Gender Lines Blur as Norm Lewis, Stephanie J. Block, Robin De Jesus, Andrew Keenan-Bolger and More Go Backwards at BC/EFA Benefit
By Michael Gioia
The ninth annual Broadway Backwards concert — featuring male singers performing songs traditionally sung by women and females singing tunes written for men — raised a record-breaking $423,118 to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center (the Center) March 24. Playbill.com was there.
"It was so amazing," said Bebe Wood, the pre-teen actress from NBC's "The New Normal" who hosted the 2014 edition of Broadway Backwards alongside Tony Award winner Julie White, at the evening's after party at John's Pizzeria. "I was so happy; that's why I think I was really nervous because I didn't want to disappoint anybody."
Not only did Wood not disappoint, the young actress left the crowd inspired. A few years back, at age nine, she raised $2,000 for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS through her (now annual) event Broadway Bebe Boutique.
After a trip to New York with her parents — where she had seen multiple Broadway shows (where cast members brought out red buckets and asked for donations to BC/EFA following the performance) — the Kansas City native went home encouraged. "I had this little event called Broadway Bebe Boutique, and I designed and sold clothes," she explained to Playbill.com. "I was nine years old… The first one was at my house, and my goal was to raise $300." By the end of the night, Wood raised $2,000, and followed up the next year with a sum of $4,000.
Wood joined White, a Tony winner for her performance in The Little Dog Laughed, March 24 on the Al Hirschfeld stage to conduct the evening of gender-bending tunes, celebrating the LGBTQ community, acceptance and equality.
Stage and television actor Bryan Batt (joined by Nicholas Park, Marty Lawson and the Backwards ensemble) kicked off the evening with "I Can Hear the Bells" from Hairspray. Recreating a New York City scene at Christmastime, Batt began to "hear the bells" when he was struck by a (very handsome and very buff) Santa Claus.
Following Batt, Pippin's Rachel Bay Jones and "Orange is the New Black" and Godspell actress Uzo Aduba took the stage for a captivating performance of "Lily's Eyes" from The Secret Garden.
"I wound up texting my friend during intermission," admitted Aduba, "and I said, 'I am, right now, at one of the most beautiful things I've ever experienced before in the theatre community.' I love the community, the theatre, the love there — the love in the room — singing 'Lily's Eyes' with Rachel Bay Jones… I think theatre has been an incredible nurturer to the LGBT community, and I think, in all forms — not just orientation, gender, race [or] size — to see yourself reflected back is always important. To tell the true story of the world and what life really looks like, I think that's always important to do."
The Tony Award-winning musical Kinky Boots was also represented at the Hirschfeld (its current Broadway home) with a performance of the comic Cyndi Lauper tune "The History of Wrong Guys" by Newsies actor Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Kinky Boots' own Andy Kelso.
"She totally blew the possibilities open because she's so zany, and she's nuts in the best possible way," said Keenan-Bolger of Kinky Boots' original star Annaleigh Ashford, who created the role of Lauren and earned a Tony nod for her "History of Wrong Guys." "I really got to play around with it, and I was not afraid to look like an idiot because she does it in the best, most graceful way."
Keenan-Bolger admitted, "I've never done a Broadway Backwards before. I've watched many a YouTube, but it was really cool to be a part of. I mean, the roster of names — just in that press release… I definitely had a crazy 'New York moment,' where I [thought], 'How do I get to be here? What have I done in my life that allows me to perform alongside these luminaries of theatre?'"
Another perfectly comedic moment was at the top of the show's second act, when two-time Tony Award nominee Robin De Jesus went in search of a "Prehistoric Man."
"I got to do a kick-ass number called 'Prehistoric Man.' It was a number that was added for Ann Miller in the movie version of On the Town, and I had a bevy of gorgeous men, whom I devoured and stripped, and they attacked me and threw me around," said De Jesus, who was literally tossed between six strapping Broadway dancers (Dave August, Josh Buscher, Andrew Cheng, Marty Lawson, Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva and Adam Roberts) all the while singing, dancing and improvising ("I got time for that," he said mid-number, referencing YouTube sensation Sweet Brown and the beautiful boys at his side). "I lived the dream, and we raised bucket loads of money."
Creator and director Robert Bartley confirmed that over $423,000 was raised at this year's event, flawlessly conducted by music director Tim Rosser.
"The next performer is just f*cked!" joked host White. Tony nominee Norm Lewis, Broadway's next Phantom, took the stage for "Home" from The Wiz.
The Wiz, he said, "was the first musical that I ever went to the library in my high school, took the album home and listened to entirely. I wasn't a musical-theatre person. I got into the musical-theatre world late, and someone told me, 'You should check out this show, The Wiz.' I took it home, I fell in love with it. And, that song — it just reminds me of that time."
The evening also included "Freddy, My Love" from Grease (performed by John Tartaglia with Anthony Festa, Sean McGee and Brandon Uranowitz), "Been a Long Day" from How to Succeed… (performed by Stephen Bienske, Colin Hanlon, Max von Essen and the Backwards ensemble), "I Still Get Jealous" from High Button Shoes (performed by Debra Monk and Cass Morgan), "I Have Dreamed" from The King and I (performed by Jose Llana and Kyle Dean Massey), "Could I Leave You" from Follies (performed by Roger Rees and introduced by his partner Rick Elice), "She Likes Basketball" from Promises, Promises (performed by Beth Leavel), "Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag" from Chicago (performed by Michael Berresse and Tony Yazbeck) and "Hold On" (performed by Ken Page and the Backwards ensemble).
"The fight's not over," said Lewis of the cause, "and I know friends of mine who are ill and who are struggling financially who need some help."
Keenan-Bolger added, "What I think the Broadway community has done so well is take the talents of its members and find ways to really use it as a tool for social change."
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)
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