Manhattan’s Town Hall holds approximately 1500 chairs and although the venue was filled to capacity on Friday afternoon, June 20th, those plush theater seats could very well have gone to DC to join thousands of other vacant spots along the inaugural parade route, thanks to Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley.
The Broadway power couple brought together the entertainment industry’s biggest names to host an afternoon of entertainment that generated numerous standing ovations and thousands of dollars for the following organizations: NAACP, Planned Parenthood, Southern Poverty Law Center, National Immigration Law Center, and the Sierra Club Foundation.
The Concert 4 America was the first of monthly concerts planned by Rudetsky and Wesley, who plan to use the events to spread a message of inclusion, hope, and inspiration in response to the nation’s fractured political state. “Art can create social justice,” Rudetsky proclaimed near the top of the show. If future events are anything like the first, ebullience will reign supreme for the artistic community and its’ loyal fans.
Kelli O’Hara kicked off the three-hour star spectacle with “Cock-eyed optimist” from South Pacific. The entire concert cast followed her with “What the World Needs Now is Love”. The Burt Bacharach/Hal David hit was reimagined and recorded by members of the Broadway community after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando last summer and is available for purchase on iTunes. The proceeds benefit LGBT Central in Central Florida and The Trevor Project. James Lecesne, founder of the Trevor Project spoke of the organizations’ importance-particularly now.
Rosie Perez, who grew up in a poor neighborhood, chastised the government’s Secretary of Housing, Ben Carson, who believes that poverty is a choice. “My ass didn’t choose to be poor!” Perez joked, before offering a message of hope to children struggling to keep their dreams alive: “If a Puerto Rican out of Bushwick can make it, you can too!” She spoke of her idols before introducing one of them. That idol was living legend Chita Rivera‘s cue to take the stage, and she dazzled with an energetic version of “America” from West Side Story.
Stage and screen star Kate Mulgrew followed and yielded the stage to Betty Buckley, who offered an anthem of hope with a cover of Peter Gabriel‘s “Don’t Give Up.”
Comedian Judy Gold brought some levity to the afternoon with a spirited stand-up routine and Tony winner Jessie Mueller performed Carole King‘s “Beautiful”.
Next, Rudetsky introduced his friend, James Avila. Avila, an immigrant from Honduras, silently wowed the crowd with a stirring violin medley from Porgy and Bess.
“Edelweiss”, from The Sound of Music is a song that Billy Porter calls “a song of healing in a time of crisis.” The Kinky Boots star recently recorded a soulful arrangement of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic and was on hand to perform it live.
Comedian Caroline Rhea followed Porter and riffed on breastfeeding, Chico’s clothing store, and-gasp- Mariah Carey!
Usually cell phone use during live performances is discouraged, but the congenial hosts broke convention by inviting audiences to call or face time a loved for the next selection: “I Never Knew Love Like This Before”, sung by Grammy winner Stephanie Mills.
There were so many bright moments during the show, but Brian Stokes Mitchell‘s moment will linger forever in the minds of those who were there to witness it. Mitchell shared “a reinvigorated sense of patriotism” and spoke poignant words about shining our life’s light and passing it to the next generation. He then gifted us with an a cappela version of “God Bless America” which flowed into an accompanied “Wheels of A Dream” from Ragtime. It was a cherished portion that made anyone with the gift of hearing grateful and it reinforced the power that music offers under any circumstance.
Television star Sharon Gless was on hand to talk about women’s empowerment which was the perfect preface to the Lieber and Stoller classic “W-O-M-A-N” from Smokey Joe’s Cafe. Broadway stars Julia Murney, Caissie Levy, Shayna Steele, and Anika Larsen ripped the roof off the joint with the rousing selection. Even more astounding was the fact that they had only rehearsed it once!
The star power continued well into the third hour with Judy Kuhn, who recreated “Colors of the Wind”, the Alan Menken tune which she recorded for the animated film Pocahontas. Screen and stage personality Bebe Neuwirth read some beautiful quotes about love , then introduced the amazing multiple award-winning actor, Ben Vereen. Vereen, sporting a red ball cap which read, “Spiritual Enforcer” broke down in tears in the middle of his number, “What a Wonderful World,” but quickly regained his composure. “We have no room for discouragement. We need courage,” he said. He ended the song with emphatic words: “It ain’t over! It ain’t over! It ain’t over!”
Indeed it was not over. Tony winner Lillias White took to the stage with a powerhouse rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from Funny Girl before the entire concert cast invited the audience to sing along with them to “Let the Sunshine In” from Hair.
The concert, which was organized in an impressive three weeks by Rudetsky and Wesley, could easily have been an opportunity to bash the current administration. Like our former first lady Michelle Obama, however, the couple “went high” against the Washington mishegas and instead, provided us with gifts of unity, music, laughter, and empowering words. Presidents come and go, but the afternoon assured us that the arts will endure forever. As Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim once famously wrote: “Smoke on your pipe and put that in! “
For information on the concert series and to donate to any of these organizations, visit http://www.concert4america2017.org/