The result, unveiled on May 15, was a hyperdynamic collage — one of the most exuberant Broadway music videos of all time — and another charitable coup for the Actors Fund, the 138-year-old health and welfare philanthropy for the entertainment industry. The group, which operates among other things a well-known assisted-living facility in Englewood, N.J., has for decades been a service nexus. But over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, with vast swaths of stage, film and television personnel cast into unemployment, the fund has become an even more visible lifeline, as the beneficiary of one starry Web event after another.
Since lockdowns across the nation began in early March, the fund and affiliates such as Broadway Cares/Equity Fight AIDS and various union charities have raised more than $27 million — the largest amount of giving in a compressed period in the fund’s history. According to Actors Fund president and chief executive Joe Benincasa, the group has so far dispensed more than $11.4 million to 9,700 individuals.
“We received the equivalent of seven years’ worth of applications for assistance in eight weeks,” Benincasa said. “In direct financial assistance, we’ve distributed more than five times the amount we do in a year. This is a marathon. We’ll be among the last businesses to get back to normal. So we’re in it for the long haul.”
That the mobilization would occur so quickly around the Actors Fund seems preordained, considering the natural and technical resources of the industry and the lead role celebrities have long played in fundraising. The high-profile rollout of events began in March, soon after the pandemic’s casualties began to rise, with a three-hour revival of Rosie O’Donnell’s popular talk show. With O’Donnell presiding from what looked like a spare room off her garage, a roster of performers including Billy Porter, Barry Manilow, Gloria Estefan and Patti LuPone came on from their homes to converse informally and sing.
The evening’s outpouring set an exemplary pace: O’Donnell raised more than $600,000 for the fund via the event, directed by Paul Wontorek and streamed live on Broadway.com. Benefit veterans Seth Rudetsky and husband James Wesley set up a punishing fundraising regimen of their own: “Stars in the House,” a daily live-streamed Broadway concert series that launched in March with guest star Kelli O’Hara; Episode 118 recently featured Debra Messing and Victoria Clark.
Reunions of Broadway casts; composers opening their songbooks; actors including Brian Stokes Mitchell, the Actors Fund chairman, and Audra McDonald donating their talents have become de rigueur. Actors of the Tony-winning “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” participated in April in a video rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend.” Andrew Lloyd Webber initiated “The Shows Must Go On” — streaming versions of musicals such as “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera” on his YouTube channel. Even pretend musicals have gotten into the Actors Fund act: A recording of the 2015 performance of “Bombshell” — the musical-in-the-making during the NBC series “Smash” — was streamed on May 20, with an introduction by Renée Zellweger. (The day after, a team of producers including Steven Spielberg announced that “Smash” itself would be turned into a Broadway musical, at some unspecified time after Broadway reopens.)
The rollout continues Friday evening, with an Actors Fund streaming benefit, “Laughter in Lockdown,” for comedians in crisis. It features, among others, Wanda Sykes, Ray Romano, Carl Reiner, Dave Attell and Judd Apatow. The event is staged by NYlaughs.org, a nonprofit group that presents free comedy throughout New York City, and it’s just one of the other organizations raising money in the entertainment sector. Artists Striving to End Poverty produced the critically acclaimed 90th birthday concert on the Web for composer Stephen Sondheim in late April. And Play Per View streams Zoom readings of contemporary plays to benefit arts groups; on June 13, it presents Will Arbery’s “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” a finalist this year for the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
The ascending quality of many of these efforts is illustrated by the achievement of “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” It is hard to imagine topping the collective verve that radiates out of the screen.
The creative team behind the mission to bring this version to the public gathered recently to discuss it on Zoom: choreographer Roston and her co-director, known as David O; composer/co-lyricist Shaiman; producer Christopher Sepulveda and editor Ally Rice.
“You Can’t Stop the Beat” comes at the celebratory climax of “Hairpspray,” as characters of all sizes and colors unite in an expression of belief in themselves. “When we started talking about the song, it was about the joyous defiance,” David O said. “That emotion of seeing 150 people singing in their own homes. It’s just not a musical beat; it’s a heartbeat.”
Invitations went out far and wide. Practically everyone said yes to participating, including many in the original Broadway cast: Fierstein, Marissa Jaret Winokur, Matthew Morrison, Kerry Butler, Laura Bell Bundy, Clarke Thorell, Linda Hart. Many who played parts in the national tour, or later on Broadway, came aboard as well. And from the 2007 film version, Nikki Blonsky, Elijah Kelley and director Adam Shankman were among those who signed on. (John Travolta — the film’s Edna Turnblad — does not perform in the five-minute video but is thanked in the credits.)
In some sections of the song, dancers executing the same move ring the screen as if they are kinetic embroidery. The geometric patterns change rapidly, depending on the number of singers or musicians. The beat is indeed unstoppable.
While specific singing parts were doled out, the performers were given a lot of latitude. “I posted two minutes [on social media] of Marty Short being joyfully insane,” Shaiman said. “It was so moving to see so many of my friends in it.” Much praise was directed at editor Rice for turning whimsical videos into a seamless production number. “A lot of the energy,” she said, “is a testament to the song itself.”
The video has generated more than 550,000 views on YouTube alone. And for the Actors Fund, a priceless amount of visibility. “If there’s a good thing about quarantining and the pandemic,” Roston observed, “it is that there is this generosity of spirit. I don’t think in our wildest dreams we thought we’d end up with 150 people — and Marc Shaiman.”