While waiting for the 10:00 pm CSI Miami on CBS, I went channel surfing last night and chanced upon the 2006 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor on PBS and decided to watch the show instead and did not regret it.
It’s a star- studded affair honoring this year’s recipient, Neil Simon whose works is said to have been the most widely performed next only to Shakespeare. He was feted with accolades, tributes and testimonials at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts by friends and colleagues who in one way or another owed their careers to the foremost American playwright.
Neil Simon, the prolific writer who at one time have a record of four Broadway productions running simultaneously has authored more than 40 Broadway plays since 1961 most of them light-hearted and humorous plays but is best known for his autobiographical Eugene Trilogy (Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound) and Chapter Two which critics considered as his finest work and was written shortly after his first wife died of cancer.
His talent is enormous and has contributed immensely to both theater and film as he was also a recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, three Tony Awards, a Golden Globe, an American Comedy Award, a Drama Desk Award and now, a Kennedy Center Award that was named after Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), the 19th century American satirist, humorist and writer who William Faulkner called the “Father of American Literature” and was widely known for his novels Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.
Mr. Neil Simon is in good company with the list of the past recipients a veritable Who’s Who in the business--
Recipients of the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize have been Richard Pryor (1998), Jonathan Winters (1999), Carl Reiner (2000), Whoopi Goldberg (2001), Bob Newhart (2002), Lily Tomlin (2003), Lorne Michaels (2004) and Steve Martin (2005).
Now on it’s 9th year, the Mark Twain Prize was taped at the John F. Kennedy for the Performing Arts on October 15, 2006 and was finally shown last night on public TV and it was a good hour and a half of showcasing the talent of the man and stories behind the scenes; of his writings and the performers acting in it.
Christina Applegate performed a smooth rendition of Big Spender from the musical revival Sweet Charity accompanied on the piano by the multi- talented singer, pianist, songwriter, arranger and producer, Allen Toussaint whose seminal works earned for the New Orleans native an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.
Ms. Applegate essayed the role of Charity Hope Valentine for her Broadway debut that earned her a Tony Award nomination for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. I watched Sweet Charity twice when I was in the big Apple, one with her in it and the other with Charlotte d’Amboise who also played Roxie Hart in Chicago when I watched the said musical at the Ambassador Theater. I’ll write about my take on the said shows next time if my time and schedule permits.Ha-ha.
Matthew Broderick, the two-time Tony award- winning actor (He got his first for Brighton Beach Memoirs) thanked Neil Simon “ for making it possible to purchase a small golden palace in the Himalayas" paraphrasing his Tony award-winning lines of the teen character he essayed upon seeing a naked woman for the first time in his life.
"He allowed me my whole professional life, he got me right." "Oscar-winning actor for the movie The Goodbye Girl, Richard Dreyfuss said of the role Mr. Simon had in his career.
Jonathan Silverman, the versatile actor who was recently seen in the independent feature film Laura Smiles which won the Emerging Filmmaker Award at the Denver Film Festival this year jump-started his acting career when he “made” the character of Eugene Morris Jerome (Simon’s other self as a young man in the trilogy) “His” on Broadway but graciously credited the playwright of changing his life when he “plucked him from obscurity!”
Tony award- winner Heather Headley who originated the role of Nala in the Tony Award Winning musical The Lion King and cemented her status in the Elton John/ Tim Rice collaboration Aida as one of the Great White Way’s best made a very beautiful rendition of the song “What do you get when you fall in love?” from the 1968 show Promises, Promises, the Burt Bacharach classic which was in turn based on the 1960 Billy Wilder film The Apartment written by who else but Neil Simon!
Other Stars who came to sing praises to Mr. Neil Simon were Robert Redford (who talked about his friendship with him and about the “mountains in Utah.”), Emmy Award winner Patricia Heaton (who revived the role of Paula in the new version of the classic "The Goodbye Girl" for TNT), Malcolm in the Middle’s Jane Kaczmarek who once appeared on Broadway in Lost in Yonkers, Mad About You star and co- creator Paul Reiser.
Lucy Arnaz (who played Sonia Wolsk in They’re Playing Our Song), fellow New Yorker Robert Klein (1979 -They’re Playing Our Song), Nathan Lane (who was recently seen in the movie The Producers and also starred with Matthew Broderick in last year's The Odd Couple on Broadway), Seinfeld’s George Costanza (Jason Alexander) and Carl Reiner (also a Mark Twain Prize recipient in 2000) .
Here’s a short list of his works and let’s hope that he will continue writing and share his talent with us.
Pulitzer Prize for Drama – Lost in Yonkers (1991)
Tony Award – for his plays:
The Odd Couple (1965, Best Author, Play)
Biloxi Blues (1985, Best Play)
Lost in Yonkers (1991, Best Play)
Golden Globe – The Goodbye Girl (1978, Best Screenplay - Motion Picture, Best Motion Picture - Musical/Comedy)
American Comedy Award – for his life work (1989, Creative Achievement Award)
Drama Desk Award – Lost in Yonkers (1991, Outstanding New Play)
In his speech, Neil Simon was modest enough and admitted to being nervous speaking in public (a case of “better read than heard?”-which is considered an enigma for some very good writers) as he shared to us the journey that he took for his “Come Blow Your Horn.“ ---
”It took me six years to write my first play” and openly admitted that he took the title from one of his daughter’s nursery rhymes books that turned out into a “so-so play” that was then made into a “so-so movie” with a “so-so Frank Sinatra" in it.
But it was successful enough that, “For the first time, I had money in the bank,” and softly added, “Yes sir, yes sir three bags full!!” as the audience broke into a hearty laughter.