SO! Late Tuesday night, I got a text from my friend Jack Cummings (who runs the award-winning The Transport Group), from whom I haven’t heard in a while. He suggested James and I do a big concert to help with the immigration horror that’s happening at the border. James and I had been feeling immobilized and wondering what we could do…and that text is all it took to tip us over the edge.
We started texting people that night and by the next morning we had Tina Fey, Idina Menzel, and Audra McDonald on board for a (basically impromptu) Concert for America! We called our friends from the National Immigration Law Center (for whom we raised funds all last year with our Concert For America series) and they recommended four non-profits that are working on the frontlines with the families at the border (The Florence Project, ACLU Foundation of Texas, Al Otro Lado, Texas Civil Rights Project). Our regular venues weren’t available (we were only giving them 11 days notice!) so Donna Lieberman from the NYCLU recommended using the Great Hall of the Cooper Union. Cooper Union was not only available, but very eager to do a show like this. I didn’t know anything about it, but soon found out that the Great Hall has stood for a “bastion of free speech and a witness to the flow of American History and ideas” since 1858. Turns out, it’s been the location for some of the earliest workers' rights campaigns and for the birth of the NAACP, the Women's Suffrage movement and the American Red Cross. And Presidents Lincoln, Grant, Cleveland, Taft,Theodore Roosevelt, and Barack Obama all spoke there.
We decided that it’s time to fill that hall with some belting! We soon got SLATE PR to help us as publicists, but they told us that even though they could do all the press release/advance work for the concert, it turns out that no one from the office is available on the day of the event! (Fair. We had given them ten days notice!) So we asked our friend (and Playbill editor-in-chief emeritus) Blake Ross and the great theatre publicist Bill Coyle if they’d volunteer on June 30 to help with the red carpet, journalists etc. and they said yes right away! Maria DiDia volunteered to production manage it, Eric Emch came onboard to do our banner ads, Jonah Verdon (who played Ben/Lisa off-Broadway in Disaster!) made the website for our foundation (YourKidsOurKids.org), his mom, Margie, volunteered to help with all the elaborate ticketing/organizing, and Gretchen Beidl, the board president of You Gotta Believe (the only NYC agency that helps older foster kids find homes) volunteered to handle all the $250 VIP tix. (She’s already sold a ton!) I quickly began assembling my band and back-up singers and now it’s really happening! We’re doing the concert between shows, as we say in the business, on a Saturday!
Stars like Idina, Andrew Rannells, and Mandy Gonzalez can come between their matinee and night shows. We also have Brian Stokes Mitchell, Chita Rivera (doing a very appropriate “America”!) Shaina Taub, Patrick Wilson, Olga Merediz (recreating her brilliant “Paciencia y Fe” from In The Heights), Jorge Avila (a world class violinist who emigrated from Honduras), the aforementioned Audra McDonald, the hilarious Andrea Martin who’ll introduce Tina Fey, Jeremy Jordan… and Keala Settle is going to fly in from Los Angeles! General admission tickets are all $25 and we have some VIP seats for $250. Get tickets here—and you can also donate.
And we’ll be livestreaming the whole concert at our Facebook page: ConcertForAmerica.
Speaking of Tina Fey, Ruthie Fierberg—who is the Senior Features Editor at Playbill and edits this very column—told me that Tina gave me a shout-out at the Lortel Awards (which honors Off-Broadway shows, exclusively) last month! Ruthie emailed me that Tina was talking about how she made her start Off-Off-Off-Off-Broadway in Chicago, where their houses were often pretty empty (meaning super low tickets sales). They apparently had a rule they always adhered to which was that, in order to do the show, there had to be more people in the audience than there were onstage. But, they broke one time when they were doing a two-hander and there was, in fact, only one person in the audience. Then she qualified “or as Seth Rudetsky would say: A person.” (By the way, it’s pronounced not like the first letter of the alphabet but like “Uh.” A person sounds like “Uh person.”)
Of course, I loved hearing the shout out, but must admit that it should have been a shout-out to my sister Nancy because she started the tradition! Back in 1992, I did a tour of Forever Plaid that played the Mechanic Theater in Baltimore. Instead of staying at a hotel, I stayed with my sister, Nancy, and her husband, Allan. When I left for the next theatre (The Old Globe in San Diego) I wound up leaving one of my black socks there. Nancy wanted me to know I left it, but also felt to the need to make certain that I knew I hadn’t left a pair of socks. So, she left me a message not saying that I had left my socks, but instead stating that I had left “a” black sock. I became obsessed with the specificity and appropriated it into my every day life. (“I’m on a diet and only ate a M&M.”) I then put it into the Off-Broadway version of Disaster! when we had a section where tons of killers bees attacked a man. I, as the emotionally shut down disaster expert, explained to his widow that it was good news because all the bees attacked him and bees don’t live after they sting. Therefore, we were all now safe. The wife cried, “But my husband is dead!” I was miffed and muttered, “It’s a person.” Cut to: It was Sean Hayes’ favorite line in the show! Cut to: Because of time constraints, we had to cut it from the Broadway production.
Speaking of people (terrible segue), I interviewed Patti Murin, who is now starring in Frozen. Her Broadway debut was in Xanadu as the swing and then she eventually took over for Anika Larsen, who had a full-time track and also covered leading lady Kerry Butler. I told Patti the story Anika had told me about the first time she went on for Kerry: Anika was the understudy and she explained to my audience that they need to understand the word “understudy” means just that: You are under studied. It’s very difficult to go on for a huge role and do a great job.
Right before her first performance going on for Kerry, she was standing on the elevator that would shoot her to the stage for the opening number. In the minutes before the show was about to begin, she calmly thought that she could easily get off the elevator and literally just leave the theatre and not do the show. She thought it through in a very meticulous manner (leaving the stage door, getting on the subway, local or express) and basically decided not to do it because she knew that everyone on Broadway would always know she was the girl who left a show right before she was about to go on. But, let’s take in, that’s how scary it was! Patti agreed. She said that in Xanadu, you were not only playing a lead but you were also on rollerskates the whole time!
The skating was so hard for Kerry Butler that she told Chris Ashley (the director) during rehearsals that she would have to spend the entire time only concentrating on the skating and wouldn’t be able to do any acting! She wasn’t joking! Regardless, Kerry got a Tony nomination, it went great for Anika (who wound up starring in the national tour) and Patti nailed it. Xanadu has a book by Douglas Carter Beane and Patti then went onto star in his next musical: Lysistrata Jones. The show got great reviews, but opened right before Christmas week in December…which leads into January, the most horrific time to sell Broadway show tickets. On the day after opening, there was a cast meeting and the producers told everyone that they would definitely stay open…if they sold out every single show Christmas week. Of course, the cast said they looked into the audience at their next show and “saw 35 people.” UGH!
A few years later, Patti was one of the stars of Nerds, which also has a crazy story:
She had done an out-of-town production, really enjoyed it and then, suddenly, on New Year’s Day 2016, she got a call saying that the show was going to Broadway! They all quickly started rehearsing and three weeks later, right before they were about to move into the theatre for tech, while the cast was rehearsing a song (and she remembers they were at the words “live your dream!”) and they were abruptly told to stop rehearsing because the show was not going to Broadway!
If you don’t know, a show can be slated for Broadway and still have to raise its full capitalization. Nerds reached the deadline for raising its money and it didn’t have what it needed. Patti said she’s most upset because people won’t get to see Rory O’Malley brilliant portrayal of Steve Jobs. The good news is, she’s finally in a long-running show with Frozen!
Patti is also a trailblazer because she’s publicly talked about having anxiety and how it’s affected her performances. When Frozen was out of town, she had a panic attack but decided to go on. It wound up being a really terrible experience for her. So, recently, she felt a massive anxiety attack coming on and she decided to take off a show. And she posted on Instagram about why she missed the show. Actors have often spoke of taking off a show for being sick or having an injury, but people haven’t really spoken about missing shows for anxiety. Once she posted about it, people were extremely thankful that she spoke of it publicly. Here she is singing from the show!
Don’t forget, Concert For America is this Saturday, June 30th at 5PM ET! For tickets and information and to donate visit ConcertsForAmerica.com. Get a ticket or watch the livestream!! Peace out!