Each year, actors, directors, musicians, composers, producers, parishioners, singers, clergy and others gather for an evening in September in one accord. Their purpose is to bless, to anoint the entire theater community from producers and actors to critics and technicians to transmit the energy of joy and peace that will be felt by patrons from around the world who walk into a New York City theater looking to be stirred, engaged and enthralled with the wisdom and verve of live performance. Theater has its origins in religion. Social mavens in ancient Greece conceived that theatergoers/religious adherents, as receptors of the energy that flowed back and forth from live actors to audience members would walk away revitalized from playwrights’ tragedies and comedies.
According to Kathryn Fisher, co-producer of Broadway Blessing 2019, “Broadway Blessing started in 1997 as an evening of song, dance and story to celebrate and ask for blessings on the new Broadway season. For many years it rotated among churches – St. Malachy’s, St. Clements, St. Luke’s, St. John the Divine, and the Little Church Around the Corner – finally returning to St. Malachy’s in 2017, where it has been since.”
The celebration has burgeoned. New York City’s theater community has at its heart this finer impulse and in addition to seeking to make a profit, it follows the same high calling to enrich and redeem theatergoers from themselves, their work lives and the drudgery of daily routines. Indeed, theater’s mission seems more vital than ever in our divisive and stressful political climate. Broadway Blessing 2019, now in its 22nd year, is a reckoning to be thankful for the riches of the upcoming year of theater in renewal and refreshment.
Broadway Blessing 2019 on Monday 16 September was produced by Kathryn Fisher and Co-Produced by Pat Addiss, with musical direction by Stephen Fraser and stage management by Mary Fran Loftus. Special thanks go to Retta Blaney, Founder, Fr. John Fraser, St. Malachy’s Church-The Actors’ Chapel, Fr. George Drance, SJ, Rabbi Jill Hausman, Congregation Ezrath Israel-Actors’ Temple with clergy from the theater district. The evening included Broadway and Off-Broadway performers, the Broadway Blessing Choir and Instrumentalists. Emceed by Fr. George Drance, SJ, who introduced the musical performers and guest presenters, Fr. George Drance, SJ’s pointed, informational commentary helped to make the evening flow seamlessly.
Musical numbers included songs from award-winning shows Oklahoma! Gypsy, West Side Story, Desperate Measures, The Music Man, Hair, The Lion King, Fiddler on the Roof, and La Cage aux Folles. Soloists included Mae Roney, Paul T. Ryan, Nancy Simpson, Katharine Heaton, Conor Ryan, Alex Fraser, Jill O’Hara, Liseli Lugo, Stephen Carlile, Sidney Meyer and Adam Shapiro.
Chita Rivera presented a lovely encomium about Hal Price who died on July 31, 2019. Chita Rivera is an incredible performer (actress, singer, dancer). It is fitting that Ms. Rivera, a two-time Tony Award winner with five Tony Award nominations and a special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in Theater should recall to our remembrance Hal Prince’s indelible contributions to theater in the twentieth and twenty-first century. She worked with him in award winning shows he either produced or directed. The most recent collaboration was Kiss of The Spider Women (music by John Kander and Fred Ebb with book by Terrence McNally) in which she starred and he directed, shepherding her toward TONY, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle wins for her performance. Ms. Rivera emphasized Prince’s exceptionalism which will probably never be equaled. She highlighted with a significant pause so we could “get it” (I still can’t) that he won 21 Tony Awards which she saw with lined up on his desk.
In another segment of the program two-time Emmy Award winner and popular theater critic Roma Torre briefly interviewed Stephanie J. Block who won a TONY, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award for her performance in The Cher Show. Stephanie Block shared a humorous story of how she finally realized the speaking voice of Cher on vacation whitening her teeth with Oral B and Crest Whitening Strips. While she was using the strips she happened to speak to her husband who noted the transformation into Cher’s speaking voice. Stephanie J. Block’s teeth are stunning and the story of how she found Cher and received a TONY for it is priceless.
As a coda, Roma Torre is still with NY1, and the lawsuit continues encouraged by her fans and supporters, both men and women. They enjoy her experienced commentary and cogent reviews. Hopefully, her on air time will increase. It is completely understandable why Ms. Torre and five other female anchors are litigating against channel operator Charter Communications in an age- and gender-discrimination lawsuit. You may read the article about Roma Torre’s intrepid fight with her colleagues to stand up to gender/age discrimination by CLICKING HERE.
David Friedman is an award-winning composer of Desperate Measures (music David Friedman, book and lyrics Peter Kellogg). Through the years Friedman composed, conducted and arranged numerous songs, movies and Broadways shows. For Broadway Blessing 2019 he contributed his talent accompanying Sidney Myer in a special song Friedman composed via a request by Pat Addiss (co-producer of Desperate Measures with Mary Cossett).
However, before Sidney Myer sang, David Friedman discussed the song’s backstory. Pat Addiss had asked him to write a song about abuse of the type that one may have experienced as a child. The nature of the abuse she referenced was so egregious that the individual blocked it from memory. However, suppressed events from childhood impact the evolution of an individual into adulthood. Sometimes, upon hearing of another’s similar abuse, individuals have reactions and have even fainted because, as can happen with physical pain, their psyche shuts down because the trigger is too intense. Pat Addiss encouraged David Friedman to create a song about such abuse and he did entitling it, “Something Happened.” The profound song which Sidney Meyer performed with great feeling is about one’s inner cry to confront suppressed truths and bring them to the light to heal. It’s an incredible work and in keeping with an evening of blessings.
Broadway Blessing 2019 culminated with “The Broadway Blessing” by Rabbi Jill Hausman and The Actors’ Temple of the Clergy of the Theater District. During the “Candle Lighting Ceremony,” Adam Shapiro (who portrays the Rabbi from the current production of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish) sang “The Sabbath Prayer” in Yiddish and the Broadway Blessing Choir sang it in English. After the candles were lit, the Broadway Blessing Choir sang “Sisi Ni Moja-We Are One” (music & lyrics by Jacob Naverud). As the evening closed those in attendance joined the choir to sing the rousing “The Best of Times” from La Cage aux Folles (music & lyrics by Jerry Herman).
The Broadway/Off Broadway/Off Off Broadway year has begun in earnest. There is much to look forward to. Be blessed when you come to New York City to enjoy the fruitfulness of what the theater community offers in their amazing musicals, dramas, hybrid shows, festivals and innovative theater offerings.
Concert for America, hosted by Sirius XM’s Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley was held on June 30 at the Great Hall, Cooper Union. Rudetsky and Wesley debuted Concert for America on January 20, 2017 and have toured the country with eclectic talent line-ups with all concerts benefiting 5 national organizations fighting for civil, human and environmental rights.
In light of what was happening to migrant children being separated from their families and babies being taken from their mothers, a friend posited to the duo that they put up another Concert for America. They suggested that it coincide with the day of national protests on June 30 (over 700 marches took place to protest against the egregious activities occurring at the southern border) and be held after the marches.
In record time Rudetsky and Wesley contacted exceptional performers who agreed to take out time from their inordinately busy schedules and perform for a “great cause,” to inspire and uplift us and to challenge us to be overcomers who fervently take a stand for the principles of freedom and democracy, decency and humanity. The Concert for America presented songs of hope and encouragement by Mandy Gonzalez, Jeremy Jordan, Idina Menzel, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Audra McDonald, Olga Merediz, Chita Rivera, Keala Settle Shaina Taub, and Patrick Wilson to name a few. Also appearing was concert violinist Jorge Avila. And Tina Fey and Andrea Martin shared their comedy and commentary. Matt Bomer and Andrew Rannells, both appearing in The Boys in the Band matinee and evening performances made, a video for the audience which Rudetsky and Wesley played.
Also present were representatives and spokespersons from the ACLU and children’s services and the organizations working on the frontlines that the Concert for America is raising money for. These include Al Otro Lado, Texas Civil Rights Project, ACLU Foundation of Texas and Florence Project.
If you were unable to attend the Concert for America at the Great Hall in Cooper Union, the benefit concert will be rebroadcast on Sunday, July 8, 2018 at 9:00 pm ET on the following sites where you may also donate to help organizations help the migrant families and children on the southern border. The sites are www.ConcertsforAmerica.com and Facebook.com/ConcertforAmerica.
Before the show started, I had the opportunity to speak with Chita Rivera, Patrick Wilson and Andrea Martin who briefly weighed in about the state of affairs in our country. Their comments are edited gently for fluidity and clarity.
Commentary by Chita Rivera.
Chita Rivera is a Broadway legend with two Tony awards for Best Leading Actress in a Musical and eight additional Tony nominations. She has won so many awards (including The Presidential Medal of Freedom) they have created the Chita Rivera Awards in her honor. She has originated roles in West Side Story, Bye Bye Birdie, Chicago, The Rink, The Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Visit to name a few. To read more about Chita Rivera in an interview with Richard Ridge, presented by The League of Professional Theatre Women and Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts, CLICK HERE.
Ms. Rivera, what do you say to people who are down and depressed about what is going on? You are so uplifting…
Unfortunately, this particular subject and all of the others that we’re defending here have gotten ME down and have gotten ME depressed. We have to unite. We have to not let this happen and speak up and all come together and have evenings like this and have marches that are happening. Our voices have to be heard because (the situation at the border) this is inhumane.
How far do we have to go?
I don’t know. As far as we HAVE to go. We have to take every single day and do something. We can’t lower ourselves to a level that exists out there. We can do it, legally. We can do it with the passion from our hearts. We don’t have to go to the lowest level that has manifested. We have to raise our bar. I want to feel proud to be an American again. I remember going to London and being so proud, years ago, because they were so kind to us and so welcoming that we were Americans. And I was so proud of my country. Now, I’m embarrassed to go anywhere.
But you are representing the best of our country. So any time you go out and sing you show the talent and greatness of what citizens of our nation can be.
Yes. That’s why my daughter Lisa and I are here. And it’s why Freddie and John are represented here. John Kander and Fred Ebb. We’re singing “The Apple Doesn’t Fall Very Far From the Tree.” (It is from the show The Rink, Broadway-1984, by composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, book by Terrance McNally. Chita Rivera originated the role of Anna, Lisa Minelli the role of Angel). And it’s about a mother and daughter and the differences between mothers and daughters and about children. So it’s very appropriate.
Commentary by Andrea Martin
Andrea Martin is an American-Canadian actress, singer, author and comedian. Best known for her work in the television series Second City TV, she has also appeared in films, most recently My Big Fat Greek Wedding 1 and 2. Renowned on Broadway, she won Tony Awards for My Favorite Year and the 2013 Revival of Pippin. Her performances on Broadway include Candide, Oklahoma!, Fiddler on the Roof, Young Frankenstein, Exit the King and Act One. She has received five nominations for the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical more than any other actress in the award’s history.
You’re here. You care greatly about what is happening to our nation. How do you stay cheerful in the midst of all of this?
I think you compartmentalize. And you do the best you can, staying present in your own life so you’ll have the energy to help where you’re needed. You cannot disperse your drive, your focus by being depressed all the time.
If you could say one or two things to the leaders of our nation, what would you say to them?
I’d say, we can work this out. Let’s be decent people and listen to one another. That’s what I would say.
Commentary by Patrick Wilson
Patrick Wilson has been starring in Broadway musicals since 1995. He is a two-time Tony Award nominee for his roles in The Full Monty (2000–2001) and Oklahoma! (2002). In 2003, he appeared in the HBO miniseries Angels in America for which he was nominated for the Golden Globe Award and Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie. He has also appeared in many films renowned for Insidious and Insidious: Chapter 2, The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 and more. He has been cast as Orm Marius/Ocean Master in Aquaman (2018).
I know you’re here because you care about what’s happening at the border. You have a family. You understand. If you had the opportunity to talk to Donald Trump, or Jeff Sessions or others, what might you say to them?
The older I get, I try to follow this idea: Say what you mean and mean what you say. I’m a pretty simple guy. I try to operate from the heart. I mean this with regard not only to Donald Trump or Jeff Sessions, but anybody. Anybody who doesn’t operate from the heart? I would say, try to! I think some people have a disconnect with the inner person. I can only speak from my experience. I want to be around people, work with people, work for people who are truthful, who believe in the good, who are creative people that lead from the heart. Those are the people I surround myself with.
Obviously, it’s not perfect. Not every relationship is perfect, not every job is perfect. But you try to weed out those who don’t jive with you. The older I get, those are the only the kinds of people I want to work with. So it’s hard for me to go along or follow and agree with people who say, “Oh, I don’t like him, but I like his policies. Or the comment, “Well, look what he’s done.”
I say, look at the person! That’s who artists are. That’s what artists do. It’s about the person. I only operate from the inside out. I don’t know how to operate any other way. For example take the guy who pays for everyone at the table but is rude to the waiter? I don’t like that guy. I don’t want to be around that guy. And I don’t want to have dinner with that guy ever again. That’s what we’re talking about.
When you visit online www.ConcertforAmerica.com you will be able to donate to the four organizations helping families on the border: Al Otro Lado, Texas Civil Rights Project, ACLU Foundation of Texas and Florence Project. The money donated will be divided up amongst the four organizations. Since the reunification of families must be accomplished by a court ordered date, reports have circulated that there are almost 3000 children that must be brought together with their families. And as the process continues, more will be revealed that we do not yet know about.
Regarding the Concert for America, the sold out tickets and the appearance on short notice of the celebrities and entertainers who came to The Great Hall, Cooper Union indicate how much people are concerned and upset. Indeed, they took a stand and showed up to inspire the rest of us. Many Americans, more than we may even realize, care and have a heart for children. The abusive human rights violations have to stop.
Terrence McNally is a theatrical force of nature, though with his incredible humility in an age of self-promotion, he would be the last to admit it. With a career spanning six decades and major, ground-breaking successes on Broadway and Off, in film and television, and multiple theater awards every decade, the man is a dynamo, beloved by actors whose careers he has vaulted, actors whom he collaborates with in a symbiotic relationship again and again. At 80, he is still working, attending productions (I saw him in the audience of the musical production of the most Tony nominated musical SpongeBob SquarePants this summer.) and launching off into new projects, even as I write this.
The World Premiere Every Act of Life directed and written by Jeff Kaufman was given a special screening at Tribeca Film Festival 2018, with luminaries, actors and McNally himself attending for the Q and A afterward. In this formidable documentary about a formidable American playwright, Kaufman presents McNally’s career and personal life. From start to finish Every Act of Life is an intriguing and well-thought-out chronicle cobbled together with interviews, archived photos, video clips, well-researched facts, details, memorabilia and well-placed commentary by actors, directors, producers and McNally himself. The documentary is especially revealing in its presentation of how one individual’s love and passion for the theater, opera, music and art has impacted our culture and brought us together in a forward momentum of shared communication and understanding.
Beginning with his early plays and traveling right up to his most recent work, Kaufman lays out the seminal moments and turning points that have slowly fostered the personality and character of this mild-mannered and charmingly authentic persona that McNally is today. Early influences on his life McNally credits to his English teacher in Corpus Christi who encouraged him to write and attend schools outside of the area. But his love of musicals and Broadway, were initially inspired by his parents, transplanted New Yorkers, who brought him all the way from Texas to New York to see a few smash musicals with towering figures like Gertrude Lawrence in The King and I and Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun.
The excitement and enchantment of live theater musicals were imprinted on his memory. And this love abides with him to this day as he continues to collaborate on musicals writing the book for numerous hits like The Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992), Ragtime (1996), The Full Monty (2000), The Visit (2001), Catch Me If You Can (2011), Anastasia (2017). He has also sharpened his wits and taken up collaborating on opera, for example in 2015, the production of Great Scott (music by Jake Heggie), premiered at Winspear Opera House in Dallas, Texas. He is a veritable tornado when it comes to writing new plays and collaborating with composers on musicals and operas.
Following his English teacher’s advice, McNally attended Columbia University and was further shepherded by professors like Lionel Trilling for literature and Andrew Chiappe who steered him in the basics by having McNally and others read every work by Shakespeare in the order of their composition. After Columbia, McNally through a serendipitous introduction via The Actor’s Studio, cruised with John Steinbeck and family around the world as he tutored Steinbeck’s two young sons. This was another incredible experience which was to shape McNally’s writing career and broaden his horizons as well as establish his relationship with Steinbeck who inspired his writing. From these adventures he later fashioned the first act of And Things That Go Bump in the Night. Additionally, Steinbeck asked him to write a libretto for a musical adaptation of his novel East of Eden. One doesn’t know what one can do until a great American novelist like John Steinbeck asks you to do it.
Back in New York City, McNally used his connections at the Actor’s Studio to begin to workshop his nascent one-act plays. And it was in New York that he met the brilliant playwright Edward Albee who was just coming into his own. After a four-year tempestuous relationship during which Albee wrote The American Dream and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, they parted ways and McNally’s career began to take off gradually in theater, television and in film as he wrote screenplays for versions of his works first performed on Broadway and Off Broadway.
Various tidbits appear in Kaufman’s documentary that fascinate. Some of the impressions are telling. He became addicted to alcohol and at a time when no one could admit to being gay, McNally confronted the oppressions of the culture and created some of the most insightful, poignant and endearing works related to the LGBT community and relatives confronting the AIDS epidemic. These include the TV miniseries Andre’s Mother for which he won an Emmy and later his Mothers and Sons starring Tyne Daly based upon the miniseries. Additionally, Lips Together, Teeth Apart, as well as an inside look at gay relationships for which he won his second Tony Award, Love! Valor! Compassion! also feature topics about confronting gender prejudice.
Always concerned about the deep side of the human condition and striving above it, McNally first landed on the map when he was recognized for his portrayal of female-male relationships among the working classes (Frankie and Johnnie in the Claire de Lune) which was adapted into a screenplay starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer. McNally’s versatility and humanity encompasses play topics that run the continuum. What is most important to him is human connections and the realization that we are together in this “thing” referred to as life. The beauty of our ability to connect, express love, overcome personal issues and adversity, with an assist from art and theater makes all the difference in discovering our purpose and fulfillment.
McNally’s dogged fight for LGBTQ rights at a time when it was most unfashionable and nearly anathema is an incredible achievement, considering the forces and money behind the attempt to liquify LGBTQ rights in the noxious march toward inhumanity and darkness led by the political conservative right-wing. Kaufman highlights the struggle. He also reveals how McNally overcame his addiction to alcohol and on that subject includes an amazing anecdote. Angela Lansbury’s love and honesty prompted her to speak directly to McNally to the effect that he must stop destroying himself. Indeed, she feared this most talented playwright, librettist and screenwriter would die an early death. Her influence and other factors eventually sent him down the road to wellness, where others were not as willfully fortunate.
What I appreciate in the film is McNally’s candor in discussing his “flops.” Of course, one might say that there are no flops in a playwright’s repertoire, only stepping stones which help them achieve their hard won success.
Kaufman highlights McNally’s award-winning work (the musicals- The Kiss of the Spider Woman-1992 and Ragtime-1997 and his plays, Love! Valor! Compassion!-1994, Master Class-1995 and Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams-2005). The most incredible feature of this segment of the documentary is the commentary by living legends and McNally friends and collaborators, Chita Rivera, Nathan Lane, John Glover, Tyne Daly, John Kander, F. Murray Abraham, Joe Mantello, Angela Lansbury, Christine Baranski, Audra McDonald and many more. Indeed, the film is a who’s who of McNally’s posse, as well as a chronicle of his prodigious work ethic and love of theater, opera, ballet and music. His talents and breadth of knowledge about the Arts are absolutely staggering. And Kaufman gives us a historical perspective that is continually fresh and exciting.
I loved this film. I am familiar with McNally’s work having seen a number of his musicals and comedies on Broadway and Off. I split my sides enjoying them. However, Kaufman digs deep into the revelation of the anointed genius of this most wonderful of playwrights who connects the heavens to humanity with his words, impressions and inspirations, and joins us together in what can be compared to a holy act of communion in the theater. The film is a must see, and you will especially enjoy hearing how McNally and friends worked together to create some of the finest, most enduring works of American theater which in the future will surely be identified as classics.
After the World Premiere Screening there was a Q and A moderated by Frank Rich, who was a longtime critic of theater at The New York Times. McNally made an incredible admission during the Q and A. Even though he has a prodigious body of work trailing in his wake, he never really considered himself a playwright or a successful one at that, until a few years ago. I was gobsmacked. Such is the talent and evolving genius of this artist.
That Frank Rich was moderating individuals he has sometimes dunned in his previous job as New York Times Theater critic was a bit of an irony. He long held sway as THE Times CRITIC until 2011. Often he was acerbic and unwieldy in his self-aggrandizement and pretensions to be THE VOICE of theater, backed by the “heft” of The Times. After I accomplished some gentle research for this review, I discovered a note in Wikipedia on Kiss of the Spider Woman (musical) that bears sounding since the main subject of this film is American Theater and Terrence McNally as one of the fountains where we might go for a revitalizing drink..
It seems that in 1990 Kiss of the Spider Woman was being workshopped at “New Musicals” at the Performing Arts Center SUNY at Purchase. New Musicals‘ goal was to create, develop and provide a working home for sixteen new musicals over four years. When New York critics heard that the play was being workshopped in its initial production, they wanted to see it. Unfortunately, they couldn’t be persuaded not to review it despite the fact that producers, etc., were testing the waters to see what needed ironing out. Frank Rich and other critics filed “mostly negative reviews” of this initial workshopping of Kiss of the Spider Woman. Sadly, New Musicals, whose mission was honorable and vital for American theater and especially New York Theater, blew out and folded after the fiasco with Kiss. Don’t get me started on the state of American Theater and why it is that way.
Thankfully, two years later a producer developed Kiss of the Spider Woman. It went on in Toronto and The West End where it won An Evening Standard. It finally came back to the US where it received 7 Tony Awards and 3 Drama Desks and ran 904 performances, despite Rich’s reviews. Ultimately, the American public became the arbiter of the production.
American Theater has lost ground for many reasons and indeed, the gatekeepers, critics and money people have, for all intents and purposes, shot it to hell and drained its lifeblood. With the rise of Social Media, for good or ill, digital platforms and word of mouth continue to lift up productions so that their lasting value might be revealed to give them staying power. But it is enough? Rich went on to feather his own nest. Kiss of the Spider Woman found its audience. New Musicals is no more. And so it goes. In light of these events Every Act of Life is an important documentary about the history of American theater, and a master creator who has thrived in spite of changing times.