“Hey, America!” sang Lillias White in her deafening rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade”—replacing the iconic Mister Arnstein lyric—“Here we stand!”
White spoke for all at New York City’s Town Hall at the end of Concert for America: Stand Up, Sing Out!, the theatre community’s celebration of hope held the same day the United States of America swore in its 45th President, Donald J. Trump.
Though the show began mere hours after Trump’s inauguration, producers Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley and a cast of theatrical greats never mentioned the new President. Instead, they talked of hopes, dreams, and the road ahead.
“November 9. It was difficult,” Wesley told a sold-out audience of artists and activists who attended the afternoon event benefiting organizations including NAACP, Planned Parenthood, Southern Poverty Law Center, National Immigration Law Center, and the Sierra Club Foundation. “It was hard to not feel completely dejected, and to be a pessimist. But we’re optimists at heart, and there really isn’t anyone I could think who could express that sentiment more than Tony Award winner Kelli O’Hara.”
O’Hara kicked off the show with her performance of “A Cock-Eyed Optimist” from South Pacific and was met with applause when she sang the revised lyric, “But we’re stuck like a dope with a thing called hope, and we can’t get it out of our hearts! Not our hearts!”
It was a perfect segue to the Broadway for Orlando rendition of “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” performed by the entire cast of Stand Up, Sing Out!—a song covered last summer in response to the June 12 massacre in a gay nightclub in Orlando, the same day as the 70th Annual Tony Awards.
“Unfortunately the calls that the Trevor Project have received from teens that feel suicidal and depressed is at the highest level that it’s been in 20 years,” Wesley said following the performance and after introducing Trevor Project founder James Lecesne.
Lecesne added that today’s generation of young adults have been told that it’s OK to come out and be themselves, but in recent times, “They’re suddenly getting this message that it is not OK, and they don’t have anywhere to go,” he said. “They don’t have any fallback because they’ve been told that it’s okay, so what we really have to do is be there.”
The concert celebrated diversity—people of different backgrounds, countries, cultures, classes, sexual orientations, and political stances. It also celebrated America, and Chita Rivera delivered her signature tune of the same name from West Side Story at the top of the show.
Performances were meant to be both moving and uplifting. Betty Buckley sang Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up”; Jessie Mueller, who won the Tony Award for her performance as Carole King in Beautiful, performed that show’s title number; Billy Porter offered a soulful new take on “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music; and Stephanie Mills took audiences back to the 1980s with “Never Knew Love Like This Before.”
But when Brian Stokes Mitchell graced the stage, he brought down the house with his words.
“These last few months that we have been through—this country together—have been a little discombobulating,” he said. “But what I have found—and maybe some of you have found this as well—it’s given me a reinvigorated sense of patriotism, and today, because of that, I am full of hope. I am full of hope because we all still live in a country where I can say, sing, express myself in whatever way I want. It is guaranteed by our constitution, and so can you. I feel hopeful that there are artists in the world that are free to inspire us to be vigilant, to live our lives with our eyes and our ears open, to be empathetic, and to live our lives with our hearts and minds open. That is why I am hopeful today. I am hopeful today because the perfect ideals that this imperfect country was founded upon are still alive in the people that I see when I travel to different states, when I do different concerts.
“Here in this room, we are in a room of people of different sizes, sexual orientations, hues, colors, beliefs, religions, and still here we are all sitting in this room together, working together, being together, in order to form a more perfect union. And, finally, I am hopeful today because I know that I am just part of a continuum. It is a continuum that has handed me a light to keep shining bright, and I feel a responsibility to protect that light and add to it what I can, so that I can pass on to somebody later on in the continuum. I can pass that light on to a person who understands the work, the responsibility, the honor, and the joy it is to be a keeper of that light. That’s why I am hopeful. That is why I am so happy to be here with all of you today.”
He then performed “America the Beautiful” followed by Ragtime’s “Wheels of a Dream.”
“Thank you, Stokes, for totally destroying me,” Rivera said after his performance. The Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient then spoke about the arts on the heels of the news that the Trump administration may eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts.
“The arts,” Rivera began. “Two very simple words, but together they mean so very much: a book, a poem, a film, a painting, a statue, music, dance, theatre. I simply couldn’t live without it. In fact, I think the arts are what saved us through our time, from ourselves and from others. They have always had the astonishing ability to lift us, to bring us joy, understanding, and wisdom. Individually and as a society, the arts have a power to connect strangers to one another in ways that are otherwise impossible. We may never meet the author of our favorite book, and yet reading his or her words can move us to tears, a painting created in another land can make us relate to a culture and a country we may never experience or visit, or a cast album made almost 60 years ago can still leave people breathless at the genius of its composer.
“It is these connections that reach deep inside us to the core of our humanity that, for many of us, make life worth living even during the darkest of times. The arts. The pairing of two simple words. May we never forget their power and importance in each and every one of us.”
Over the course of the three-hour event, more performers continued to stop the show. Carrie Manolakos covered “Hallelujah”; a quartet comprised of Julia Murney, Shayna Steele, Caissie Levy, and Anika Larsen celebrated females with Smokey Joe’s Café’s “I’m a Woman”; and White delivered “Don’t Rain on My Parade.”
“This country is ours,” White said after her performance. “It belongs to us. We get to say who does and who does not. We have the choice. We will not let the arts be discriminated against. We will not let the arts be destroyed in this country. We will sing. We will fight. This land is ours. Goodnight.”
Michael Gioia is the Features Manager at Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.