Bette Midler Stops the Show at the Outer Critics Circle Awards
BY HARRY HAUN
MAY 27, 2017
The 67th Annual Outer Critics Circle Awards, presented May 25 at a mid-afternoon luncheon in Sardi’s Eugenia Room, was blessed this year with a premature, but nevertheless divine, intermission. A good third of the way through the proceedings, a five-foot-one bundle of Entertainment Concentrate swiggled (that’s the only word for it) her way to the podium to pick up her OCC prize for Best Actress in a Musical.
Bette Midler, dressed in an all-black pants suit and crowned with a turban as colorful as Carmen Miranda’s headdress, took her time, tiny-two-stepping through the crowd to get her reward and then provided five minutes of relief from all the heartfelt “out-of-body experiences” and “dream-come-trues” of the other honorees.
Her first order of business was to correct the sound, which had been a tad fuzzy for the first ten speeches. “You don’t mind, do you?” she coquetted. “It’s so people at the back can hear these pearls of wisdom that are going to be falling from my lips.”
After a back-of-the-room sound check, Midler turned to the happy business at hand and gave a master class in how to accept an award graciously and entertainingly.
“Thank you to the Outer Critics Circle, you magnificent people,” she gushed. “You’re so humane, telling us who’s getting the award in advance so we don’t have to get dressed and show up, only to lose. This is so nice. And you held the event right across the street from the Shubert Theatre where I’m holding forth every night.” She paused to modify, “Nearly every night—let’s not go there. It’s my kind of ceremony.
“Oh, boy! This is the hardest job I’ve ever had in my whole life—not just accepting the award but this is for a few people on Broadway. You people are nuts! I’ve never encountered people who worked so hard and are still kinda cheerful about it. I mean, I’m whining all the way to the bank. I’ve never had to work this hard. It hurts. I have acid reflux. Oh, my God! The clothes are so tight. Thank you, Santo.”
“Santo” was the first of a laundry list of names that she recited right off the top of her head, punctuating each with a jokey aside. “I want to give a shout out to Jerry Zaks, our director, our choreographer, Warren Carlyle, who is absolutely brilliant. He loves everything I do. He thinks everything I do is genius. ‘Keep it in! Keep it in!’ It’s a very florid performance. I want to thank all the sensational designers involved–even Santo Loquasto, who trussed me up like a Christmas goose. I want to thank Natasha Katz for making me look half my age and Scott Lehrer for his beautiful sound design and, of course, our producer, the mastermind, Scott Rudin, who eventually got me to say yes after many, many, many, many, many months of saying ‘Noooooooo.’” She dropped to a lower register. “‘Noooooooo, thank you.’”
“But you know what? Once I jumped into the pool, it was pretty good. I was surprised how much fun I had, especially during the rehearsals. I thought the rehearsals were absolutely top-drawer. I loved it. I looked forward to getting up in the morning and going to meet the kids and learning the steps and standing in the rehearsal room with Andy Einhorn, who is our musical director, without whom I could not have survived. And Larry Hochman did fantastic orchestrations.
“It’s been a steep learning curve. I’m not too nervous in front of you. I don’t know why. I guess it’s because you’re already reviewed the show so I don’t give a shit.”
Hosted by OCC president Simon Saltzman, the ceremony otherwise got off to a running stop with the presentation of the Best Actor in a Play award. Last year’s winner in this category—Frank Langella for The Father—holds the record for an eloquent thank-you: six minutes, 45 seconds. This year’s winner—Kevin Kline for Present Language—set a record of sorts himself by not showing up at all.
“Accepting the award for Best Actor is me,” Christopher Fitzgerald sprightly declared. He, along with Katie Finneran and Danny Burstein, introduced the winners to their awards. There was no message or acknowledgement from Kline. Danny DeVito, cited for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play, also no-showed, but sent a message of profound appreciation (at age 72, he made his Broadway debut in The Price).
British actor-director Simon McBurney, a winner for Outstanding Solo Performance for The Encounter, was similarly indisposed but sent remarks that were read by Blossom Johnson. These heaped praise on the show’s extraordinary sound work.
Manhattan Theatre Club’s artistic director, Lynne Meadow, also had to bow out at the last minute, and the speech she prepared to receive the award for the year’s best revival (Jitney) was given by an associate. Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the director who brought the last of August Wilson’s ten plays to Broadway, got maximum credit for it.
Otherwise, award-wise, the gang was all there—and then some. Two new OCC awards were presented this year—Sound Design and Orchestration. They were won respectively by Come From Away’s Gareth Owen and Hello, Dolly!’s Larry Hochman.
The John Gassner Award for best new American playwright, named for the OCC founder and Yale School of Drama professor, was won by Bess Wohl for her near-mute play Small Mouth Sounds.
“To me,” Wohl reflected, “this award is particularly moving because it reminds me of how the things that we do in our lifetime continue after we are gone. So I want to say, first, to thank John Gassner for continuing to encourage and inspire me.
“It’s funny,” she mused, “my inner critic has never done anything nice for me at all. She is terrible to me. Next time she screams like a raging banshee in my head, which will probably be in, like, three to five minutes or maybe less, I’m just going to take this [award] and I’m going to throw it and hit her face to get her to stop.”
Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon, who are currently swapping the roles of Regina and Birdie in The Little Foxes like a tennis match, emerged winners in the acting categories—Linney’s Regina for Outstanding Actress, Nixon’s Birdie for Outstanding Featured Actress—and both were presented their awards by Katie Finneran.
“I’ve known Kate since she was 21,” said Nixon, “and I think it’s worth pointing out that her husband, Darren Goldstein, abuses Birdie eight times a week—whether it’s Laura as Birdie or me as Birdie. I think the Goldsteins are trying to make it up to us.”
Nixon then did a deep bow in the direction of Linney for dreaming up this double-casting in the first place. “I just have to take my hat off to Laura every day for this amazing, creative idea that she had and for having the gumption and self-confidence and everything else to say, ‘I have this great part. Do you want to share it with me?’”
Linney extended that praise to the rest of the cast. “Dan Sullivan has directed the most wonderful group of actors. There’s not one that I try to avoid in the hallway.”
She closed with a nice thank you: “Just a reminder to the Outer Critics. What you do is important. You chronicle theatre for us, and people will read your reviews decades later, so I want to thank you for that. Theatre history is very important. It keeps us on the road. It reminds us of our past, and it encourages us to be better.”
Gavin Creel spilled his salad all over his pants in his mad rush to the podium to get his Featured Actor citation. This OCC award is his first sign he’s doing something right. “I don’t read reviews. The last one I read was for Thoroughly Modern Millie, my first show in New York, and it said, ‘Gavin Creel is generic and has the stage presence of a wet feather boa.’”
Creel got his second heaping of praise when Warren Carlyle stepped up to get the choreography prize. “Gavin Creel walks through the door each rehearsal every day and says yes. He starts his day with the word yes. With dance, it’s such an important thing. Dance is scary to many people. Gavin just knows how to say yes, and I’m so grateful. You’re such a leader in that department for us, and you continue to be.”
The award for musical revival went, predictably, to Hello, Dolly! producer Rudin, who tapped the show’s director to pick it up for him. He didn’t waste any time getting around to thanking the show’s original creators. “Hello, Dolly! is about Jerry Herman. It’s about Michael Stewart. It’s about Gower Champion. It’s as simple as that. And it’s about our producer, Scott Rudin, who made this happen and on Broadway and with this cast and with all our collaborators.”
The OCC’s best Off-Broadway musical, The Band’s Visit, is scheduled to step up to Tony Award consideration this fall (Nov. 9 at the Barrymore), and picked up two OCCs. The bookwriter, Itamar Moses, did all the talking for the best musical award, and songwriter David Yazbek had the podium to himself for the Marjorie Gunner award for best score. It came with $1,000 cash prize. “I’m rich!” Yazbek exclaimed.
Come From Away was OCC’s big winner in the musical category—scoring for best Broadway musical (Junkyard Productions), best director (Christopher Ashley), best musical book (Irene Sankoff and David Hein), the aforementioned best sound design and best featured actress (Jenn Colella). Chirped the latter. “Thank you to the Outer Critics. I was nominated for my Broadway debut in Urban Cowboy, and so it is awesome 15 years later to accept this award. I wasn’t ready then. I’m ready now.”
Receiving the director-of-a-play honors, Indecent’s Rebecca Taichman thanked playwright Paula Vogel for her epic vision and collaborative skills. Catherine Zuber was recognized for the dazzling duds in War Paint, and a carryover from past seasons that kept getting bigger—Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812—won for sets and lighting. Aaron Rhyne’s projection design for Anastasia likewise won.
Steven Levenson, who is currently in Tony contention for his Dear Evan Hanson book, fared well with the OCC sans music with his Off-Broadway drama, If I Forget.
He said, “I have to thank Todd Haimes, who has given me an artistic home for the past ten years and who believed in this play when I didn’t, and I have to thank my agent, who told me last summer on the phone I wasn’t actually allowed to call Todd and tell him to cancel the play just because I was scared people wouldn’t like it.”
Levenson and Wohl were pointedly congratulated by J. T. Rogers, when his Oslo got him top honors for new Broadway play, and he added a nice footnote: “The nominees that were with me in this category were also my fellow nominees for the Tony: Lucan Hnath, Paula Vogel and Lynn Nottage. They are my friends. They are my colleagues. They are remarkable playwrights. It’s a privilege to write with them, and tonight, on our own, the four of us are going out to dinner. How fucking cool is this?”