Larchmont went to the Tony Awards on Sunday, June 13, and came back with a long list of prizes. Barbara Whitman and Ruth Hendel, Larchmont residents who have collaborated as producers on seven shows, including Raisin in the Sun, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Legally Blond, won their first Tony for best play with Red, a two-person drama about the artist Mark Rothko and his anguished decision over a hugely lucrative commission for the Four Seasons restaurant.
In addition, the two worked on Next to Normal, the improbable rock musical about a mom struggling with bi-polar disease, which won Best Score, Best Actress and Best Orchestration. To top it off, the show won a Pulitzer this year, one of only eight musicals to ever win this honor.
Ms. Hendel and her husband Stephen Hendel, in his first foray into producing, were behind Fela!, the musical based on the life and works of Fela Kuti, the Nigerian Afrobeat musician, composer and political activist. That show garnered a Tony record for nominations – 11 – and came away with three awards, for best choreography, costume and sound of a musical.
And had there been awards for staging a party, the Hendels would have won. Ms. Hendel was still hoarse on Wednesday, after being out until 6 am with around 950 celebrities and celebrants at the post-Tony party for Fela!
Red on Top
How did it feel to finally win the top award? “Exciting, it was so much fun; it was a great validation,” said Ms. Whitman. “The play is about art, and it’s great to have people respond to it so strongly.”
Red was a transplant from London, where it began at the Donmar Warehouse, so the producers worked on advertising, marketing and raising the almost $2.5 million needed to bring the show to New York.
Fela! was was a totally new idea, which sprang from Mr. Hendel’s enormous infatuation with the music of Fela Kuti.
Fela! Conceived in Walks Along the Brook
“I grew up buying a lot of records – I don’t play music, I enjoy music,” said Mr. Hendel. “But I thought this was music on a different level – it was the most passionate, hypnotic, important music I’d ever heard.”
Fela Kuti used his music to “stand up for human dignity and to be a voice for the voiceless in a corrupt society,” explained Mr. Hendel.
“I put the CD on my IPod and would walk around our neighborhood for hours at a time, listening to the music over and over again, thinking about what a beautiful, powerful, musical his life story and his music could make,” he said. “The whole thing was crystallized walking around the brook in Larchmont.”
It took over eight years to move the show from an idea born in Larchmont to a full-blown music and dance extravaganza on Broadway. The journey involved everything from chasing down the musical rights to finding the right partners (including Jay-Z and Jada-Pinkett Smith and Will Smith as producers) and best creative directors (including Bill T. Jones to direct, choreograph and co-write the show with Jim Lewis).
Though this was Mr. Hendel’s first act as a producer, the stage was set in years of accompanying his wife to shows and serving as a sounding board for all of the various productions she has worked on.
So what’s next (after some time to recuperate from the weekend’s party)? Ms. Whitman has some “different things in development – nothing I can speak of” and a tour of Next to Normal going on in the fall.
Fela! is staying in New York for a while longer, but there will be a second production in London at the Royal National Theatre – “the greatest English speaking theatre in the world,” said Ms. Hendel. Ever the producer, she urged anyone who had yet to see the show to “please come to Fela! – I promise you will be thrilled and have a joyous time.”