It’s a good bet that Robert Greenblatt had never shared a dais with Julius “Dr. J” Erving. Yet there they were in New York this week, the NBC Entertainment chairman and the NBA Hall of Famer, the duke of dunk, raising a glass to director Kenny Leon at the Mr. Abbott Awards.
Leon may seem a little young, at 61, to be receiving a lifetime achievement honor from the Stage Directors & Choreographers Foundation. But the Tony-winning director of A Raisin In The Sun and the Denzel Washington/Viola Davis revival of Fences that became Washington’s Oscar-nominated film is a longtime friend of co-Atlantan Erving, the champion forward on the Philadelphia 76ers. And Greenblatt’s leap back into the live-TV tradition of broadcasting Broadway musicals was captained two years running by Leon, first with The Wiz and, last December, Hairspray.
So there they were.
The crowd, supporting the foundation’s development programs for emerging directors, was in fact seasoned with legends saluting a career that has traversed resident theater, Broadway and television (Lifetime’s Steel Magnolias redo, in addition to the NBC programs): Actors Phylicia Rashad (The Cosby Show, A Raisin In The Sun) and daughter Condola Rashad (Billions), La Chanze and Ben Vereen (forever remembered as Chicken George in Roots and the Leading Player in Pippin); directors Oz Scott, Woody King Jr., Pam MacKinnon and Michael Wilson and writers Richard Wesley (The Mighty Gents), Lydia Diamond (who co-hosted with director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell), and Joy Abbott, whose late husband, the legendary actor/writer and director George Abbott, is the award’s namesake.
One highlight of the evening was triple-threat Tony winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Lakawanna Blues) dueting on harmonica with blues guitarist and singer Bill Sims Jr. With considerable affection, Erving told some choice anecdotes about Leon’s golf course antics. Greenblatt averred that Leon’s demanding attitude and predilection for profanity also was in evidence during production.
“I loved working with him on two of the NBC live musicals, as we always try to bring as much talent from the Broadway community as possible to these shows,” he said. “He’s incredibly disciplined about the work and putting the actors through their paces. And in spite of all the distractions of a big production, he keeps his eye on every single performance and performs little miracles everywhere. I’ve never seen a group band together so tightly as they do under Kenny’s ‘tough love’ supervision. He makes the experience thrilling and rewarding, and you just know you’re involved in something important.”
Greenblatt’s enthusiasm for theater extends to his own producing credits on Broadway shows including 9 To 5, A Gentleman’s Guide To Love & Murder, Something Rotten! and the current likely Tony contender Dear Evan Hansen. He also announced this week that he’d taken a seat on the board of L.A.’s Center Theater Group, which oversees the Ahamanson Theatre, the Mark Taper Forum and the Kirk Douglas Theatre.
“In joining the board of the Center Theater Group, I look forward to getting more involved in the L.A. theater community,” Greenblatt told Deadline. “I had a great experience co-producing the world premiere of 9 To 5 The Musical with CTG back in 2008. CTG has been reaching out more aggressively to the film and television community lately, and I’m happy to answer the call.”