubbling up all over the place who right now wouldn’t think of and perhaps will never think of Broadway as being their outlet. I was just at a big theater communications group conference in Portland, the subject of which was new work. And literally the mention of Broadway never came up, and this was 150 theater professionals from all over the country developing a very wide range of very interesting work.

For example, my theater just developed a new music theater piece with David Lang, the composer of the "Bangin’ a Can" music festival in New York, and Mac Wellman, who’s one of the most important avant-garde playwrights downtown in New York, created a new music theater piece which we’re going to tour. And Broadway is absolutely not its destination. It’s not that kind of piece, but it was a piece that was thrilling and very important for this community and I think will be important in Europe and in communities around the country. So I think there are many ways that new work can flourish. Broadway is one destination, but what I’m finding in the theater now is there are a lot of younger artists for whom Broadway is not necessarily the destination they’re seeking.

GWEN IFILL: Okay. Well, the theater then is alive and well. Carey Perloff and Wendy Wasserstein, thank you very much for joining us.