First Nighter: What the Tony Nominees Have to Say forThemselves

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Michael Shannon, sitting in a tufted, black leather chair on rollers, is trying to get comfortable with it. Shifting in the way actors uneasy talking about themselves often do, he says that his fellow Long Day's Journey Into Night actors--Jessica Lange, Gabriel Byrne, John Gallagher Jr., Colby Minifie--behave towards each other like members of an ensemble, not like individuals with clashing egos. He also notes of the great Eugene O'Neill work, "The engine of the play is love." I'm not so convinced of that, but I don't say so.

This tete-a-tete is taking place on the second floor of the Paramount Hotel where this year's Meet-the-Tony-Nominees event is once again in full sway. It's always an amusing time had by all--okay, maybe some of the nominees enjoy it less than others, and some press members, too.

Maybe what I'm trying to say is that I always get a kick out of it. The way it works is that journalists are positioned in different places as press agents lead nominees around from outlet to outlet. Us print drudges have been led to the second floor and a long table where we're meant to sit cramped side by side facing the "talent" on the other side.

A few of us opt out of the arrangement and set up our own enclaves. I'm at a low chest of drawers. I'm eager to get started, but it doesn't take long to realize that the press agents favor the camera crews over the print contingent. This means that although the meet-and-greet was scheduled to begin at 9:30, it's almost 10:30 when the first interviewee arrives in my corner of the Tony-nominee world.

Dressed in a tannish yellow suit and looking dapper, he's Marshall Mason. I hope no one reading this is asking, "Marshall Who?" He wouldn't be surprised to hear the query, since, when I get up to address him by name and introduce myself, he lets me know he's relieved.

This is director Marshall Mason, who founded the Circle Repertory Company in the early 1960s and has contributed immeasurably to American theater, in large part by way of his 40-year collaboration with late playwright Lanford Wilson. I let him know that in the those years I saw the first of the collaborations, Hot L Baltimore, and he's relieved again.

The recipient this year of a special award, he points out that although Wilson and he may not be household names--in theater-loving crowds they should be--his repertory acting company remains active. He mentions Reed Birney and Jeff Daniels, both on Broadway right now. (Daniels is nominated for Blackbird; Birney's in The Humans.)

When Mason leaves, it's quiet again, but having heard set designer David Rockwell is in the vicinity, I go looking for him. He's something of an acquaintance, which makes me particularly glad he's up for designing the charmingly ingenious She Loves Me set.

When I locate him and inquire where designing for the theater fits into his busy career as head of the Rockwell Group, where 250 or so designers work on, say, restaurants, he says designing for theater is his "personal work." He likes it because he long ago "realized that 1300 people together in a room form a community that can be told a story visually." That delighted him then and still does.

I return to my spot, and Jennifer Simard sits down opposite me. She's tapped for her performance as the nun in Disaster! More than that, she's the sole nominee from the production, which only a day or two after the noms do is announced to close. I'm glad to talk to her, because her performance is my favorite in the featured actress in a musical category. I tell her as much.

I say I like what she does, because she underplays the nun, who's conflicted about working the one-armed bandit. She replies that for her, acting means "less is more." She confides that she likes making the audience come to her, which it definitely does. She also tells me that she's beholden for her Manhattan career to Forbidden Broadway creator Gerard Alessandrini. She auditioned for him in Boston some years ago, and that instigated her move to New York City. The rest is Simard history.

Next comes 92-year-old lyricist Sheldon Harnick, who's getting the nod for lifetime achievement. It's been quite a year for him: The Fiddler on the Roof and She Loves Me revivals are both nominated in a category of four. I ask him what the award means to him. He says his life has been a series of ups and downs but that the current industry acknowledgement "makes it all worthwhile."

I don't ask him to itemize the ups and downs, but instead tell him that the brief off-Broadway run this season at the York Theatre of Rothschild and Sons, his revision of The Rothschilds, pleased me no end. He's happy to hear it and mentions that there's talk of bringing it back for a longer run. He adds that It's a Wonderful Life, the musical adaptation of the movie--and his collaboration with the late Joe Raposo--had an out-of-town run this year but copyright hitches are still keeping it from coming to the Great White Way.

Copyright glitches surface again when Glenn Slater, nominated for his School of Rock lyrics sits. He reveals he'd been after Andrew Lloyd Webber to supply those lyrics for some time. After conjuring the Love Never Dies words--for those who don't know, Love Never Dies is the Phantom of the Opera sequel that never showed up in Manhattan--he informed Lord Lloyd Webber that a teenage Slater son has been learning guitar in a School of Rock-like spot. "I know that world!" Slater insisted to Lloyd Webber. Bingo!

Now the busy lyricist has A Bronx Tale headed across the Hudson from the Paper Mill Plahouse soon, and he's adapting the movie A Bucket of Blood. But will tuner lovers ever see his adaptation of the Coen Brothers' The Hudsucker Proxy? Not too soon if the messy copyright situation isn't cleared up. What Slater and I talk about then is how just about everyone who's ever tried to write a musical and get it produced has some sort of horror story to relay.

When Manhattan Theatre Club's producers Lynne Meadow (she also directs) and Barry Grove start talking, they're focused first on their nominated play The Father. They say they'd only briefly met its author, 36-year-old Florian Zeller, currently the toast of Paris theater. When I say I'd been there two months ago and had seen his newest play, Le Mensonge, and think it's strong, they say they're looking closely at it for presentation here. That's when it occurs to me to ask Meadow how she decides which season's entries she wants to direct--"Some seasons I want to direct them all," she blurts.

When they leave, I spy Zachary Levi, the She Loves Me leading man. He's passing by in a snazzy glen plaid suit and looking movie-star photogenic. Since his press agent guides are hustling him away quickly, they allow me a single question. I ask if preparing for the role James Stewart played in the 1940 Little Shop Around the Corner version, he watched Stewart. He answers that he "grew up on Stewart." I thought so. It's not that he imitates Stewart but that he has something of Stewart's qualities. Not bad, is it?

Christopher Fitzgerald, sporting a pair of spanking-new black-and-white running shoes, isn't going to comment when I ask how it feels as a featured player, he steals the first act of Waitress with songwriter Sara Bareilles's "Never Ever Getting Rid of Me." I recognize that it's my place to say it, not his. What he does say is that he'd been doing readings of the musical and that when he'd first heard the song, he thought, "I'd like to get a crack at it."

We also spend a minute or two talking about his wife, Jessica Stone, with whom, he says, he's acted four times and has also been directed by. Since I'm a big Fitzgerald fan and a Stone fan as well, I say so. By the way, the two first encountered doing the Encores! series Babes in Arms in which they sang "I Wish I Were in Love Again." Now that's a meet-cute story to end all meet-cute stories.

So there you have my nominee chats. Jessica Lange of Long Day's... never makes it to our outpost. Hamilton's Jonathan Groff and Thomas Kail, its director, do but disappear before I could waylay them. Several others, too, passed by while I was talking to those mentioned above. But that's the Tony-Nominees-Meet-the-Press for you. Always as cheerful a couple of hours as you'd want.

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