Friday, June 05, 2009

Who's that woman, Phyllis Newman?

This Sunday, just before 8:00 pm, the Isabelle Stevenson Award , a Special Tony Award, will be presented to a member of "the theatre community who has made a substantial contribution of volunteered time and effort on behalf of one or more humanitarian, social service or charitable organizations, regardless of whether such organizations relate to the theatre".

This year, this inaugural Tony goes to Phyllis Newman. Just who is that woman, Phyllis Newman?

Broadway fans know her as Martha Vail in Subways Are for Sleeping, for which she won the Tony (and beat Barbra Streisand) for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. Her performance as Barbara Harris' alternate and replacement in The Apple Tree is legendary. I have heard that her matinee performances were killer funny, ranking her as a brilliant stage comedienne.

Aside from her stage career, both on Broadway and regionally, television fans know Phyllis spent time on on the small screen. Her most notable performances were as herself on talk shows and game shows. She was the first woman to sub for Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" in 1962. She was also the first "Renée Divine Buchanan Buchanan Buchanan" on One Life to Live.

I love Phyllis' joyous rendition of Who's That Woman on 1986 dvd of Follies in Concert and her turn as a murder suspect on Murder, She Wrote (she didn't do it!) in 1991.

Phyllis has become a doyenne of the Broadway community. Always supportive first nighter and a Tony voter, it is not unusual to see her on opening night or any other given night in a Broadway or off-Broadway house.

She still performs as well. At Wall to Wall Sondheim, I saw her perform a number from The Madwoman of Central Park West, a one woman show that she collaborated on with Arthur Laurents. She is also developing an autobiographical musical with the aid of her daughter Amanda Green and composer composer Larry Grossman.

Perhaps her most significant role, aside from wife of the late lyricist Adolph Green and mother of Amanda and Adam, is her role as philanthropist for women's health.

In 1996, she began an effort that has become the annual concert tradition that is Nothing Like a Dame and ultimately founded the Phyllis Newman Women's Health Initiative. A breast cancer survivor herself, Phyllis learned that her assistant at the time could not afford a mammogram.

After 13 years, the Phyllis Newman Women's Health Initiative, through the Actors Fund, has raised almost $4 million dollars for case management and counseling, free mammograms and gynecological exams, help with insurance issues, support groups and more for women in the entertainment industry. This year, the Nothing Like a Dame continues at New World Stages on June 15th. The line up will include Audra McDonald, Bebe Neuwirth, Kelli O’Hara and Andrea McArdle, with more to be announced soon.

So you know who Phyllis Newman is, and if you're lucky enough, maybe you'll see her in a theatre like I did and shake her hand. She definitely deserves this Tony along with big thanks for all she does.

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