Phila. Theatre Company Savors `Master Class' Tonys

Posted: June 04, 1996

When the Philadelphia Theatre Company agreed to produce Master Class early in 1995, Sara Garonzik, the company's producing director, knew the play would get a lot of attention and have a big future.

Just how much attention the show would get and how big that future would be, Garonzik discovered Sunday night. She sat in the audience at the 50th Tony Award ceremony in New York as the production her company had premiered won three of theater's most prestigious awards - best play for author Terrence McNally, best actress for Zoe Caldwell, and best featured actress (the Tonys' phrase for supporting actress) for Audra McDonald.

``These things never happen,'' a still-excited Garonzik said yesterday just after returning from New York. ``How often do you get a chance to grab the brass ring?''

Garonzik, like many Tony observers, was surprised that Master Class ended up with three prizes. She said she, along with everyone else, thought that Caldwell, one of the premier actresses of the American stage, ``was a lock'' for her star-turn portrayal of opera singer Maria Callas conducting a master class for student singers.

However, McDonald, who plays one of the singers Callas coaches, was not considered a strong contender for featured actress. ``She had some stiff competition,'' Garonzik said.

Garonzik said she also wasn't expecting Master Class to win best play but was hopeful because the work had won a Drama Desk award, which showed it was admired in the theater community. Seven Guitars by August Wilson was the pre-ceremony favorite, and McNally's chances were somewhat discounted because he had won a Tony last year for Love! Valour! Compassion!.

(Garonzik, an admirer of McNally's work, scheduled that play to end the Philadelphia Theatre Company's season. It ends previews tonight at Plays and Players Theatre and opens tomorrow, to run through June 30. Garonzik said McNally planned to attend the opening.)

It was McNally's admiration for the Philadelphia Theatre Company production of another play of his, Lips Together, Teeth Apart, in the 1993-94 season that led to the company's premiere of Master Class. ``He really liked it,'' Garonzik said. ``We went out to dinner, and he suggested we might want to do Master Class.'' Garonzik pointed out that McNally and producer Robert Whitehead, who is Caldwell's husband, were looking for a theater close to Manhattan where they could get Master Class up and running without the scrutiny of the New York theater press.

Usually Garonzik, as the company's producing director, chooses the plays she wants to present and the director she wants to head the production. In this case, the director, Leonard Foglia, had already been selected by McNally and Whitehead; Caldwell, whom McNally had pictured in the role while he wrote the play, had agreed to play the mercurial diva Callas.

Even though some of the decisions she would have customarily made had already been taken, Garonzik said she and others in the Philadelphia Theatre Company had ``a lot of input'' into the production. Asked if she were personally involved in the mounting of this production as much as in other company shows, she said: ``I would say more, because it was a new script.''

Master Class opened here to rave reviews in March 1995 and quickly became the hottest theater ticket in town. The play sold out its 3 1/2-week run, then went on to successful engagements at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and the Kennedy Center in Washington before opening on Broadway in November.

The Philadelphia Theater Company's association with Master Class has not only increased its reputation as a producing theater, it has increased its income. Garonzik said the company put more than $150,000 into the production - more than it usually spends on a show - but it made more money than anticipated on the engagement at Plays and Players and gets a return on ticket sales in New York. Garonzik would not say how much money the company realizes from the New York production, but she said the weekly income provided a definite a boost to the troupe's finances.

Garonzik is, of course, pleased with the professional and financial success of Master Class, but says that was not what she was looking for when she agreed to produce the play. ``I truly would have been been happy if it only had had a good production in Philadelphia,'' she said.

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