Broadway Cares. I Wish Toronto Did Too.

gypsy of the year in nyc

I recently attended a production of the American Touring Cast’s revival of A Chorus Line at the Cannon Theatre here in Toronto. The most striking moment of the evening for me occurred after the Curtain Call when members of the cast addressed the audience and spoke about a tradition they have in New York that I am familiar with but had never had the opportunity to experience first hand until that night. It’s called Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (BCEFA) and it is a charity initiative that began in May, 1992 when Broadway Cares and Equity Fights AIDS merged to form one organization dedicated to “mobilize the unique abilities within the entertainment industries to mitigate the suffering of individuals affected by HIV/AIDS.” It also seeks to “increase national and public awareness and understanding of HIV/AIDS through the creation and dissemination of educational materials and to promote and encourage public support for programs and services which benefit people living with HIV/AIDS.” Therefore, the companies of dozens of Broadway, Off-Broadway and national touring shows- actors, dancers, singers, stage managers, ushers and box office personnel all contribute every year to their fundraising initiatives.

At A Chorus Line, members of the cast lined the lobby in costume, with their signature sparkly hats overturned, encouraging audience members to donate their spare change, as well as selling A Chorus Line eco-friendly bags and posters autographed by the entire cast, with all proceeds going to BC/EFA. Audience members were reminded that if every person donated as little as a Twoonie they could raise as much as $3,000 dollars in a single night.

Here are some examples of BCEFA’s fundraising extravaganzas!

The Easter Bonnet Competition is the culmination of six weeks of intensive fundraising efforts by Broadway and Off-Broadway companies, including shows on National Tour. They give curtain speeches, sell autographed posters and programmes, hold auctions, and do cabaret performances- often using famous Broadway stars to encourage the giving. The winner (the company that has raised the most money for BCEFA) is announced at a star-studded gala evening, which includes more performances by the companies of Broadway shows. “Seasons of Love” and “Love Heals” was performed by a group of past and present stars of Rent in April, 2008, while the cast of Spring Awakening presented a more vulgar adaptation of the entire score of Grease. A second prize is given to the cast that makes the best Easter bonnet (a Ziegfeld Follies-esque headdress that epitomizes an element of their show (or sense of humor)). The 22nd Annual Easter Bonnet Competition raised a staggering $3,734, 129.

Broadway Bares, usually held in June, combines the naughtiness of burlesque and the razzle-dazzle of Broadway to create a very unique adult event which has been a success since its inception in 1992 and provides a chance for the hottest male and female dancers on Broadway to explore something different than Oklahoma! Last year it raised $874, 372.
The Gypsy of the Year Competition is the culmination of six weeks intensive fundraising and is presented at the beginning of December each year. It is this series of fundraising that is happening at the Cannon theatre right now! It has been cited as “possibly the season’s most dazzling talent show” and features New York’s most talented “gypsies” (chorus members from Broadway and Off-Broadway shows) in a competitive variety show. Audiences are encouraged to “support their favourite show,” which draws them into the competition as well.Broadway Bears is an annual auction that features cuddly one-of-a-kind teddy bears that are each outfitted in original, handmade costumes by Broadway’s leading costume designers and represent memorable characters from plays and musicals, past and present. They are also autographed by a Broadway star associated with that particular character.

Also, each Christmas the cast of various Broadway shows go into the recording studio and record brilliant Christmas/holiday albums which are sold via the Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS online store (http://broadwaycares.stores.yahoo.net/fese.html). Broadway’s Greatest Gifts: Carols For A Cure is a compilation 2-disc CD on which each company (or in some cases a few stars of the company) sing a holiday track- some traditional, some hilarious and some especially written to suit their show. All the proceeds (each CD is $20.00 (USD)) go to BCEFA.

These fundraising initiatives save lives and change lives. They root the Broadway performers in New York’s community and establish themselves as people who care and love and who are determined to use their art to make the world a better place all year round. At the same time, these fundraisers also strengthen the Broadway community as they all come together to work for a common goal. They come together in person, in a mob of talent in giant theatres and on Schubert Alley, not just on Facebook, which creates a bond between them all, and a pride in themselves. It also gives the “Broadway community” a face, and an identity that has been captured. It is an identity of selfless love and generosity. They also show support for one another and each other’s talents and their shows, as well as a healthy dose of satire (poking fun at their shows and other people’s shows) and competition. The stars of these fundraisers are also usually members of the Broadway ensembles, which provides an amazing opportunity for up and coming talented performers to perform in front of Broadway stars, directors, producers and audiences and to create a name for themselves outside of their show and the chorus line.

It is a month until Christmas and Hanukkah is upon us, a time for goodwill towards man, woman and child, and for us to lead with our hearts a little more than we usually do. It is my wish this Christmas season, that the Toronto theatre community could and would band together in the same way as the Broadway community does with BCEFA. How wonderful would it be for Tarragon and Soulpepper and Canstage and Stratford and Shaw and everyone to work together, to come together, to celebrate how wonderful it is to work as artists in this city, and the fabulous work that we do here. Work that we should be so proud of. How wonderful would it be to have a charity that we all believed in, so that we could save lives, and change lives and so that we could draw attention to ourselves as artists in the national consciousness. So that we could be seen doing something entirely selfless, that we believed in wholeheartedly, that was not an artist’s gala. Something that was the antithesis of pretentious and entirely of the community we serve, for the community that we serve, to prove that we belong here among the people and that theatre is made for the people and that we urge the people to come, and to come in droves because we think that they’ll find that the stories we have to tell are not too intellectual, too otherworldly or too pretentious for them to understand or love or be touched by. I think we could get a greater sense of ourselves if we band together, so that we’re not dozens of vagrant theatre companies struggling alone to survive, or hundreds of vagrant artists struggling alone to be noticed by the right person, to make this month’s rent and to keep the theatre critics at bay. We should be partners in this fight for a truly great Canadian theatre. We are colleagues. We are peers. We are friends.

Ultimately, I think it would be ideal to open up the initiative to theatre companies across the country. I never want to become one of those academics that abandon their hometown and start to view Toronto as being the essence of Canada. I think that blending voices and sharing experiences and talent and expertise should be a priority for us at this stage of our Canadian theatre’s development. I think there are so many interesting ideas that are being tested throughout this country that haven’t been disseminated enough to have the profound national effect that they ought to have. What sort of national Variety Show could we produce if we all worked together? How much money could that alone raise for a charity? What sort of collaborations could come from encouraging talented artists from different provinces to meet with open hearts and minds? How much could we learn from each other if we stopped seeing each other as a threat?
 
I also think that having these sorts of fundraisers would be a hell of a lot of fun. I get giddy at the very thought of having the companies of Toronto productions coming together to create parodies like on old fashion variety shows or the New Play Society’s annual fling- Spring Thaw (1948-1971). Bringing stars like Fiona Reid and Christopher Plummer out to help us would be incredible. There could be funny duets and we could do a “miscast” revue where our musical theatre stars like Patricia Zentilli, Thom Allison and Steven Gallagher, George Masswohl, Steven Sutcliffe, Sharron Matthews and Ron Pederson etc. could sing songs that they would never have another opportunity to sing. Smaller theatre companies like Acting Up Stage, Ghost Jail theatre, and the theatre companies within universities, among so many others, could benefit from some much-needed publicity and I bet members of our community would be hugely impressed by some of incredibly talented young theatre practitioners we have in this city alone that very few people have ever heard of. How funny would an evening of Toronto theatre community be? How inspiring! I bet it would strengthen our faith in ourselves. I bet we would all leave the theatre with a renewed strength and rekindled passion to do what we love and to do it well, despite all adversity we face from the outside world.
 
The economy is bad, and money is always an issue looming over our heads. The impresario in me has to repress the urge to email all the talented actors I know and attempt to turn my dream into a reality right this second, but I know that ultimately this is bigger than just me. However, I urge the people who are older, wiser, better connected, and who have a better sense of what it takes to produce something big and lofty and magnificent, to think about the possibilities we have to create something extraordinary. Dora Mavor Moore created the foundation of professional theatre in Toronto because she believed in the power of theatre to enrich the lives of everyone it touched. She didn’t let anyone say (and lots of people tried) that it was impossible. Elizabeth Sterling Haynes developed theatre in Alberta despite the fact that she was told that there was no reason for theatre to exist in such a cold, barren, place. Actors fight to stay in the Maritimes despite the fact that there are far more actors than jobs available and very little support from anyone with money or might, because they believe strongly (as I do) that these provinces deserve to have a strong, indigenous theatre that they can be proud of. Nothing can come from not trying, and all the great theatre that has been created in this country has come from someone having a lofty dream and someone else helping him or her turn it into a reality.
 
I hope that someday, someone or some people, will band with me and say YES. Yes to Canada. Yes to Excellence. Yes to Community. Yes to Success. Yes to Faith. And Yes to Dreams. And making them come true.
 
At the very least, in the meantime, I encourage you all, please, to visit http://www.broadwaycares.org/ and to read about this amazing organization. And for Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanza or just for the fun of it, please invest in some “Carols For A Cure” CDs. They are amazing. Thank you for supporting the theatre in this country. And Happy Holidays to you and your family.

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