Though a planned-for-New-York tour of Dreamgirls ended up stalling on the road three years back, Broadway got a grand taste of that show — for one gala night, anyway — when the Actors' Fund offered a concert version of the musical, Sept. 24. (The scheduling was not affected by the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.)
In his answering machine message at the Actors' Fund, executive director Joe Benincasa thanked everyone involved and added, "Monday evening was absolutely magnificent."
According to a Barlow-Hartman spokesperson (reached Sept. 28), the benefit raised $1,090,100 — pretty much exactly what the theatreatti had been anticipating the figure might be. Celebs attending the choreographed concert staging included Matthew Broderick (The Producers), Sarah Jessica Parker (H2S), Rosie O'Donnell (Seussical), Chris Meloni ("Oz"), Betty Buckley, Luther Vandross, Celeste Holm, Patti LuPone (The Old Neighborhood), Jane Krakowski. Brian Stokes Mitchell, who had a cameo role in the musical, made a pre show curtain speech to welcome the audience and rally the beleaguered New Yorkers with a reminder that the show must indeed go on.
Musical director and artistic producer Seth Rudetsky told Playbill On-Line (Sept. 25) his only regret about the evening is that he only gets to do it once: "I wanna do it again!. I can't believe I'm only gonna do it once. It was just amazing." Asked if certain moments proved especially resonant after the Sept. 11 catastrophe, Rudetsky noted that actress LaChanze, whose husband remains among the missing, was in the audience. "I had a role for her and would have cast her in the show, but she was eight months pregnant... Two firemen in the audience were also singled out, and at the end, Lillias [White] introduced everyone and made a speech about supporting the theatre. But during the show itself it was about the event. Everyone simply got swept up in the evening."
Conductor Rudetsky is a former "Rosie O'Donnell Show" comedy writer, frequent guest on the Metro Channel's "New York Central" show, and host of the weekly "Broadway Chatterbox" cabaret. The Ford Center, home of 42nd Street, housed the Dreamgirls event, which offered much vocal firepower from its three stars: Audra McDonald, Heather Headley and Lillias White (who played Effie). It was also a night for recent nostalgia, as Alice Ripley (The Rocky Horror Show) and Emily Skinner (The Full Monty), who played the joined-at-the-hip sisters of Side Show, reunited to play the Sweehearts vocal group and sing "Cadillac Car."
Even cameo roles in the concert went to big names. According to a spokesperson at the Barlow-Hartman press office, Stokes Mitchell (King Hedley II and a Tony winner for Kiss Me, Kate played Jerry, while Patrick Wilson (The Full Monty) and Brad Oscar (The Producers) and Malcolm Gets (A New Brain) played film executives. Other cast members included Tamara Tunie (as Michelle), James Stovall (as Marty), Darius de Haas (Marie Christine), Norm Lewis (Side Show, A New Brain) and Billy Porter (Miss Saigon).
Dreamgirls, a high-energy musical from the pens of librettist Tom Eyen and composer Henry Krieger (who went on to write the aforementioned Side Show), tells of a Supremes-like singing group that moves from the streets of Chicago to the big time — with lots of infighting and heartbreak along the way. Songs include "One Night Only," "I Am Changing," "When I First Saw You," "I'm Somebody," "Family" and Effie's show-stopping "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." The show was originally directed by Michael Bennett in 1981 and became legendary for its flashy staging and design.
Danny Herman co-directed and co-choreographed the Sept. 24 concert with Smokey Joe's Cafe star, Brenda Braxton.Nonesuch Records is recording the concert, to be released on CD (tentatively) Nov. 20.
All three lead actresses in the show were Tony winners. Actress McDonald has won three (Carousel, Ragtime, Master Class). Relative newcomer Headley won the Best Actress Tony for Aida, and White nabbed the honor for her role in Cy Coleman's 1997 tuner, The Life.
The nation's "only human service organization for all entertainment professionals," the Actors' Fund of America is best known for providing financial assistance and social services (food, rent, medical expenses) to professionals in need. Other Fund benefit evenings include performances of current Broadway shows given on nights when those shows don't normally play. Though all benefits go to the Fund, box office prices are the same as on other nights, and the evenings tend to be well-attended by members of the entertainment community.
Actors' Fund executive director Joe Benincasa told Playbill On-Line in September the concert "could be the biggest fundraising event of all time" for the organization. He noted that several previous benefits "were around the $600,000 mark" and that the famous "Night of 100 Stars" in the 1980s was a high profile success but had lower net profits because of television-related expenses. Benincasa did say that, allowing for inflation, the Fund's greatest fundraising drive still reaches all the way back to 1892, when $1 million was raised for the ten-year-old organization.
As for the current benefit, Benincasa couldn't praise the cast and creators highly enough: "They're rehearsing up a storm. I'm knocked out by their commitment; it's really been an overwhelming experience." Tickets for the benefit ranged from $50-$2,500, with the lower priced ducats sold out weeks before the event. For information on the Actors' Fund call (212) 221-7300.
— By David Lefkowitz