This past week I was honored to participate in two benefit evenings for two different theater companies in New York City. On any given Sunday or Monday evening in the city you can find an event like this—a gala or benefit of some sort that honors a theatrical luminary in an effort to bring attention to the organization that sponsors the evening. Oftentimes, actors will be invited to sing a song or say a few words in recognition of the honoree. I was asked to do just this for Gerald Freedman who was being honored by Sonnet Rep and for Marvin Hamlisch being honored by Encompass New Opera Theater.
For the Sonnet Rep benefit I was asked to sing a beautiful rendition of a Shakespeare Sonnet set to music by the wonderful Scott Frankel in a duet with Sierra Boggess. The evening was quite an event, with the likes of Patti LuPone, Kevin Kline, Mandy Patinkin and Austin Pendleton all present to sing their praises, as it were, to their esteemed colleague and teacher Gerald Freedman.
I have never met Gerald Freedman. I’m embarrassed to say the only thing I knew about him was that he ran the Great Lakes Theater Festival for some time in Cleveland, Ohio. His list of accomplishments and contributions to the theater is overwhelming. So it was a stunning education for me as one by one, Ms. LuPone, Mssrs. Kline, Patinkin and Pendleton (among many others) all got up to speak, quite beautifully and personally, on how this one man had changed their lives and taught them volumes if not everything they knew about the theater.
Marvin Hamlisch, I am lucky to say, I do know. I worked with him on the Broadway musical Sweet Smell of Success. At last evening’s benefit, the one and only Sheldon Harnick described Marvin as American Theatrical Royalty (even though, as Marvin described as only he could, with 3 Oscars and a Pulitzer it’s still impossible to hail a cab on a rainy Saturday evening, royalty and all). This is not an exaggeration. Marvin is possibly the most gifted musician I have ever met, and his contribution to the American stage is invaluable and undeniable.
But what stands out from these two experiences for me is something that Marvin said last night as he accepted his lifetime achievement award. To paraphrase: to be able to have a career and accomplish something in your field is one thing, but to do it and maintain and foster friendships over the years is the only thing that really matters.
Gerald Freedman and Marvin Hamlisch were lauded by true friends this past week, by friends that have gone on to make names for themselves in the theater. And to hear them speak in such glowing terms about Marvin and Gerald, not only about their remarkable creative contributions but also their character, generosity and kindness as individuals is a great lesson.
While Sonnet Rep and Encompass New Opera Theater no doubt achieved their goal of honoring great individuals in the form of a benefit evening, I’m happy to conclude that from what I learned from these two theater titans, the benefit was all mine.