NEW YORK — There is a unifying force, it seems, that is more powerful than oratory:
At least that is how it felt Friday afternoon, as a slew of Tony-winning Broadway stars — Brian Stokes Mitchell and Chita Rivera, Bebe Neuwirth and Billy Porter, Betty Buckley and Jessie Mueller among them — gathered for a concert that provided an exuberant counterpoint to the more restrained events in the nation’s capital.
The nearly three-hour “Concert for America: Stand Up, Sing Out!” staged at Town Hall,just off Times Square, and broadcast on Facebook Live, was organized by Broadway actor and musician Seth Rudetsky and his husband, James Wesley, to raise money for progressive causes. And though the name of the man being installed as the new president was never once mentioned, the subtext of the benefit seemed to be a refusal to succumb to any pessimism brought on by his election.
“We, this day with song and dance,” declared Cornell Brooks, CEO of the NAACP and one of several representatives of progressive organizations invited to speak at the sold-out performance, “are consecrating this day with hope.”
It’s no secret that much of Broadway and the entertainment world beyond felt squarely in the losing camp on Election Day: many of those who appeared at the “Concert for America” might very well have been onstage in Washington this week, had the results on Nov. 8 turned out differently. So the event did bear some resemblance to a celebration of dissent — except for the fact that it was so darn upbeat.
The program was packed with Broadway music and other songs that put the accent on looking at the bright side, beginning with Kelli O’Hara, of “The King and I” and “South Pacific” fame, singing the Rodgers and Hammerstein standard, “A Cockeyed Optimist.” That was followed by the entire cast of the “Concert for America” arriving onstage to perform Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” In the hours that followed, the production featured mostly nonpolitical comedy routines by Judy Gold, Caroline Rea and Michelle Collins, and one song after another that reinforced the notion of hope: Jessie Mueller, a Tony winner for “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” singing that show’s title number, “Beautiful”; Mitchell, performing “Wheels of a Dream” from “Ragtime”; Judy Kuhn, singing the Oscar-winning “Colors of the Wind” from the 1995 animated movie “Pocahontas.”
Occasionally the event’s political leanings did become apparent, as when Broadway actress Lillias White, completing a rousing version of “Don’t Rain on my Parade” from “Funny Girl,” made a short, impassioned plea for the theater community to remain vigilant about protecting freedoms it might perceive as being in jeopardy. This week, for example, reports have circulated that the new administration is considering eliminating a funding agency, the National Endowment for the Arts.
“We will not let the arts be destroyed in this country!” White exclaimed, to sustained applause from an audience 1,500 strong.
The immigration issue arose, too, in one of the afternoon’s more poignant interludes. Rudetsky brought onto the stage Jorge Avila, a Honduran immigrant who learned the violin as a teenager and subsequently trained at the Mannes School of Music. Earning his green card under the “extraordinary ability” visa exception and then becoming a U.S. citizen in 2003, the violinist talked about his gratitude, and then performed a medley of songs from George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s “Porgy and Bess.”
Other performers used their Town Hall appearances to bolster those who might have been feeling dejected on Inauguration Day. “It ain’t over, it ain’t over, it ain’t over!” actor-singer Ben Vereen improvised, in the midst of his rendition of “What a Wonderful World.”
A recording of the concert will repeat in its entirety online Sunday at 9.m. EST at Concert4America2017.org.