Today's guest columnist is Luca Manna who gives us an inside look at the 1998 Tony Awards rehearsals at Radio City Music Hall:

As I walked to Radio City Music Hall where my access pass was waiting at the stage door, my pace gradually increased as though propelled by the excitement building within me. Before I knew it, I was at the stage door showing proof of my identity and holding the pass. I threw it around my neck, adorning it as child would a first prize ribbon, and headed towards my destination. As I stepped off the elevator, I noticed the ten or so signs directing Tony staff to various locales: dressing rooms, stage right, stage left, production office, front-of-house, etc... I followed the directions to the front-of-house and with every step I took on the red-tiled floor, the chain holding the pass jingled. I eventually found my way around the maze and entered the lobby where I was met with The Lion King costumes spread out on the floor like animal carcasses waiting to be brought back to life by the talented cast.

Entering the house was like entering another world. The gold-leaf ceiling engulfed a sea of red velvet seats. On stage, light cues were being set for the opening number as the Chicago dancers rehearsed their choreography and the stand-ins for Rosie and the divas stood by. The camera crane, towering in the center of the orchestra seats, swung to the left and to the right as though recording the bustle of the two hundred or so people dispersed throughout the auditorium. As last minute preparations for the start of the technical rehearsal were taking place, I could feel the excitement mounting and I was there to absorb it all.

I sat in an aisle seat in the middle of the house as the casts from nominated shows gradually began to arrive. Some would be rehearsing their numbers earlier in the day since matinees would keep them out of the full run-through taking place in the afternoon. Eventually they would all be there, some in costumes and others not, to cheer each other on as each number was performed.

The musical numbers were rehearsed in the sequence they would appear in the actual broadcast. First up was the opening number. Though the roles of Rosie and the divas were played by stand-ins, some chose to sing the featured songs. The renditions were quite nice, but would not compare to the performances of the actual stars. Ragtime followed and the cast brilliantly performed in street clothes and props the abridged opening sequence of the show. They rehearsed the number twice and on the second viewing, the brilliance of Frank Galati's direction and Graciela Daniele's choreography became apparent. Just watching the interaction between Sarah and Coalhouse left me in awe at the subtleties of staging which can only be noticed with multiple viewings.

The Sound of Music followed and proved why it has remained a family favorite for so many years. 1776 was pleasant to watch, but, having seen the production at its regular home, I felt that it appeared somewhat lost in the massive stage of Radio City. As The Lion King started their rehearsal, the activity in the hall slowly began to subside as each person prepared to be overwhelmed by Julie Taymor's magic. Fortunately for all, the number had to be re-rehearsed. What a special treat it was to see "The Circle of Life" twice. Cabaret was next and, again, activity ceased in the Hall as all eyes intently locked on Alan Cumming and his Cabaret Girls strutting their stuff. The Scarlet Pimpernel was the final rehearsal before lunch (Side Show was bumped to the afternoon's dress rehearsal). In street clothes, the cast performed the crowd pleasing "Into the Fire" with Douglas Sills proving why people are simply swooning over him.

The sporadic arrival of presenters throughout the morning interrupted the flow of the rehearsal. Eventually all the presenters appearing in the CBS broadcast (except for Helen Hunt) would rehearse their speeches and announce the winner with the disclaimer: "For this rehearsal only". At this point, a stand-in for the winner would walk up the stage and accept the award. It was quite amusing to see the same four or five stand-ins accept several awards and continually give a speech that was unique and relevant to the award being presented. As we broke for lunch, cast members who had decided to be present for all of the morning's rehearsal said their good-byes and slowly made their way out of the Hall, headeding to their respective theatres to appear in the day's matinee performance.

The afternoon's run-through began with the opening number, only this time Rosie and the divas were present. The audience in the mezzanine and balcony (apparently tickets are available for Tony run-throughs - I never knew that) cheered with each turn of the revolving set as each of the divas took their turn and tore the roof off. Mrs. LuPone, Mrs. Holliday and Ms. Buckley have certainly aged, but their voices remain as powerful and splendid as ever. What followed was mainly an endless parade of stand-ins filling in for the presenters and winners. Rosie rehearsed her jokes, Ragtime, in full costume, performed again and the Side Show girls finally received their turn giving two mind-blowing performances of "I Will Never Leave You".

Yes, I wish I'd brought a camera. I would have recorded the following images for posterity: Alan Cumming in full MC apparel walking up the aisle to check the seats his guests would be occupying; the cast of Ragtime as they gathered for their notes after completing their rehearsal; Julie Taymor at the producer's table discussing camera angles with the producer; Alice Ripley in her Violet wig sitting in the aisle watching others perform; Brian Stokes Mitchell photographing fellow cast members; The Lion King's ensemble as they sat eating breakfast in full lion headgear while waiting for their turn; Rosie O'Donnell calmly walking through the house visiting with old friends and meeting new ones; Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty searching for the perfect seat from where to watch their cast perform; the cast of The Scarlet Pimpernel, last to perform, passing the time by reading, eating and simply being together. But photographs would have failed to capture the hush and stillness which took over the hall once The Lion King began "The Circle of Life" or the amount of applause and love showered onto Angela Lansbury as she stepped on stage to rehearse her speech. These moments can only live in my memory and although the mind's images will fade, for the time being, they are rekindled whenever I look at the pass lying on my desk.

-- Luca Manna

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