“Oklahoma,” “Candide” Clean up at 27th Annual Helen Hayes Awards

Almost every year, someone complains about the Helen Hayes Award’s complicated and layered judging system, and someone expresses shock that such-and-such actor won, or that such-and-such show should not have won. This year, at the 27th annual Helen Hayes Awards, the most prestigious award ceremony for DC theater, there was additional grousing about the many ties, most of them occurring in the musical categories in which “Oklahoma” (Arena Stage) and “Candide” (Shakespeare Theater Company) were competing.

If you ask me, this sort of thing is beside the point. For this writer, the awards ceremonies have always been about celebrating the unique spirit of the Washington area theater community. It’s about the recording and building of a theater history and legacy. Things change and grow over a period of a little over a quarter of a century, but they also remain the same.

Being called outstanding in any category is a validation of the work as a whole—the time and effort, the imagination spent. It solidifies your proper presence and worth among your peers, without once negating the fact that the production and creation of a play is a truly collaborative effort.

What makes the Helen Hayes Awards unique is its celebration of this city’s theater community. It has blossomed into a kind of tribe and built a national reputation that is no longer a secret. For my money, we are right up there with Chicago, New York and San Francisco.

There’s always something boisterous about these proceedings. Each theater seems to have brought its entire employee roster to the show, resulting in gleeful and Glee-like atmospherics that you probably won’t hear at the Oscars or the Tonys. Each year, they show up—the new, young actors, dressing up theatrically, wanting to razzle and dazzle. It’s an infectious spirit the newcomers bring, jazzed about being part of a really cool thing. Its part rock and roll, part “we happy few, we band of brothers.”

“Oklahoma” and “Candide” cleaned up, coming twice to a tie, for the awards for lead actor and resident musical. Indeed, it is almost too tough to choose between the two shows in a season of outstanding musicals that included “Sunset Boulevard,” “Sophisticated Ladies” and “The Light in the Piazza,” to name just a few.

Mary Zimmerman took the gold for outstanding director of a resident musical for “Candide,” so when “Candide” and “Oklahoma” tied for resident musical, it gave director Molly Smith her share of the credit. And its credit she deserves. Imagine if “Oklahoma,” opening a new $100 million theater center, had been a flop.

Geoff Packard, who starred in the title role of “Candide,” and Nicholas Rodriguez for “Oklahoma,” tied for the top actor awards. Packard, the highlight of the new musical “Liberty Smith” at Ford’s Theater, remained true to his character. Referencing his love interest in the musical, he accepted his award saying, “I want to thank my very own Cunegonde, my fiancée Chelsea Crombach.” Packard told us they will be marrying in August.

Some other winning highlights: Adventure Theater’s artistic director Michael Bobbitt accepted the award for outstanding production in the Theater for Young Audiences category for “If You Give a Pig a Pancake.”

There is almost a tradition at the Helen Hayes awards that companies and individual artists have to wait their turn—unless of course you’re Signature Theater and Synetic Theater, which made big splashes right from the start and never looked back. Take the case of Howard Shalwitz, the founder and longtime artistic director of the still-cutting-edge Woolly Mammoth Theater.

Shalwitz just won the outstanding director award for a resident play for “Clybourne Park,” the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Bruce Norris (returning this summer). This was Shalwitz’s first win, long since overdue. He founded the Woolly in 1980, and along with directing a slew of outstanding productions throughout the decades, helped change the face of Washington theater. In another example, Joy Zinoman, who retired in 2009 as Studio Theater’s artistic director after 35 years (and who also co-founded the theater, which helped revitalized the 14th St. corridor), did exceptional work for years before eventually winning for “Indian Ink” in 2000.

History, patrons, inspirations are honored at these affairs. It is, after all, named after Helen Hayes, America’s granddame of theater, who performed here often. Every year, they tell stories about Hayes. They celebrated this year’s introduction of a commemorative Helen Hayes postage stamp by singing “That’s Why the Lady Is a Stamp.”

But this year was also a melancholy occasion. Hayes’ son, actor James MacArthur, who for years was a guiding force and a presence at these awards, passed away this year.

Helen Hayes Awards night is a crowded affair. Not only are the nominees and others who make up the Washington theater community in attendance, but all of them bring the memories of past performances, plays and moments. They bring the promise of future such times as yet unimagined. We remember those not here and their achievements. They are the much beloved and vividly remembered ghosts in attendance.

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