In a move sure to thrill fans of both Stephen Sondheim and Elmo, Signature Theatre has named librettist John Weidman the winner of its 2016 Sondheim Award.
The prize is given annually at the theater’s spring gala to an artist who has collaborated with the great musical-theater lyricist and composer. Recipients include James Lapine, Jonathan Tunick and Bernadette Peters.
Weidman, a longtime writer for the children’s television show “Sesame Street,” got his start in theater in 1973, when, as a student at Yale Law School, he sent director Hal Prince a letter requesting an internship. As a postscript, he remarked that he thought the opening of Japan to the West would make an interesting subject for a play. Prince not only agreed, he commissioned Weidman to write the book and Sondheim the music for the show that became “Pacific Overtures.” The pair went on to create two more musicals, “Assassins” (1990) and “Road Show” (2008). Not coincidentally, a new production of “Road Show” opens at Signature this month.
Weidman’s other creative efforts include the Tony-nominated books for the musicals “Contact” and “Big.”
Weidman will receive his award April 4 at the Italian Embassy in Washington.
Joe Smelser has supervised dozens of theater evacuations during his 24-year career as a stage manager. He’s stood on city sidewalks with actors from “Julius Caesar” drenched in fake blood and herded 800 schoolchildren out of a theater during an earthquake in Seattle.
But Smelser had never dealt with an emergency quite like the one that occurred during Saturday’s matinee performance of “The Critic” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre. The show, which ends with a massive blaze, was interrupted by an actual fire alarm.
Actors had just dragged a four-foot replica of a cannon onstage and had begun to reenact the sinking of the Spanish Armada when alarms started sounding and strobe lights began flashing.
“There probably was a metatheatrical moment when the audience thought, ‘Oh, this is a very interesting choice by the director,’ ” Smelser said. “It even took me about five or six seconds to figure out what was going on. Then I realized, ‘This is really happening.’ ”
From his intercom in the tech booth, Smelser asked the audience to evacuate. House and concessions managers clicked into high gear and got all 410 patrons out of the theater, while Smelser made sure the cast and crew evacuated safely. Everyone rendezvoused outside on the still snowy Seventh Street NW sidewalks and huddled up to share whatever jackets where not still inside at the coat check.
A few generous patrons gave up their parkas to the underdressed actors, who were wearing 18th-century garb — pantaloons, low-cut bodices and other clothes “not appropriate for the weather,” Smelser said. Two fire department trucks were on the scene within five minutes, and Smelser said an emergency panel indicated that the alarm was triggered at Jaleo, the tapas restaurant next door to the theater. Regulations require clearing the Lansburgh if an alarm goes off at any of the four restaurants in the building. Jaleo patrons, however, did not evacuate, Smelser said.
A spokeswoman for Think Food Group, the company run by Jaleo owner José Andrés, did not return a call seeking comment.
After about 20 minutes, the fire department gave Smelser the all-clear. He had dropped the curtain inside the theater, and when it was raised, revealing the actors and the fake cannon, the audience cheered. Moments later, they roared as smoking model ships sank into the rippling fabric waves representing the Atlantic.
Most of the action in “The Critic,” a 1779 comedy by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, is a play-within-a-play. After a witty prologue that includes the quip “Critics only go to the theater to see what goes wrong,” an aspiring dramatist invites two critics to see a rehearsal for a tragedy, “The Spanish Armada.” Because both the play and the Spanish fleet are doomed, the prop cannon backfires, and pyrotechnic special effects simulate an onstage blaze. A bumbling bucket brigade goes to work, then a booming voice on an intercom (an actor, not Smelser) announces that the fire is out.
At that moment Saturday, Smelser recalled, the audience cheered and applauded like no other crowd that has come to see “The Critic.”
“It was quite an art-imitating-life moment,” he said. “I have seen all sorts of reasons to stop shows, but I’ve never seen an audience respond to the excitement of theater as a live event quite like this. They understood that theater requires a suspension of belief and that no one else will ever have this same experience.”
Lichtenberg met Farber last fall while serving as dramaturge for Farber’s searing new adaptation of “Salome.” (On Monday night, the play was nominated for 10 Helen Hayes Awards, more than any other non-musical in the region during 2015.) After the success of “Salome,” which was adapted from multiple sources, Farber asked Lichtenberg to look at her working script for “Les Blancs,” the final play by the writer of “Raisin in the Sun,” who died at age 34 in 1965 and left behind three drafts of her futuristic drama set in Africa. Her husband, Robert Nemiroff, unified those drafts into a play that was first produced in 1969. This week, Farber and Lichtenberg are meeting with representatives of Hansberry’s estate, hoping to get approval to use a revised version that draws from all three drafts.
“I think this could be a big [expletive] deal,” said Lichtenberg, who admits to being “flattered and flabbergasted” when Farber asked him to once again be her dramaturge, a researcher who helps a director better understand the given circumstances of a play.
“I hope to work on [‘Les Blancs’] the same way I work on a Shakespeare play and really try to approach it as humbly as possible. It’s my job to try to unlock the secrets and really try to figure out the world Hansberry wanted to see put onstage.”
Ritzel is a freelance writer.