When Celia Keenan-Bolger took the Town Hall stage October 28 to accept the inaugural Michael Friedman Freedom Award, she recalled a cassette tape given to her by her mother’s friend when she was six years old. “On one side of the cassette tape was the original Broadway cast recording of The Sound of Music and on the other side was something called The Inheritance, which was a documentary about immigrants and working Americans’ struggle to put down roots, form labor unions, survive wars, and create a new and better life for themselves in our union,” Keenan-Bolger explained. While those dual sides capture the essence of Keenan-Bolger as an artist and activist, it also spoke to the core of the concert event My Body My Business, the 17th annual Broadway Stands Up For Freedom presented by and to benefit the ACLU and NYCLU, executive produced by Rachel Sussman and Robb Nanus. (Click here to make tax-deductible donation.)
“The concert obviously has become really incredible, and I also think the needs of the ACLU and the NYCLU have changed in a very important and dramatic way with the current administration and just the ways that all these lawyers are standing up for families separated at the border and making sure that [communities] are being policed fairly,” Keenan-Bolger, who has been organizing the concert for the past 12 years, told Playbill. “The fact that the visibility of the concert and the visibility of ACLU have increased so much in the last 12 years, it’s something I’m grateful to be a part of.”
Under the direction of Tony Award winner Rachel Chavkin, My Body My Business focused on the fight for women’s rights, reproductive rights, and women’s health—as evidenced by host Laura Benanti’s grand entrance in a uterus costume—while also creating awareness about the myriad battles for human rights championed by NYCLU and ACLU, including immigrant rights, LGBTQ+ rights, farmers’ rights, and more.
Fittingly, the night opened with a performance of “My Body” from The Life and featured a roster of songs promoting women songwriters and female empowerment, including Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s “Ring of Keys” from Fun Home and Shaina Taub’s “She Persisted.” (See the full set list below.)
The performances celebrated all aspects of femininity, from righteous rage with Phillipa Soo’s “I’m Just a Girl” to Montego Glover’s sensual “Ain’t Nothin But a Kiss.”
“For me, it’s a human rights statement,” Glover told Playbill of her participation in the concert. “It means standing up for what is absolutely 100 percent right. It’s standing up for myself and other people like me and other people not like me.”
In addition to honoring Keenan-Bolger, the NYCLU also honored the organization Level Forward, introduced by What the Constitution Means to Me playwright and star Heidi Schreck, and Tony-winning producer Eva Price (Oklahoma!), introduced by Oscar-winning writer Alexander Dinelaris (Birdman), for their social justice work.
“People who are on Broadway talking about social issues in a way that is really legit and effective, using their platforms for that good, is a way that we move our conversations forward,” says actor and advocate Maybe Burke. “The more celebrities and stars we can have pushing that envelope the better we’re going to be.”
Over the past year, the support from the theatre community and countless others has led to numerous NYCLU victories for human rights, including the passing of 12 new legislative bills. Under the leadership of Executive Director Donna Lieberman, the NYCLU passed the Reproductive Health Act, ratifying Roe v Wade in the state of New York; the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, granting work protections and more; the Green Light Bill, allowing undocumented New Yorkers to earn a driver’s license; and more.
“Year to year I feel the stakes get higher,” said Glover, “and standing here tonight I’m positive that’s true.”
See photos from the performance in the gallery below.
“My Body” from The Life
Music by Cy Coleman and Lyrics by Ira Gasman
Performed by Starr Busby, Jeannette Bayardelle, Mili Diaz, L Morgan Lee, Bianca Leigh, Julia Murney, Shoba Narayan, and Alysha Umphress
“Look Up Child”
Music and Lyrics by Laura Daigle
Performed by Wé McDonald
“Just a Girl”
Music and Lyrics by Gwen Stefani and Thomas Dumont
Performed by Phillipa Soo
Music and Lyrics by Alanis Morissette and Glen Ballard
Performed by Carrie Manolakos
Music and Lyrics by Shaina Taub and Kate Ferber
Performed by Shaina Taub, Kim Blanck, Jo Lampert, and Liana Stampur
“Things My Grandma Taught Me”
Music and Lyrics by Liana Stampur, Arranged by Clinton Curtis
Performed by Liana Stampur
From Michael Friedman’s The State of the Union Songbook
Music by Michael Friedman, based on real-life interviews
Performed by Kelli O’Hara
Music and Lyrics by Shaina Taub
Performed by Eva Noblezada with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus