FOR ITS FIRST three years, the Helen Hayes Awards has been an exciting but uneven night. To attract corporate sponsors and national attention, the event was gradually turning into a parade of glamorous but gratuitous celebrities, while the Washington performers and theater artists -- the ostensible subjects of the evening -- were relegated to a supporting role. Something was wrong with this picture.
So some changes were due, and a new crew is moving to put the big night in the hands of the people who make Washington theater. The fourth annual evening, which moves from the Kennedy Center Opera House back to the smaller and more manageable National Theatre on May 9, will be produced by Elizabeth Brown, who worked on previous shows with producer Bonnie Nelson Schwartz. Jeffrey B. Davis, first artistic director at the Round House Theater, will direct the show, which will be written by Leslie B. Jacobson, artistic director of Horizons Theater and former president of the League of Washington Theaters. The set and lighting will be designed by Studio Theater's Russell Metheny and Daniel MacLean Wagner, who are wrestling with a unique design problem -- the awards show has to share the stage with the giant junkyard set of "Cats."
"Impressing isn't what it's about. Including is," says Brown. "This night brings together such a spectrum of Washington -- the diplomatic crowd, the Hill crowd, performing arts, corporate funders, District leaders . . . All of them should get a glimpse of how theater happens here."
"We're trying to emphasize Washington theater, as opposed to bringing a lot of other people from other places to "glamorize" Washington," says Jacobson. So this year, the stars will be Washington performers and nationally known artists who were previous HH winners or nominees. This year's nominees will be announced March 22.
Most playwrights and composers have to worry a little about the way their work is going to be interpreted. Not actor Michael Rupert. Not only did he write the music for the new musical "Mail" at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, he also stars in it. And his standby is none other than the show's lyricist and librettist, Jerry Colker.
The "Mail"-men first met in the original Broadway production of "Pippin." Rupert was playing Pippin, Colker was cast as his brother Louis, and they became friends when they went on the road with the show. A few years later they found themselves in the 1980 musical "Swing," which never made it past its out-of-town tryout (at the Kennedy Center).
"So there we were, our show was supposed to come in to Broadway and it didn't, and we were waiting for the next thing to happen," Colker says. "Anyone who is an actor is very much out of control. Meaning they're at the mercy of chance. Basically you're waiting and hoping for that big break, and let's say a show comes along and you go, 'Gee, I'm perfect for that part,' and for whatever reason you don't get it. And then what? You wait again, for the next show, which you may or may not be right for. That's why actors go so nutty."
"We were sitting around backstage, and we thought wouldn't it be interesting to write something ourselves?" says Rupert. "It may be awful, but who knows?"
So instead of getting old waiting for the right show to come along, Rupert and Colker sat down and wrote one: "Three Guys Naked From the Waist Down," a musical comedy about three standup comics. Colker wound up starring in the show, which did quite well off-Broadway. Their success led them to put together "Mail," which has gone from a low-budget, long-running hit at the Pasadena Playhouse to a $3 million Broadway hopeful.
Both men say they've found that the dual role of creator-performer means they can't just walk away from the show at day's end.
"As a performer, you do your job and you go home. On the other side you find yourself involved with every aspect of the show. You become very protective of it," Colker says.
"The tough part," says Rupert, "is when I'm exhausted and tired at the end of the first act, and I have to sing these high notes in this big number 'Blank Piece of Paper.' I suddenly think, who the hell wrote this? And there are times, when I'm a little tired, that I'll recompose a melody line a little. That drives Jerry crazy. But hey, I'm up there, I'm singing it, I wrote the music. It's my ball."
Bulletin Board: After "M. Butterfly" flits off to New York, "Cats" creeps back to the National Theatre -- for only 10 weeks, beginning April 12. Expect a noticeable reduction in scale and spectacle: A theater spokesman notes that while previous touring companies of the show took up to three days to install sets, this version snaps together in a scant 10 hours. It's only a matter of time before "Cats" are prowling around tables at dinner theaters . . . American Showcase Theater has pushed back the opening of its "Old Times" by a week because of last-minute cast changes. Jill Kamp, who was directing, now plays Anna; Andy Wiesnet replaces Kamp as director . . . Face it, you can't get tickets to "Phantom of the Opera." But you can listen to someone talk about it. British theater critic Sheridan Morley (billed as son of actor Robert Morley, grandson of actress Gladys Cooper and godson of Noel Coward) will talk about the history of the Phantom story, from novel to movie to mega-musical, at a slide-illustrated lecture March 7, 8 p.m. at Baird Auditorium. Morley will also talk about omnipresent composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's success. Call 357-3030 . . . Live theater offers different things to different individuals: entertainment, insight, spectacle, etc. Washington playwright George Kaparonis' monologue "Mister Head" promises "muscular relaxation with visual changes followed by giddiness, straying of concentration and feelings of disassociation without loss of awareness." If that sounds appealing, you'll want to see it performed by the appropriately named Cabaret Psilocybin, March 8 and 15 at d.c. space. Call 347-4960.