- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 12, 2000

The "Salute to Musical Theater" theme chosen for the Kennedy Center's eighth annual fund-raising gala was a crowd-pleaser for sure: Sunday's sellout crowd of 1,400 added $2 million to the institution's arts and education programs.

Rather than being a historical overview of this vibrant American art form, the musical selections in the dramatically lighted Concert Hall matched the talent on stage, which was quite an eclectic grouping. How often do you get sexy "Chicago" star Bebe Neuwirth, Irish tenor Ronan Tynan, 14-year-old Welsh singing sensation Charlotte Church, song stylist Dionne Warwick and opera diva Denyce Graves all on the same program? And how often do you hear a full orchestra in this case, the National Symphony under the direction of Leonard Slatkin performing some of the world's all-time favorite show tunes?

Some VIP guests were quizzed about their favorite musical-theater numbers as a late-afternoon reception got under way on the expansive Opera House stage. Know them, then, by the songs they love to sing or the shows that excite them.

District of Columbia Mayor Anthony A. Williams: "Gershwin's music, definitely." So "Porgy and Bess."

Gen. Colin Powell: "The Music Man." No surprise there, what with all those marching bands.

Redskins owner Dan Snyder: "The production of 'Miss Saigon' in London." But, no, he confessed, he doesn't know any of the songs. He sings "Hail to the Redskins" in the shower, of course.

MicroStrategy's Michael Saylor, who said he has a Broadway song book at home and plays and sings the tunes on his piano, didn't hesitate: "Jesus Christ Superstar" because of its "very, very sophisticated ideology… . It makes you rethink all your assumptions."

Opera lover JoAnn Mason reflected a few minutes, then picked "West Side Story" because "it changed forever the form of dance in a musical."

Thomas "Mac" McLarty opted at first for "Fiddler on the Roof" because it was one of the earliest musicals he saw with his wife, Donna, but he is apt to sing "Evita" in the shower when on missions as the White House special representative to Latin America.

"Chicago," said a bemused and possibly bewitched, but hardly bothered George Stephanopoulos, standing beside Miss Neuwirth, his current special lady friend, who won a Tony award for her part in that show.

Much of the buzz centered around how the Kennedy Center would find a replacement for its president, Lawrence J. Wilker, who will leave at the end of the year. "It's a bittersweet evening," the tall, smiling man in charge volunteered of his sentiments on the last gala of his career, "because this is my family."

Mr. Wilker was special for having "bonded successfully with all the constituencies" required to run a national arts center, according to trustee Robert Barnett, who cited "artists, producers, contributors, press, Congress and staff."

He will be hard to replace, Mr. Barnett said, adding that there is bound to be some competition with Lincoln Center's concurrent search for a high-profile candidate to replace its departing president, Nathan Leventhal.

The Roof Terrace, where the dinner was held before the concert, was transformed for the occasion by thousands of yards of white chiffon that turned the five eating areas into intimate dining rooms, each of which had the look and feel of an outdoor garden. Centerpieces were composed of 12 fresh floral items, decorated with 1,200 fabric butterflies under 125 crystal chandeliers.

The real agony of the night, according to an assistant to New York designer David Tutera, was pinning by hand fake hydrangea and ivy to hold the chiffon curtains in place. The job required 3,000 safety pins that had to be removed immediately after the last bite of dessert an edible spring basket filled with sorbet and ice cream and topped by a white chocolate butterfly.

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