The 72nd Theatre World Awards

The 72nd Theatre World Awards

Spencer Lau 

  • OnStage New Jersey Columnist

So what’s it like to be at one of the biggest and most meaningful awards ceremonies for the theatre community? I am excited to tell you about the experience my students had as we attended the 72nd Theatre World Awards in the Circle in the Square Theatre (home of last year’s Best Musical, Fun Home) and hosted by renowned Broadway critic and historian, Peter Filichia.


In case you have never heard of or don’t know the history of these awards, “The Theatre World Awards are presented annually at the end of the theatre season to six actors and six actresses for their significant debut performances in a Broadway or Off-Broadway production” (TWA History).  What makes these awards special is that they are given for your first Broadway role. In turn, you are asked to present this award to someone making their debut in the future. Here’s your first bit of trivia: The Tony Awards celebrated their 70th presentation this year. The Theatre World Awards are TWO YEARS OLDER. Founded by John Willis in 1944 with Daniel Blum and Norman McDonald, they conceived that the theatre community should recognize the “Promising Personalities”.  The previous award winner list spans legends like Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster and Betty Comden to last year’s winners Sydney Lucas, Robert Fairchild and Daveed Diggs (to name a few).  The Awards Committee is made up of some of the best minds in theatre press like Peter Filichia (The Newark Star-Ledger, Emeritus), Harry Haun (Playbill), and Frank Scheck (The Hollywood Reporter).  The Board of Directors is headed by president Dale Badway and sponsored by Mahoney Asset Management and its president, Ken Mahoney. 


I can only imagine what it’s like to get ready the day of an awards ceremony.  Monday May 23rd there was so much excitement building at school before leaving.  The kids were counting their absences to see if they could leave school early to get ready.  The awards ceremony starts at 7pm and school ends at 2:15pm.  But in those 4+ hours many kids had to take the bus home, get cleaned up and come back, get on a bus, and stop for dinner before getting into the city.  Since the award winners are named ahead of time, so many of the kids are looking up any biographical information or performances they could find on the Internet.  The kids and selected chaperones all arrived at school 3:30pm and we are on our way.  I do have to say, everyone cleans up nicely.  So off we go to NYC dressed up with the men all in shirts, ties, and jackets and the ladies in their Sunday best.  The best part of the drive up is stopping at a rest stop for a thirty-minute dinner break and everyone going into a New Jersey Turnpike rest stop dressed up.  Of course the girls and some moms run to the bathroom to fix make up and the dads and boys are debating how much they want to eat before going to the awards but everyone can agree on stopping at Starbucks (as one student calls it, “pre-theatre routine”). Now we are back on the bus and on our way and making great time.  Whoops, I just jinxed myself, and we are now parked on the helix down to the Lincoln Tunnel.  So long story short, we get to the theatre at 7:57pm, and a big thank you to the folks who ran the Box Office on helping get us all in and to Peter Filichia for holding for five minutes.  We literally sat down while Peter was delivering his opening monologue [and let me say it is a theatre geek version of the Johnny Carson (Jimmy Fallon, for you kids) Tonight Show monologue]. 

72nd Theatre World Awards:

If I wrote about each presenter and each acceptance speech, this column would be about eight-pages long and you would have already lost interest.  What I would like to do is just give you some of the highlights and things that struck my students, chaperones, and myself.  The first thing that struck my students is that the Broadway community is a family.  How many times do we hear in community theatre and Summer stock productions about how one actor or production person will treat another because they got what the other wanted?  Everyone stood up and cheered for each other.  These recipients are receiving an award for debuting on Broadway or off.  The first actress to receive an award was one of the most anticipated amongst my students, Lupita Nyong’o.  Ms. Nyong’o voices the character Maz Kanata in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and won an Oscar for her role in 12 Years a Slave.  So many kids were so taken a back with how humble she was and how intrigued to learn more about her play, Eclipsed, which she passionately talked about.  One parent said to me afterwards that her daughter wants to perform in shows that bring to light to social issues and events like Lupita does in Eclipsed.  

The wonderful cast of Spring Awakenings was inspring. They were all there to support Daniel Durant and Austin P. McKenzie receiving their Theatre World Award.  The joy, love, and support they gave each other was tremendous and so heartfelt.  They were talking about the Deaf West Family and the groundbreaking work the revival of Spring Awakenings brought to the theatre world.  In January, my students performed The Lion King Jr. at the Junior Theatre Festival and we signed the song “Circle of Life”. The energy and level of signing peaked every student’s interest.  They watched in amazement as they saw these speeches being signed and the passion you give as signing is the way your express yourself.  Korrine Maurer, a 7th Grader, who won an Inspirational Award at the Festival for teaching ASL to the kids found herself “inspired and excited to learn more”.

During the Theatre World Awards you heard such amazing stories of how these fine actors and actresses got into acting, how their families supported them, how much they love the craft, and how people who weren’t even family members gave them support because of their kindness, determination, and love for everyone around them.  Carmen Cusack (Bright Star, closing this week GO SEE IT) talked about how she couldn’t believe that Joanna Gleason presented her with her award.  Danielle Brooks (Color Purple) told us of an inspirational woman who gave her $25,000 to go to school and pursue her career in acting.  One of my personal highlights was being able to be in the same room as Jerry Mitchell.  His shows have inspired me to attempt to dance and direct for years.  He presented the wonderful Ana Villafane (On Your Feet) and told everyone about how he knew she was the star but waited to see if Gloria and Emilio Estefan could figure it out (they of course did).  Cynthia Erivo (The Color Purple) talked about her journey to Broadway and how she was so inspired when she saw The Color Purple on Broadway, and now to be playing the character of Celie, who she saw LaChanze play, was a dream come true.  

The actor and actress that the kids were enthralled with were Nicholas Barasch (She Loves Me) and Sarah Charles Lewis (Tuck Everlasting).  Nicholas was the Dorothy Loudon Award winner for Excellence in the Theater.  He is also a 17-year old professional who has taken the theatre world by storm, garnering some of the highest praise from his costars and yet being incredibly humble and kind.  Not many actors are so talented that Laura Benanti has to use “choice words” to describe how talented he is.  The best part of Nicholas’ speech was when he spoke about his parents and his quick journey and how much they sacrificed for him.  Sarah Charles Lewis was the darling of the night.  This 12-year-old star of Tuck Everlasting was so overcome by emotions when her dear friend Emerson Steele (Violet) presented her and it was like watching two dear teenage friends talking about each other.  It is a shame that Tuck Everlasting did not last longer on Broadway, but Sarah has shown she will be back soon.

The final award of the evening was the John Willis Award for Lifetime of Achievement in the Theatre.  This year’s winner was the incomparable Bernadette Peters.  Presenting Ms. Peters was Lynne Meadow, Artistic Director of MTC.  Ms. Peters has one of the most storied careers in theatre, motion pictures, and television.  In addition to that, she has tirelessly supported various Broadway charities like Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, and co-founded Broadway Barks. Peters message was that she was grateful and continually thankful.  She has always made sure that she remembered the people who have helped her and that she reminds others to give back.  

Post Awards:

So after the Theatre World Awards were over, we got the music program together and did some pictures by the stage of the theatre.  As we were leaving, a couple of the boys went up to congratulate Nicholas Barasch on his Dorothy Loudon Award and he just wanted to talk to the students about what shows they were doing and how much they enjoyed theatre.  While that was going on, some of the cast members of Spring Awakenings began talking to another group of students and Sarah Charles Lewis took a couple pictures with some students.  What amazed the parents and students were how giving the actors and actresses were.  Here were a bunch of people from South Jersey and all these Theatre World Award winners just talking theatre as if they were all friends talking about what shows they enjoy and sing all the time.  The Theatre World treats everyone who is a part of any theatre as family. While leaving the theatre, we bumped into our costumer Shirlee Idzakovich, who is now a member of iTheatrics and the costumer for the Off Broadway show Crashlight.   She was there with members of the production team of the PeachPie Production’s Crashlight including the show’s creator, the up and coming Celeste Makoff. 

Finally, we were able to catch up with the Theatre World Awards host, Peter Filichia.  Mr. Filichia has been a tremendous friend and supporter and set up this wonderful opportunity for my program to come up and experience the Theatre World Awards.  Peter is such a tremendous advocate for theatre education.  He writes reviews of shows on every Monday and about cast albums for on Tuesdays and on Fridays and an article on professional and amateur productions for Music Theatre International at in addition to covering things like the Junior Theatre Festival and other musical theatre events for schools.  He takes the time to talk to as many kids as he can and asks them what they enjoyed that evening, how much fun did they have, and their favorite acceptance speech. Peter’s kindness and approachability make him a fan favorite wherever he is.  

While waiting for the bus to come back and pick the group up, we were introduced to one of the presenters, Tony nominee, Phillip Boykin (Porgy and Bess).  Mr. Boykin took the time to take a selfie and answer every question the kids had before he left.  He encouraged each kid as a group and individually as well.  He also let the kids in on some exciting news you’ll hear in the upcoming months.  But the thing that he said that the kids got really excited about was that he was so energized hearing how so many kids love theatre that he wanted to come down and visit the kids and do a workshop.  In the end when everyone got back on the bus around 11pm, there were 43 inspired theatre kids.  Each of them was inspired individually and as a group as well.  

The Theatre World Awards gave my actors and actresses this feeling that they were already part of the theatre world and that they were all equals and that the energy they all had as young performers are the same feelings Broadway and Off-Broadway actors and actresses have daily.  

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