Signature Will Receive Tony Award as One of Nation's Leading Regional Theaters

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Finally, Signature Theatre is getting a Tony. The Arlington-based company, which for two decades has been churning out musicals, both original and in revival, will receive the special Tony Award given annually to one of the nation's leading regional theaters.

The prize, which comes with a $25,000 check, is only the second to be earned by a troupe based in the Washington area. Arena Stage won the first regional theater Tony when the category was established in 1976. Other companies that have won the award include Chicago's Goodman Theatre, San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse and, more recently, Atlanta's Alliance Theatre.

"For 20 years, Signature has broadened and brightened the region's cultural landscape with its bold productions of challenging new and established works," said a statement from the Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing, the groups that administer the Tonys.

The award is a boost for Signature's efforts to gain more attention nationally.

"It's great for Signature and recognizes the work that we do," Eric Schaeffer, Signature's artistic director since its inception, said of the Tony Award. "But I also think it's great for theater in Washington. It just recognizes what an important theater town this is."

The company, which has 38 full-time employees and a $6 million budget, moved in January 2007 into a handsome new dual-theater complex in the center of the Village at Shirlington. In the past year, the theater showcased three musicals by John Kander and Fred Ebb -- including a new version of "The Visit" starring Chita Rivera -- and staged a highly successful, revamped version of "Les Misérables."

The Tony Awards will be presented June 7, airing as a three-hour CBS telecast from Radio City Music Hall.

Last week, Signature bestowed its inaugural Stephen Sondheim Award upon Sondheim himself; he has long been an inspiration for the company, which presents one of his musicals in some form every season. And this week Signature unveils an immense, world premiere adaptation of the Edna Ferber novel "Giant," with music by Michael John LaChiusa and a libretto by Sybille Pearson. The seed money for the show came from a portion of a $1 million grant to Signature for the creation of new musicals by two New York benefactors, Ted and Mary Jo Shen.

Not all the company's ambitions of late have panned out. Last spring, a Broadway outing for Signature's chamber musical "Glory Days" ended almost as soon as it began, with the show shuttering after opening night.

"It just reaffirms your faith when you take huge risks," Schaeffer added. "Yes, they're not going to all pay off, but it's a validation of taking the risk when other people would have run the other way."

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