After creating scenery for more than 350 theatrical productions, Joseph Blakely Forbes, founder of Scenic Art Studios, has developed an artistic attachment to the hand-painted backdrops and scenery his studio creates.
“A painted image has a romance and a beauty and a life to it that you’re just not going to get from a video wall or a digital image,” Forbes said.
Forbes is one of the recipients of a 2019 Tony Honors for Excellence in Theatre, a list which also includes Michael McElroy, founder of Broadway Inspirational Voices and Peter Entin, a former executive with the Shubert Organization. The honorees took the stage at the Sofitel hotel Monday night to receive their awards and discuss their lives in the industry, which for many, has involved decades of service and for some, has entailed putting out fires, both metaphorical and literal.
To that end, the firefighters from FDNY Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9, who were also awarded a Tony Honor, had to miss the reception to fight an ongoing fire.
On the industry side of it, Entin, who served as vice president of theatre operations for the Shubert Organization for 43 years, highlighted two “unsung heroes” of the Shubert Organization: John Darby, senior vice president of facilities, and Keith Marston, vice president of facilities. He credited them both with keeping mishaps at bay.
“The facilities department has saved theater operations’ rear end more times than I can count,” Entin said on stage. “Every disaster that could possibly happen in the building has happened, but these guys come to the rescue and get the performance on.”
The Tony Honors for Excellence in Theatre recognize individuals whose work has made a remarkable impact in the theater community, but does not fit within any of the established award categories.
As Broadway has changed, many of the honored organizations and individuals have evolved as well. For example, with the trend toward truncated production schedules, Forbes’ operation, which was founded in 1994, has had to speed up its own production process. In the case of the latest “Hello, Dolly!” revival, this involved having his studio work on four scenic backdrops at the same time.
“We have found ways to save labor and save time. We have so much less time to work with,” Forbes said.
McElroy began his Broadway acting career in 1992, and two years later created his choir, Broadway Inspirational Voices, with 12 founding members and the goal of raising money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids. As he continued to act on Broadway, picking up a Tony nomination for his role in the 2004 revival of “Big River,” his choir kept growing in size and in terms of recognition.
“Every year I continue to ask friends to join, and in these past 25 years we’ve had more than 200 members with more than 150 Broadway credits,” McElroy said during his acceptance speech.
Monday’s reception also acknowledged the recipients of the Special Tony Awards. This year, special Tonys were awarded to Jason Michael Webb for his vocal arrangements in “Choir Boy,” Sonny Tilders and Creature Technology Company for creating the 20 foot-tall puppet in “King Kong” and to Marin Mazzie, who was honored posthumously for her “advocacy and leadership” in the theater community. Jason Danieley, Mazzie’s husband, accepted the award on her behalf.
“What I find so moving and significant about this Special Tony honoring Marin is that we are pausing together to recognize something way beyond Marin’s extraordinary work as an actor,” Danieley said. “We are celebrating how revered she is for who she was, who she still is, to us and for us as a community.”
For Webb, who has served both as a vocal arranger and musical director for shows including “Motown” and the 2015 revival of “The Color Purple,” the theater community has given him something back in turn.
“Creating music that helps us love each other more, love ourselves more, learn about each other and hold each other close is a really high calling,” Webb said. “I love that I am part of a community that allows me to do this.”