How the Dreamgirls Benefit Concert, Starring Audra McDonald, Lillias White, and Heather Headley, Came to Be | Playbill

Seth Rudetsky How the Dreamgirls Benefit Concert, Starring Audra McDonald, Lillias White, and Heather Headley, Came to Be This week in the life of Seth, a Guys and Dolls reunion and Stars in the House aims to pass the $1 million mark.

First of all, I’m starting to perform in person again. I'm so excited! I just booked my deconstructing show, aka Seth’s Big Fat Broadway Show, in Rochester for July 17th and 18th. Come see me deconstruct Patti, Ben Platt, Whitney Houston, Barbra, Billy Porter, Betty Buckley, and more. Tickets are here.

So many reunions on Stars in the House. I’ll focus on two for this week’s column; the first is the fabulous Dreamgirls concert that I put on for The Actors Fund back in 2001. FYI, Billy Porter played Jimmy Early, but he couldn’t make it to the reunion because he was on a TV set. As he texted me about himself, “She’s directing now.” (#Sass) Here’s the entire episode.

Lillias White Curtis Brown

Here are some highlights: First, we talked about how the concert idea first started. It all began in 1997, when I was doing a fundraiser for the Gay/Lesbian synagogue and saluting two gay, Jewish composers: Henry Krieger and David Friedman. For one of the Krieger segments, I did the end-of-act-one “fight scene” from Dreamgirls which leads into “And I Am Telling You.” I was chatting with Lillias White a few days before and asked if she would do Effie. She told me she wanted to, but she’d be in tech for The Life. To me, that meant she would be rehearsing all day and into the night and therefore would be too exhausted. Instead, she just wanted me to know that she wouldn’t be able to be there until after rehearsal. And, she sure was. She got there around 10 PM and nailed it. She sounded amazing on everything, but most memorably, she vibrato’d the high G in “For se-ven years I sung with you, I was your sister!” I was so flipped out that I immediately told myself I had to put Dreamgirls on Broadway somehow with a full orchestra and have Lillias play Effie.

I approached various charities. They tried to talk me out of the full orchestra, but I knew that’s what it had to be. Two years passed. Then in 1999, Catherine Cooke and Tim Pinckney asked me to conduct a fundraiser for the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, which would also benefit The Actors Fund. At that point, I was working as a comedy writer on The Rosie O’Donnell Show and hadn’t conducted in a while, so I was a-skeerd. But I went for it and it wound up being a wonderful event. Here’s Kristin Chenwoeth doing “Glitter and Be Gay” with me (back to the audience) conducting.

Heather Headley Jemal Countess

Anyhoo, because I had started this relationship with The Actors Fund (and their use of full orchestras), I felt comfortable asking about doing the Dreamgirls benefit. Catherine and Tim (and, of course, the great Joe Benincasa) said yes to the concert. I knew that Audra had always wanted to play Deena (she’d been a fan ever since she saw the national tour in California with Lillias as Effie and had a photo hanging in her bedroom). They suggested we have three Tony award winners and asked me what I thought of Heather Headley as Lorrell. I was all for it. Well, Heather revealed during the reunion that when she got the call from her agent telling her about our production of Dreamgirls, she felt so honored—because she assumed we were asking her to play the lovely, peaceful, calm-centered Deena. After an awkward pause, her agent told her we wanted her play the hyper, sassy, high-belting Lorrell. Heather went from radiating peacefulness to full out sassing with a yelled, “I’M NOT LORRELL!” Well, that clinched it. It sounded so much like Lorrell, she realized she did have some Lorrell inside her and she said yes.

We were going to do the concert in late Fall 2000, but Audra had pregnancy complications and had to go on bed rest for months. That put the kibosh on the concert, but, luckily, the bed rest paid off and she had a healthy baby girl, Zoe, in February 2001. We moved the concert to the following fall on September 24, 2001. Yes, it wound up being 13 days after 9/11. We all talked about how that affected everything. When 9/11 happened, Audra was in California. She couldn’t get back to NY by plane, so she drove across the country, being helped by friends and relatives in the various cities she stopped in as she traversed the nation. She and Heather remembered her calling it the “overground railroad.”

Darius de Haas Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Everyone was saying how they weren’t 100% sure that doing the concert was the right thing to do so soon after that tragedy…but they collectively recalled the very beginning of the show when I hit that solo cowbell. As soon as the cowbell hit, there was a ROAR from the audience. The cast was saying it felt like a joyful combination of anticipation of the event and a city-wide emotional catharsis…it made everyone getting ready to perform know they were doing the right thing. Probably the most moving song of the evening was “(We Are A) Family” sung by Darius de Haas and the rest of the leads. The song was a collective hug to the entire theater. You can watch tons of rehearsal footage and my step-by-step commentary on putting Dreamgirls together here.

Stars in the House also did a reunion of the 1992 cast of Guys and Dolls. What made it even more amazing for the Actors Fund is that the fabulous hotel, NH Collection Madison Ave, offered a $10,000 matching donation for the evening. James, Juli, and I got to stay at the hotel and, boy, was it great! Watch this super-fun video that David Katz edited. It’s me and James enjoying the lobby and acting like fools.

And they are stepping up to help again. On June 30, Stars in the House will be celebrating having raised $1,000,000 for The Actors Fund (we are pretty certain we will by that date). We’re going to be doing our first live and in-person Stars in the House at a fabulous venue called Asylum with a bunch of stars who’ll (almost) all be singing up a storm. Everyone can watch the show at but we’ll have a live audience filled with our staff that’s been helping us since the live stream began back in March 2020. Some are NY-based, but many are flying in from all over the country (Texas, Georgia, California) and NH Collection is generously donating hotel rooms so everyone will have a fabulous hotel to stay in on Madison Avenue. Look how great it is!

Our entire audience will be getting delicious gluten-free, Keto-friendly cookies donated by Nunbelieveable. YUM. And, they’ll also be receiving those fabulous Lights of Broadway Showcards drawn by the brilliant Justin Squigs Robertson. As they used to say with my prized Wacky Pack stickers: “collect them all!”

Back to our reunion: It was very fun to talk to the Guys and Dolls peeps about their massive hit show and we first asked Jerry Zaks what it was like being asked to direct it. He told us that he was excited about it at first…until everyone he knew would stop him and say, with gravitas, “It is my favorite musical.” The pressure was on.

Faith Prince and Nathan Lane in Guys and Dolls Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

Nathan Lane and Faith Prince talked about their bravura performance of “Sue Me.” If you don’t know, Jerry Zaks doesn’t like actors working out any aspect of the show amongst themselves. He wants to be present at all rehearsals and conversations. There’s no talking about stage business with each other, he requires that it’s all done in front of him. Well, “Sue Me” hadn’t had a lot of attention because there were so many big numbers to stage. So, one day, with great trepidation, Nathan surreptitiously asked Faith if they should go off by themselves and work on the number. One of the things he told Faith was, “When you hit me with your bag, really let me have it!” That resulted in him being pushed to the floor…and then getting back up again quickly. Something, he noted, he could not do nowadays. But all their work on it paid off and it went from this charming number to a highlight of the show. Faith remembers performing it for Jerry and it was one of those moments after when Faith could tell Jerry knew they worked on it by themselves, Jerry knew they knew he knew….but nothing was said. Because it was so good. Here is their brilliant performance on The Tonight Show.

Interestingly, Jerry doesn’t want actors talking to each other and working on things together, because that’s what he would do all the time when he was in Grease. As a matter of fact, he admitted that he was so often giving his fellow actors notes during Grease that his nickname was “Uta”.

Peter Gallagher Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

Peter Gallagher told a hilarious story about the time when Guys and Dolls was being written. Apparently, Frank Loesser holed himself up to finish the score and left word that no one should disturb him. Jule Styne wanted to visit him and felt that, because they were close, Frank would agree to see him. Jule buzzed up to Frank’s apartment and said, “It’s me, Jule! Can I come up to visit?” Frank apparently replied, “Only if you have a rhyme for mink.” Everyone talked about how perfectly cast was Peter. So handsome and such a great voice. Watch here.

Ruth Williamson talked about auditioning for General Cartwright and looking for something comedic to work with. She tried to think of why the General would change by the end of the show and she realized the only variable was Sky Masterson. She figured he’s a guy and she’s a doll, so she took her character from strict/no-nonsense to a hilarious undercurrent of sexuality which Nathan said stopped the show. Eddie Strauss, the music director, knew Ruth had a high C and told her he was going to add it to the show. He added it to “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” and she sounded amazing.
Bobbie Walter, who played Nicely-Nicely told us he was super-nervous right before he was going to sing “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” on the Tony Awards. He was standing on the stage and through the scrim, he could see Lauren Bacall, Liza Minnelli, etc. He got more and more scared and right before he sang, he heard a voice in his head say, “Don’t waste this on fear.” And that’s all it took! He wound up suddenly thinking “I get to sing this amazing song, with this great ensemble, in these amazing costumes, in front of this auspicious audience…” and suddenly he was thrilled and no longer nervous. Watch him and Ruth’s high C!

Josie de Guzman talked about her experience in Nick and Nora, which happened right before Guys and Dolls; If you don’t know, that was a troubled show which wound up cancelling their first opening night and extending their preview period to keep working on the show. I saw her in it, thought she was great, yet she got fired in previews. The show was in massive chaos and she was one of the casualties. She wound up taking the Sarah Brown standby in Guys And Dolls. Well, there was another actress playing Sarah but, during previews, Josie wound up taking over the role. It was a weird parallel experience. She went from one of the lowest points in her career, but to one of the biggest highlights. Here is Josie pre-Guys And Dolls, when she was Maria in the 1980 West Side Story Broadway revival, opposite Ken Marshall.

And, finally, I mentioned that I’m going back to live performing. I’ll be with Sierra Boggess in Provincetown at the very beginning of July, followed by so many amazing Broadway stars. Here’s Sierra showing her hilariousness during an episode of Obsessed. Watch then peace out!

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