Behind the Scenes at the Sold-Out Concert for America

Seth Rudetsky   Behind the Scenes at the Sold-Out Concert for America This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Seth explains how Carrie Manolakos got to sing the show-stopping “Hallelujah” and the story behind Sharon Gless and Lynn Redgrave’s staged screaming match.
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Seth Rudetsky and Chita Rivera Jenny Anderson/Getty Images

Well, I can’t quite believe it, but the first Concert for America happened January 20. It was the beginning of a monthly series of concerts benefitting five charities that are going to need extra help in the years ahead. We thought of the idea in November, but started really working on it three weeks ago. James thought it was really important to keep the event very positive and joyous to lift people’s spirits. It definitely did that… but it also wore us the hell out!

Here are the highlights and the stressful parts:

We opened with “What the World Needs Now” with the entire cast. We never quite rehearsed it with everyone, but it wound up working out fine…ish. My favorite “we didn’t have enough rehearsal to give notes” moment is when Judy Gold decided to

A. Sing Janet Metz’s high note
B. Sustain Janet Metz’s high note 30 seconds longer than necessary/appropriate/anyone wanted to hear. Watch it at around 1:00 minute in below.

The People Magazine and Entertainment Weekly websites are run by the same peeps, and they said that they’d live stream the whole concert, which was amazing. But it also meant we had to secure the song streaming rights to everything being performed. And by “we,” I mean amazing producer and music supervisor Janet Billig Rich, who got us all the song rights for Disaster! Well, this whole thing was put together super last minute, and a few days before the concert, we decided to add Carrie Manolakos singing her amazing version of “Let It Be.” On Thursday, the day before the concert, we had a sound check of some of the songs, and Carrie was there to do “Let It Be.” Right before she was about to sing, we found out that we were denied the song rights! Well, James quickly talked to her about her other songs, and he decided “Hallelujah” would be the best one for her to do. We wound up putting it in the concert right after Chita Rivera spoke.

A few days before, me, James, and Chita did a TV interview show, and Chita mentioned that she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. After James heard the NEA might be defunded by the government, he asked Chita if she would make a speech talking about the importance of the arts. She talked about how various art forms can touch us and, at one point, mentioned how an original cast recording made 60 years ago can still make us marvel at the genius of its composer (referencing the great Leonard Bernstein). The audience loved it!

Anyhoo, right after Chita spoke of how none of us should ever have to live without the arts, Carrie sang. OMG. Such a stunning version. Not only so soulful, but belting a G…with vibrato! Please watch here:

PS: Chita also sang and danced “America.” In her speech, she had told the audience she couldn’t believe it really had been 60 years since West Side Story, considering she’s been living the life of a 35-year-old woman. She’s right! Watch:

One of the charities we benefitted was the NAACP. The cool part was that Cornell William Brooks, the president and CEO (who just testified at Jeff Sessions’ senate confirmation hearing for Attorney General) introduced Brian Stokes Mitchell. He was amazing! I told James it had the full essence of a sermon, and James said Cornell had gone to divinity school. I knew it! Watch:

And then Brian Stokes Mitchell sang “America The Beautiful” into “Wheels of a Dream.” I got to play in the orchestra during the original run of Ragtime, and I loved being able to play the song again. And speaking of Stokes, I still remember how kind he was back then: I was just a sub and a nervous wreck the first time I played that show because there are so many exposed piano solos. After Act 1, Stokes made his way down to the pit just to come over to me and tell me he thought I was doing a great job. It was so nice of him to come find me just to give me encouragement! Here’s his wonderful performance:

I was so happy Jessie Mueller sang “Beautiful” because it’s a truly joyous song and really kept the positivity going. However, I was nervous about the octaves I had to play at the end of the song. I didn’t want them to be too exposed because I thought I’d clank them, but I wasn’t too nervous because I knew Jessie would be riffing over them. Turns out, during all those measures where I was struggling to play the octaves, Jessie made the bold choice of being completely silent so every one of my clanks were exposed. And, of course, the camera had to show a close up of my fingers desperately trying to play it. Terrifying!

We also had Judy Gold, Caroline Rhea, and Michelle Collins, who were all hilarious. I loved Caroline, who said, “I’m currently on a gluten-free diet. I didn’t know ‘gluten’ meant all food.” She told the audience, “Yes, this has been a tragic time. Well, you’re referring to one thing; I’m referring to the fact that someone bought me something from Chico’s.” She said they don’t have actual sizes; they’re all divided as 1, 2 or 3, “which should translate to ‘menopause, facial hair, and considering an alternative lifestyle.’” She kept raging: “It’s not even really clothes. It’s just blankets that they’ve sewn together in different sizes!”

We stole something Gavin Creel started doing for our concerts, and it was great. At one point, James and I asked the audience to call or FaceTime someone they were close to, so they’d be with a loved one during the next song. As people held their cell phones up, Stephanie Mills came out and sang “Never Knew Love Like This Before.” So good! PS: I never knew that the song, and she won the Grammy Award. Brava! She still sounds exactly the same!

Halfway through, we did a salute to the Women’s March by bringing out Sharon Gless to talk about how women have been treated in Hollywood. She told a story I recapped in Playbill a few years ago: Lynn Redgrave had been starring in the TV series House Calls, and when she renegotiated her contract, she asked for the same salary as her co-star Wayne Rogers and to be allowed to breastfeed on the set. In response, she was fired. Sharon, who was a contract player for Universal, was told she had to replace her, and she did the show for a year. At the end of it, she had a big party and called Lynn Redgrave. She explained who she was…and invited her to the party. I told her I thought that was so cool of her, and she said that Lynn was even cooler…she said yes! Lynn then asked Sharon if she wanted to stage something. Sharon agreed, and that night, a few hours into the party, Sharon saw a car pull into the driveway. She muttered out loud, “Who could that be?” and went outside. She and Lynn quietly introduced themselves and then started a loud, fake argument so the cast could hear them. Lynn asked, “Why the hell didn’t you invite me?” Sharon yelled, “Why should I? You can’t act for sh*t!” I can't repeat much of what was said, but it ended with Sharon standing at her door yelling, “F*ck me? F*ck you!” The cast was standing there with their mouths hanging open as Sharon “apologized” to everyone…and then, of course, invited Lynn inside. Brava!

Right after, we brought out Julia Murney, Caissie Levy, Anika Larsen, and Shayna Steele to sing “I’m a Woman.” Yes, ladies! Watch:

One of the most moving moments in the whole show was Ben Vereen singing “What A Wonderful World.” Please watch it. And look at the very end, where he reaches forward and holds the hand of the woman he was making eye contact with throughout the song…my mother!

In conclusion, it was a wonderful afternoon, and I can’t wait to do more! If you want to donate to these charities, go to Concert4America2017.org, and you can also buy tickets there for the next one, which will be in NYC February 25. Speaking of tickets, I’m going to be doing one of my favorite comedy shows, ’70s Variety Shows Deconstructed!, in L.A. this Thursday night at Largo. You can get tix here.

And if you don’t quite know what kind of shows I’ll be deconstructing, here’s a prime example of what was happening during that decade: this is a medley of “star”-themed songs—set to a disco beat. Featuring The Brady Bunch. And Tina Turner. And Milton Berle. Anybody? EVERYBODY! I have even more amazing clips to be deconstructed, so come by!

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