Bringing the ovation at the Marquis Theatre to a momentary pause, Bernadette Peters, star of the acclaimed Follies revival, steps forward and begins an impassioned appeal that's echoed on stages across Broadway, off-Broadway and by national touring companies.
"Twice a year, the theatre community comes together in support of a marvelous organization, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS..." And so begins an audience appeal that cast members throughout the theatre community are currently making to rapt and generous audiences in New York and across the country. An appeal that literally will translate into so much for so many: access to nutritious meals, proper medical assistance and an array of vital social services for hundreds of thousands of people. It's an appeal that results in dollar bills being tossed into bright red buckets by theatre lovers from all walks of life.
Two fundraising campaigns - one preceding Broadway Cares’ annual Gypsy of the Year in the fall and the other before the Easter Bonnet Competition in the spring - raise nearly half of all monies that Broadway Cares raises annually. Last season, more than $7 million was donated by audiences as they left the theatres, many thrilled with the added purchase of signed posters, Playbills and other delightful memorabilia unavailable anywhere or anytime else.
This year's campaign began October 21 and includes efforts from veteran Broadway hits like Jersey Boys, The Lion King, Mamma Mia, The Phantom of the Opera and Wicked, and newcomers such as Anything Goes, The Book of Mormon, Follies, Priscilla Queen of the Desert Sister Act and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.
Off-Broadway is well-represented with two perennial favorites, Love, Loss and What I Wore and Naked Boys Singing, as well as the more-recent Awesome '80s Prom and Freud's Last Session and newcomers Cymbeline and The Lyons. A new trio of Off-Broadway hits that first began on Broadway - Avenue Q, Million Dollar Quartet and Rent - continue their fundraising efforts from their new homes at New World Stages,
For many of the participating shows, cast members gather at specially arranged "signing parties" to autograph hundreds of posters and Playbills, the threat of carpal tunnel syndrome happily alleviated by boxes of pizza and fresh salads. Some shows create uniquely branded items, like Mamma Mia aprons, Jersey Boys water bottles and reusable cloth bags from The Phantom of the Opera and Wicked.
Other shows offer one-of-a-kind items, such as Morticia's flower-less rose from The Addams Family, a 45 rpm record broken onstage during Memphis and signed by the show's stars, a cookbook from the Mary Poppins cast, "Express Yourself" buttons from Billy Elliot, hand-beaded ornaments and animals from South Africa at The Lion King, signed drumsticks at Rock of Ages, the earrings worn in the show that night by the leading ladies of Follies and bracelets made from retired "fly wire" at Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.
As time allows, a few shows hold special live auctions at the conclusion of select performances offering props, backstage meet-and-greets or photographs with the stars. Daniel Radcliffe will often auction the trademark blue bow tie from around his neck after How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, creating a bidding frenzy at the Hirschfeld Theatre.
Also currently available at many theatres is the 13th edition of Carols for a Cure, a 2-CD set of holiday songs performed by the companies of nearly two dozen of this season's shows.
The results of all this fall fundraising will be announced at the 23rd Annual Gypsy of the Year on December 5 & 6 at the New Amsterdam Theatre. Gypsy of the Year also features participating shows performing original production numbers and skits. Learn more and get tickets.
"We are all part of a tradition on Broadway that reaches out to so many,” Peters says. "I am so proud to be a part of such a remarkable effort across Broadway that makes a difference to so many.”
Audience appeals began quite informally 23 years ago as the company of off-Broadway's Steel Magnolias decided to hold buckets for donations during Equity Fights AIDS Week. In 1991, Keith Caradine, star of Will Rogers Follies, took the effort to Broadway, making a heartfelt appeal to receptive audiences who donated thousands of dollars. Soon thereafter, appeals spread across Broadway with the generous permission of theatre owners and producers and the unparalleled support of the many unions, in addition to Actors Equity, who make the shows happen eight times a week.
"It looks deceptively easy for an actor to step out from a company curtain call to make a pitch for support, but, in fact, it's an entire company that make this extraordinary fundraising opportunity possible," says Tom Viola, BC/EFA's executive director. "The crew, musicians and wardrobe personnel provide essential support. House managers and front of house personnel welcome our volunteers who often augment cast members holding buckets in the lobby. It’s an amazing effort made by the entire community, one that we at BC/EFA never take for granted and for which we are most grateful."
Though they are often hundreds of miles from the bright lights of Broadway, national touring companies participate in the bucket brigade and raise an astonishing amount of money for Broadway Cares.
This past spring, the enthusiasm and commitment of 16 national touring shows, like Jersey Boys, Les Misérables, The Lion King, Mary Poppins, Wicked and more representing the best of Broadway, resulted in $1,559,572 being raised in cities and towns across the country. Thanks to the great generosity of audiences from Chicago, Cincinnati and Boston to Atlanta, Tampa and San Diego and dozens of other stops along the road, BC/EFA is able to reach out to hundreds of AIDS and family service providers in those local communities.
"Our Four Seasons and Jersey Girls really get the crowd going when we do the appeals," says Christopher DeAngelis from the Jersey Boys national tour , which recently stopped at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford, CT. "The fundraising is a great morale boost for the cast, as we travel from one theatre to another, living out of a variety of hotels away from home. It reenergizes us. We have some fun and make a lot of good work possible. And when an understudy is on, they like to out-do the regular cast members by getting the audience to give more. The fans always go for the underdog."
As Don Richard and his fellow members of the Wicked – Munchkinland tour visit cities across America, they appreciate that their show delivers a story that opens hearts and lifts the soul.
"Audiences leave the theatre enthralled and longing to connect to something greater than themselves," Richard says from a tour stop at the Civic Center in Des Moines, IA. "And here we stand, buckets in hand, to offer them just that opportunity. The powerful connection we make with each community reminds us of our joyous ability to make a change for good! Audiences across the country respond in kind. It never fails."
The Lion King's Ben Lipitz says it's always exciting to be a part of the Broadway community efforts, but it is especially gratifying to be involved on the road.
"I'm proud that we can share Broadway and The Lion King with so many local communities, but I love that we can also contribute something to our audience's well-being after they've seen the show," Lipitz says from a stop at the Denver Arts Center's Buell Theatre. "We're not just here to entertain. It's something larger. Our audiences feel that and it enhances their enjoyment of all they see on stage. I can't tell you how often folks will say, 'We’re so glad you’re doing this,' as they drop a couple of dollars in the bucket as they exit the theatre. It’s a good feeling we all can share. It’s the best of 'Hakuna Matata!'"
And while the heart of the appeal is the same, the delivery is always a bit different.
During last season’s fall appeals, Tony Award-winner David Hyde Pierce, star of Broadway's La Bête, cleverly mixed humor with the message. "We try to make the audience understand the great work of BC/EFA and we also try to get them to laugh," Hyde Pierce says. "Our cause is very serious, but if they laugh it may jiggle some extra money loose."
BC/EFA’s longtime friend Charles Busch, who made his first appeal during his now legendary appearance in The Lady in Question in 1989 and recently lead the company of the hit The Divine Sister, says: "So many of our friends have benefited from the support and care made possible by Broadway Cares’ appeals. I feel it an obligation and even a privilege to give something back in this way."
Ardent BC/EFA supporter Judith Light, who's starring in this season's Other Desert Cities and was nominated for a Tony last season for Lombardi, explains: "All of us at Lombardi were so powerfully connected to Broadway Cares and the good work it does. It is a gift to be able to share our passion and commitment with the audience; and they get to share theirs with us.”
At the end of the rousing How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Daniel Radcliffe begins the appeal while his Tony Award-winner co-star John Laroquette listens in slight amusement.
As Radcliffe finishes his speech amid shrieks and cheers from the audience, Laroquette jokes: "See, I told you that fake British accent would work for you. ... Seriously though, it all goes to a great cause. Your donations will be greatly appreciated by us, and even more so by men, women and children across the country who are battling diseases in these tough economic times."
All told, the efforts of scores of volunteers onstage and behind the scenes, reaching out to tens of thousands of theatre-goers at eight performances a week, makes possible an extraordinary amount of good work on behalf of men, women and children facing the challenges of AIDS and other serious health issues. One dollar at a time, dropped in one bucket after another in the lobby "as you exit the theatre."