At the 67th annual Tony Awards on June 9, in front of a packed audience at Radio City Music Hall and 7.24 million television viewers worldwide, actor Jesse Eisenberg announced the winner of the award for Best Play: "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike." The play, written by Christopher Durang and directed by Nicholas Martin, had its world premiere at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton. Emily Mann, artistic director of McCarter, accepted the award.
McCarter Theatre and the University have a longstanding artistic and academic relationship that began in the 1930s, when McCarter originated as a playhouse for Princeton's Triangle Club. The theater has evolved through the decades to become a major cultural institution featuring diverse programming, playing an important part in the history of the University and the community.
News of the award exploded on social media, and media outlets from coast to coast cited the play's origin at McCarter. BroadwayWorld.com wrote: "'Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike' was commissioned and developed by McCarter Theatre and co-produced by McCarter Theatre and Lincoln Center Theater. Both runs were sold out."
The Los Angeles Times' live blog called the play "a modern-day comic riff on the plays of Anton Chekhov" and said: "Emily Mann, the artistic head of the McCarter Theatre in New Jersey, shared the award. 'Vanya' debuted at the McCarter before moving off-Broadway and then to Broadway."
"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" grew out of McCarter's New Play Development Program. Mann and McCarter's artistic staff provided Durang with several readings and ongoing support that allowed him to refine his play. McCarter's efforts in developing the world premiere led to the co-production with Lincoln Center Theater. It opened on Broadway at the Golden Theatre on March 14. Its run was recently extended through Aug. 25, due to popular demand.
In the past 20 years, McCarter has produced more than 50 world premieres including Durang's "Miss Witherspoon," whose title was inspired by Witherspoon Street in Princeton. McCarter is known as one of the foremost theaters in the nation for the development of new plays and musicals.
In addition to "Vanya," five McCarter productions that transferred to Broadway under Mann's tenure as artistic director have received Tony nominations: "Electra," "Having Our Say," "Anna in the Tropics," "Translations" and "Stick Fly." "Vanya" was the first to win an award.
Mann included the University in her acceptance remarks. "Our great thanks to McCarter’s Tim Shields and Mara Isaacs, our incredible staff, … our absolutely awesome [costume and set design] shops, our trustees, donors and subscribers, and to Princeton University, thank you. This could not happen without your incredible support."
Back in Princeton the day after the awards ceremony, Mann described the success of "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" as "a great story about collaboration. And behind it all lays a fruitful and long lasting collaboration between McCarter and Princeton University."
She noted that "Vanya" was produced in the Roger S. Berlind Theatre, a joint venture between McCarter and Princeton, which opened in 2003. Roger Berlind is a 1952 Princeton alumnus and a Broadway producer with 15 Tony Awards, most recently for Best Musical for "Book of Mormon" last year.
Mann said that Princeton students participate in the offerings at McCarter in many ways, including University-supported discounted tickets and courses offered by the Lewis Center for the Arts and other academic departments "whose curricula are in alignment with McCarter's programs," she said. Mann and other McCarter artists have taught courses for Princeton's Program in Theater, Program in Dance and Center for African American Studies. During the academic year, several student productions are presented in McCarter's Berlind Theatre.
"Among the many synergies between Princeton and McCarter are joint commissions and other project-specific collaborations together," Mann said. "The list is endless, as is our appreciation for all Princeton does to ensure a thriving arts center in this community."
University President Shirley M. Tilghman has stressed the significant ways in which universities are becoming patrons to the arts. In 2011, in a major address titled "Universities in the Service of the Imagination," she said: "Universities confer many public benefits — from economic growth to social mobility — and high on this list is the support or, more precisely, the life support that we extend to artists and art-making."
This Tony season may just well prove Tilghman's point. In addition to "Vanya," "Pippin," which premiered at Harvard University's American Repertory Theater, took home the award for best direction of a musical.