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James Earl Jones has done many things throughout his career, but there’s one thing he’s never done: appeared in a musical.
“I’ve been around a long time and I’ve received some truly remarkable accolades, but a musical tribute to me? That is by far the most improbable,” the actor told guests gathered at New York’s Pierre Hotel for the Drama League’s 31st Annual Musical Celebration of Broadway, this year honoring Jones. He was thanking the cast of his current production, You Can’t Take It With You, who had just performed an original rendition of “What a Man,” complete with choreography. “Will you think of me as a song and dance man?” the 84-year-old actor asked, to erupting applause. “There’s time!”
Although Jones hasn’t appeared in a musical (yet), each of the evening’s performances thematically connected to his career, with few lyric tweaks or improved interjections for more specificity. “You were Darth Vader!” Christopher Sieber said as he, Jerry Dixon and Montego Glover opened the presentation with “It’s Not Where You Start” as a slideshow from Jones’ work played behind them.
Dylan Walsh and Kelsey Grammer took the stage to honor Jones, as Walsh remembered working with him on Gabriel’s Fire and Grammer recalled playing Cassio opposite Jones’ Othello on Broadway in 1982.
“I would like to say, without embellishment or without malice, James Earl Jones is an actor, an extraordinary actor, and that is enough,” Grammer said, getting teary-eyed. “It is enough to spend an entire lifetime breathing life into the greatest language ever written, discovering the greatest language ever written and discovering that you can tell an audience, once in a while, something they didn’t know about truth, something they didn’t know about life, something that surprises them and breaks their heart. And that is what James Earl Jones has done and I love him.”
The evening also honored CBS’s The Good Wife as an arts ally, as the show often employs many theater actors. “[The show] is morally ambivalent; it doesn’t tell you want to think,” Alan Cumming told The Hollywood Reporter on the red carpet. “And I think theater actors are much more able to deal with that concept than just television actors.”
Many of Jones’ friends and admirers braved the snow to celebrate the man. Leslie Uggams performed “Me and Mr. Jones,” which she was supposed to sing with Phylicia Rashad. “I was his wife first On Golden Pond,” said Uggams, joking about Rashad, who played his wife in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof. “So don’t get too cocky. She was the second wife.”
In addition to musical numbers, Ruben Santiago-Hudson performed a monologue from Fences, Estelle Parsons did a speech from Field of Dreams and John Douglas Thompson took on a soliloquy from Othello.
Tyne Daly recalled meeting Jones backstage when she was 19 and has maintained their friendship over 50 years. “He always tells the truth, except when he is lying — I like to call this condition being an actor,” Daly said, before launching into an original riff on Rodgers and Hart’s “Have You Met Miss Jones?” which she called “Recognizing Mr. Jones.”
The You Can’t Take It With You cast celebrated their co-star, and Annaleigh Ashford sang “For Good” from Wicked to the man who acts as her grandpa. “He once said that all of us in the play are like planets orbiting around the stage,” Ashford said. “Well, if we are planets, then Mr. Jones is sun. He gives us our love and our light.”
When Jones finally came up to the stage to accept the honor, he was greeted with a sustained standing ovation, but he only shared a few sentimental words. “My character in You Can’t Take It With You has a line: ‘If this keeps on, I want to live to be 150 [years old],’ ” Jones said to more applause. “I couldn’t say it any better than that. Thank you.”
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