The Best Moments From Concert for America Starring Idina Menzel, Audra McDonald, and More

Seth Rudetsky   The Best Moments From Concert for America Starring Idina Menzel, Audra McDonald, and More
This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Seth shares his 14 favorite songs and stories at the June 30 Concert for America.
James Wesley, Keala Settle, Juli Wesley, Audra McDonald, Seth Rudetsky
James Wesley, Keala Settle, Juli Wesley, Audra McDonald, Seth Rudetsky Courtesy of Seth Rudetsky

Greetings from a city I just learned how to pronounce. Yes, we’re firmly ensconced in Reykjavik, Iceland, (anybody?) and we’re about to begin the next Playbill cruise.

First, through no fault of Playbill’s, there is the obligatory travel complaining. (You know that whenever James and I complain about something not being up-to-snuff luxury wise, we always refer to this article we’re obsessed with from The Onion.) So, we got on the plane to go the cruise and right before take off, we were told that one of the restrooms broke and they had to bring mechanics on board to fix it. When they announced we were delayed, Christine Ebersole, who was seated behind me, immediately leaned forward and asked, “Wanna rehearse?” Brava!

Speaking of shows, we did Concert For America this past Saturday and it went amazingly well. James and I put it together with our regular team in 11 days, which reminds me of the Actors Fund concerts I used to do. When we first did Dreamgirls in concert, I started rehearsing people in June and then did the show in late September. By the time a few years passed and we got On The Twentieth Century, we put it together in two weeks! Basically, once you have your system for a certain type of show, it’s easy to haul them up quickly. Speaking of Dreamgirls, I just re-watched this deconstruction I did of Lillias White (with Audra McDonald and Heather Headley) on The Rosie O’Donnell Show from 2001 right before the concert. She sounds amazing!!!

Back to Concert For America. We are going to re-air it this coming Sunday, July 8, at 9PM EDT at or on the Facebook page.

If you don’t know, we did it to help four non-profits working directly with families at our border: ACLU Foundation of Texas, Al Otro Lado, The Florence Project, and the Texas Civil Rights Project.

Idina Menzel had a matinée of her show, Skintight at Roundabout Theatre Off-Broadway, and ran down to Cooper Union in the East Village as soon as her curtain came down. She got there just in time to do the cold open of the show, singing her beautiful/haunting “I See You.” Here’s the official video:

She’s said yes to so many amazing social justice benefits we’ve done; she was one of the first to say yes to singing “What The World Needs Now Is Love” for the Broadway For Orlando recording and to singing it at the Democratic National Convention.

As soon as she finished the song at Concert For America, she gave us a hug and ran back to her theatre.

Then we brought out Chita Rivera to do “America,” which she first performed on Broadway 61 years ago! We wanted someone to sing with her so we thought of our friend (and Telemundo star) Juan Pablo Espinosa. We emailed him the day before the concert. Turns out, he was in L.A, but as an immigrant from Colombia he knew how important the concert was so he got on a flight that afternoon and landed in New York that night! Yes, dedication!

Another belter who came between shows was Mandy Gonzalez, who is currently starring in Hamilton. She sang “Fearless,” the song that Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote for her, which led to her starting her #FearlessSquad.

Here’s the official video, and when you listen to the words, know that they were based on Mandy’s parents. Her mom was 17 and, because she couldn’t join the Peace Corps, she wrote letters to soldiers. She and the first soldier she wrote to wound up falling in love. He came to see her after the war and it caused a big scandal; she was middle-class Jewish and he was from a Mexican migrant working family. But, scandal or not, they made it work and they’ve now been married more than 40 years!

I loved talking to Terri Burke from the ACLU Texas because she said something that I think is so important: People are obsessed with sassy Twitter wars, but emails and phone calls to representatives make a huge difference. She was in the office of a Republican in Texas who had actually voted against a bill requiring women to get an ultrasound before an abortion. She asked him why he went against all the other Republicans. He pointed to his desk and told her that the ream of papers sitting there were from his constituents. All those emails/letters/phone calls made him change his vote. Don’t boo, vote! And don’t tweet—email and call!

Olga Merediz recreated her amazing, Tony-nominated performance as Abuela Claudia in In The Heights. She had been nervous about singing the song because it had been so many years since she did it. And she originally had plans to leave town for the weekend. But she canceled her flights, showed up, and nailed it! Olga said that during the run on Broadway, she would sometimes hold the last note of the song so long she thought she would pass out onstage! I had an amazing group of backup singers and when I rehearsed the ending of the song, I so loved how they sounded that I sent this video to Lin-Manuel Miranda.

He immediately replied that I better speed it the hell up because Olga had to hold the note the whole time. Hmph. I decided to listen to his advice because I guess he wrote it. End of story: She held it forever during the concert and no smelling salts were needed!

Lisa Mordente and Chita Rivera Monica Simoes

Since the show was about helping families, we added a mother/daughter duet to the lineup. First, we talked about the whole “Carefully Taught” theory…that people are taught to dislike another group and Chita then told everyone the story about when Jerry Robbins directed West Side Story; he told the actors playing the Sharks and Jets that they were not allowed to communicate. No hanging out backstage, no eating lunch together, nothing. Chita said she didn’t quite follow that advice. Instead of ignoring the Jets, she wound up marrying one! Yes, she and Tony Mordente (who played Action on Broadway and in the film) got married and had a child, Lisa Mordente. Lisa (who is also a Tony nominee) directs Concert For America for us and came out and sang the mother/daughter duet. Here’s the original cast singing the same mother/daughter duet: Chita and Liza Minnelli!

We also welcomed speakers from each of the non-profits and here are some of the things I learned: If you illegally cross the border (which includes entering or attempting to enter the U.S. at a time or place other than one designated by U.S. immigration officers, avoiding examination or inspection by U.S. immigration officers, or attempting to enter the U.S. through misleading information), it’s a misdemeanor. If you illegally cross it again, it’s considered a felony. So saying that there are “tons of felons crossing the border” may simply refer to people who have tried to enter before.

Also, many families are crossing to escape violence or get their children medical help. One father crossed to get his little son medical care for a heart condition and he was immediately separated from his son. His son is somewhere in Texas and he was sent to Georgia. He is willing to go back to his country, but there is no system yet for reuniting them. Here is an article by Michelle Lapointe from the Southern Poverty Law Center, who came to speak with us. They’ve been doing an amazing job of sending lawyers to these remote detention centers where these immigrants need legal help. If you are a paralegal or lawyer (you don’t have to know anything about immigration), they take volunteers to work for one week stints! Get thee to for details.

Patrick Wilson
Patrick Wilson Tinseltown / Shutterstock

James and I decided to program Patrick Wilson singing “Breeze Off The River” after that story because the song is about a father and son. Patrick spoke about how thankful he is for immigration because his wife is an immigrant and he wouldn’t have a family (two sons) without the U.S. welcoming immigrants. And for those who say, “we welcome immigrants, we just don’t want illegal immigrants,” you should know that the government is making it more difficult to apply for asylum—which happens after someone enters the country.

Furthermore, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, from the Gay and Lesbian synagogue sent me some fantastic talking points that James and I read. She notes that the only immigration law until the 1924 was the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was originally passed in 1882! (It was finally repealed in 1943, but even during its time as the rule of law, all others could come to the USA without papers! All immigration was legal (exclusions were for those diagnosed with tuberculous, etc).

In 1921, immigration quotas and caps were imposed for the first time. This was explicitly done to keep out Jews and Italians who were seen as dirty and responsible for left wing politics, labor movement, and revolution. If these quotas didn’t exist, it’s likely Hitler couldn’t have killed six million Jews.

OK—back to the show.

We had violinist and Honduran immigrant, Jorge Avila, speak about becoming a U.S. citizen and how his naturalization allowed him to play (numerous times) at Carnegie Hall. He performed at our first Concert For America and he said the reason he was able to succeed is because he was given the opportunity. He hopes more people around the world are given the same opportunity. Here he is sounding amazing on some Bach.

So many of these people are facing such horrific hurdles that seem impossible to overcome. Audra McDonald inspired everyone with her amazing rendition of “Climb Every Mountain” from The Sound of Music. Of course, before she went on, she told me she wasn’t sure if she had any high notes. Right. Just like the time she limited her high note in this song to a C and I knew she had more in her so I modulated up and made her hit a Db!

Audra McDonald Monica Simoes

After Audra sang “Climb Every Mountain,” we brought out Tina Fey by saying she was one of the first three people we asked to do the concert and she said yes right away. She came out and told the audience that it’s true that when I emailed she wrote back and said yes. She said she also wrote that she “very much wanted to sing ‘Climb Every Mountain.’” She looked over at me and added, “I don’t know what happened there…” Hilarious!

Andrea Martin introduced Tina by telling everyone what a little kindness can do. She relayed a story about a Scottish man seated next to her on a flight from Paris to London who helped her get on a connecting flight that she had very little time to make. She told us that he did it simply to be kind, not for any other reason. “Believe me, this man did not see Pippin. Or my three episode arc in The Good Wife.”

Singer-songwriter Shaina Taub came out and sang (and accompanied herself) and, man, people just loved her! Her music has such a Randy Newman flair. Listen!

Jeremy Jordan sang so beautifully and, yet again, I am so flipped out over his musicality. Come see the two of us in Provincetown this summer! Here he is doing Elsa’s big song from Frozen!

The last organization we brought out was Al Otro Lado and we had a lawyer onstage with her client, Lesbia. Lesbia spoke only Spanish and she told everyone, with the help of a translator, that she came over last June with her two sons because she was fleeing severe physical harm in her home country. Her sons were immediately taken from her and she didn’t see them for eight months. Lesbia pointed to her ankle bracelet that she has to wear and told everyone that she wasn’t here to steal work; she wanted a safe life for her family and she wants to contribute to this country. It sounded like she just wanted what is called the “American Dream, ” so after Lesbia spoke, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra came out and sang their stunning duet “Wheels of a Dream” from Ragtime.

After the show, Audra told James how amazing it was that this woman was given the opportunity to stand onstage and tell everyone in the audience, and everyone watching the livestream, what she had been through. And the next day, we received this email from Al Otro Lado:

Thank you so much for the opportunity to be a part of this event. It was wonderful for Lesbia to be able to communicate her experience to the audience and have that platform. So often we only hear the voices of others speaking for immigrants. For her to be able to tell the world what our government did to her family was a moving experience. We deeply appreciate that you and your wonderful Broadway community came together to support our organization and the families that we serve. During this time, we need allies more than ever and we are so thankful for all that you have done for us!

The 11 o’clock number was Keala Settle singing her big hit “This is Me” from the original movie musical The Greatest Showman. Keala has a huge heart and flew to New York City from L.A. to do the concert. So don’t believe her attitude in this Obsessed! video we made together! It’s all comedy.

As you can see,the concert was amazing and that’s why we are going to re-air it. Don’t forget: Sunday, July 8 at 9PM. or on the Facebook page. Watch and share and donate! Peace out!!!

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