A treasure hunt devised by composer Stephen Sondheim prompted hundreds of people, including Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, to scamper through the dinosaur section of the American Museum of Natural History on Monday night.
"That was a blast," said Tony Award-winning actor John Benjamin Hickey, even though his team came up short at the charity gala. "It's the most fun I've ever had losing."
Sondheim, a legendary puzzle maker besides being a cherished songwriter, lent his skills to help celebrate the 20th anniversary of Friends In Deed, a nonprofit crisis center based in SoHo that provides free emotional and spiritual support for anyone diagnosed with life-threatening physical illnesses.
The hunt took place in the halls of the Saurischian and Ornithischian dinosaurs and primitive animals. Participants were separated into teams and searched for the scientific or colloquial names of 12 creatures depicted in the clues. Those words were then broken down into fragments, which when combined into a huge jumble of 12 four-letter groups, created a sentence that yielded the final clue.
"We really wanted to do something different," said Bravo's Andy Cohen, a Friends in Deed board member who admitted before the hunt that he considered himself lucky to have found himself on Broderick's team. "This is extra special."
After a cocktail reception that included wine and canapes, each participant was given a large brown envelope sealed with wax and told to open it only at 7:30 p.m. Each team got a different first clue to minimize crowding.
Actor Anthony Rapp, who starred in the original company of "Rent" and is also a board member of the charity, was pretty confident he would be up the task since he is a word-game fan. "I'm always in a puzzle mind," he said. But he also had a backup plan: He invited three of his smartest friends to be on his team.
Sondheim had three pieces of advice: Allow for serendipity, don't draw the attention of opponents by shrieking with delight when finding a clue, and not to use Google. "It will not be as helpful as you think. And it is cheating," the directions warned.
The hunt lasted about an hour, sending men in suits and women in formal dresses running through the museum, their heels clicking on the marble. As the hour sped by, some participants threw decorum aside and sprinted through the halls, bellowing to teammates and giggling. Some 300 people signed up for the privilege, a rare Sondheim treasure hunt open to the public.
"I got one," screamed one woman with glee after she nailed a clue.
"I think I'm going to look over there," Broderick, a rival, calmly said, moving in the woman's direction. His wife wasn't doing much better. She was seen huddling with her group and at one point screaming in mock horror, "We need help!"
Through it all, Sondheim himself stood off to one side, hands in his pockets and a smile on his lips. He made small talk with some participants but ducked out of the museum before a winner was declared.
The sentence answer to the complicated Sondheim's puzzle was: "Listen to the legend of the dinosaur in the mammal theater," prompting the winning team, which contained no celebrities but did apparently have puzzle masters, to rush into a neighboring hall smiling. Each of the winners got a Motorola Droid and a weekend getaway _ a sly reference to Sondheim's song "A Weekend in the Country" _ at a hotel in Saugerties, N.Y.
Seats to the event, called "A Little Jurassic Treasure Hunt," cost $1,500 and included a three-course dinner _ a salad, a stuffed chicken with spinach and shaved black truffle, and a desert of molten chocolate cake _ in the Rose Center for Earth and Space, as well as a concert by Melissa Errico and Tony nominee Raul Esparza.
Esparza sang a medley of "Everybody Says Don't," "Old Friends" and "Finishing the Hat" _ all by Sondheim. Esparza was also part of the hunt and felt before it began that he was well prepared.
"I've read `Catcher in the Rye,'" he said, smiling. "I know the entire Holden Caulfield tour of this museum. I've spent days online looking at the Darwin exhibit, too. I know those dinosaurs."