News Column

Spotlight is on Kansas City at Sunday night's Tony Awards

June 8, 2013

YellowBrix

June 08--Each year a Broadway marketing ritual unfolds like this: In early May, the Tony nominations are announced and within days new signage goes up on the marquee of any theater playing a nominated show.

This year that meant changes on about a dozen historic playhouses clustered between Sixth and Eighth avenues in midtown Manhattan. The new signs all proclaimed a variation of the same message: "Nominated for 13 (or 12 or 10 or six or perhaps just two) Tony Awards!"

After the Tony Awards are handed out Sunday night at Radio City Music Hall, those signs will come down almost immediately and some of them will be replaced with a new message: "Winner of the 2013 Tony Award!"

A win could translate into more ticket sales for some shows, which would be good news for producers and theater owners after a 6 percent drop in attendance during the 2012-13 Broadway season.

The Tonys are a New York show in every sense, but this year the awards are likely to generate more interest in Kansas City than they normally would. The Kansas City Repertory Theatre was the originating theater company for "A Christmas Story, The Musical," which is up for three awards, including best musical. And Lauren Ward, a Hickman Mills High School graduate who has forged a stage career in London and New York, is up for a Tony in recognition of her featured performance as Miss Honey in "Matilda the Musical," a British show nominated in 12 categories.

Over lunch one afternoon in a theater district bistro, Ward leaned across the table and said in an elaborate stage whisper: "I'm not going to win."

But then Ward never expected to be nominated. Nor did her husband, award-winning director Matthew Warchus, who staged "Matilda" first in Stratford-on-Avon in 2010 and then in the West End (London's equivalent to Broadway) for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Across the pond, the show collected seven Olivier Awards and is still running.

When the Broadway production was planned, Ward knew she wanted to continue with the show. She would have a chance to spend time in New York, see old friends and let her three British-American kids experience the city. But it also meant closing up their house in London and enrolling the kids in New York schools. All in all, a daunting exercise in stress management.

"Matthew said, 'Are you sure you want to go back?'" Ward recalled. Then Warchus added: "Because this is not going to be your Tony-nomination performance."

Warchus should know. He has a Tony Award himself -- he might win another for "Matilda" -- and he has guided several shows and actors to wins through the years. Ward chuckled as she recounted the conversation. But she knew what he meant. Miss Honey is not a flashy role.

"Matilda" is based on a Roald Dahl novel about a brainy little girl with cruel parents and an even crueler school mistress. Miss Honey is the kindhearted teacher who tries to protect her.

"She's kind of the emotional pillar of the show," Ward said. "She's the window for the audience to see all the craziness of what's going on. And you sort of have to be egoless in it. It's not about how many laughs you're getting. She's the most real character -- she and Matilda."

All of which made a Tony nomination a gratifying surprise.

"Honestly, those parts usually do not get recognized," she said. "Especially in the featured category. It's usually more scenery-chewing-type parts. ... With this show, I really believe in the actual work that we're doing and I believe in what the piece has to say about humanity. So I'm really proud to be in it and I'm proud that it's entertaining at the same time. The icing for me is that this type of piece and this type of performance is being recognized."

How the nomination -- or a win -- could benefit her career is unknown, and Ward chose not to speculate.

"I don't know how much it will mean for me professionally," she said. "I've got no idea. It's definitely a complete honor to be recognized and it's wonderful to be recognized. But I think most of us -- actors, directors, artists -- just kind of keep plugging away at the work that you do. Sometimes you do amazing work and nobody ever sees it. And sometimes you do work that isn't that great and people love it and you're going, 'I don't get it.'"

If "A Christmas Story" were to win in any category, it would be a feather in the Rep's cap. The Rep is listed along with the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle in a long roster of producing entities that brought "A Christmas Story" to Broadway. But to be associated with a Tony-winning show would be a first in the company's 49-year history.

Eric Rosen, the Rep's artistic director, smiled during an afternoon interview at the Public Theatre in the East Village as he invoked a standard line used by nominees: "It's an honor just to be nominated."

"There were a bunch of new musicals this season, and that show beat out some likely contestants for the best-musical nomination," said Rosen, who directed the original 2009 production in Kansas City and staged it again in Seattle. "That was the great surprise. Just to be in that category is important for us. God willing, if we're lucky enough to win something, that would be sort of icing on the cake."

"A Christmas Story," because of its seasonal subject matter, had a limited Broadway run in November and December. But it found an audience. Weekly grosses rose from about $461,000 to more than $1.5 million in its final week. And it received generally enthusiastic reviews.

Rosen said the combination of Tony nominations for "A Christmas Story" and the opening this week of "Venice," which received its world premiere at the Rep in 2010 and is now in previews at the Public, had generated considerable theater community buzz in New York: What's going on with this Kansas City company that has a show in the Tonys and is preparing to open a new musical at the same time?

"I can't go to the Tonys because I have to be here at a preview," Rosen said. "And that's kind of great. Both these things are very good for the Rep."

Rep board members have long dreamed of a regional Tony Award encased in glass in the Rep lobby. But that award is determined by the membership of the American Theatre Critics Association, not by the normal Tony voters. The regional Tony is usually bestowed on a company for a body of work spanning years.

"The awards and recognitions are useful just to mark a level of achievement that people outside the industry can appreciate and understand," Rosen said. "And that's why getting the regional Tony would be so great. You and I know the regional Tony is kind of a beauty contest among members of the theater critics association. No one else does. But every theater that wins it for five years puts it on the cover of their brochures. And I don't mean to dismiss it. You know, it would be a dream if we won. It's nice to win awards. Better than not."

A "Christmas Story" win might be the next best thing to a regional Tony. Rosen said he was stunned by the explosion of interest when the Tony nominations were announced.

"I thought it was kind of amazing, actually," he said. "I don't think I was good in explaining why it was a big deal that we were going to Broadway. People understood it in sort of an abstract way. But when the nominations came out, everyone I ever met called me and emailed me."

The Rep's association with the show had become less direct over time as other producing entities got involved. Rosen didn't work on the show after its Seattle run. But the words "Tony Award" got people's attention nonetheless.

"It's such a graspable, tangible thing," he said.

He recalled that the company he founded in Chicago, About Face Theatre, was the first company to stage Doug Wright's "I Am My Own Wife," which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award.

"That is something I will always be able to say, that I worked on a play that won the Pulitzer," he said.

In other words, the nomination -- let alone a possible win -- gives the Rep some bragging rights.

"I think it just puts us in a category in people's minds, which is the category I hope we're already in," he said. "I get a little hoarse from cheerleading for the Rep."

Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theatre, has a unique perspective on awards. The distinguished nonprofit company has a history of developing shows that transfer to Broadway. To date, the Public has won 42 Tonys, 158 Obie Awards, 45 Drama Desk Awards and four Pulitzers.

"It's a crude measure, but it's a way to bring distinction and attention to a theater community," Eustis said. "And that's useful. I get kind of self-righteous about being a nonprofit, but even at its highest level it's a form of show business, and we are trying to get people excited about what we do. And awards are one way of doing that."

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

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