A virtual 40th anniversary reunion of the original “Dreamgirls” dream cast — Loretta Devine, Jennifer Holliday and Sheryl Lee Ralph — was among the highlights of a virtual benefit Sunday for Broadway Cares, held under the auspices of RWQuarantunes, Richard Weitz’s and Demi Weitz’s ongoing series of all-star charity fundraisers.
The online gala stretched just past the five-hour point, hosted by the father-and-daughter team of the Weitzes from the stage of the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York, a venue that was otherwise empty save for a cameo appearance by Broadway Cares executive director Tom Viola from one of the last rows of the orchestra section. With matching contributions coming in from several donors or institutions, the tally for the evening came in at more than $1.3 million.
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Despite the sight of the empty seats behind the Weitzes, it felt like a crowded house as the hosts were joined in real time not just the Dreamgirls but Bernadette Peters, Kristin Chenoweth, Heather Headley, James Monroe Iglehart, Clive Davis, Jimmy Jam, Nathan Lane, Deborah Cox, Lena Hall, Erich Bergen, Jarrod Spector, Robert Cuccioli, Stephanie Mills, Melissa Manchester, Carole Bayer Sager, A Great Big World, Diane Warren, Joshua Henry, Teal Wicks and Christopher Jackson and the Freestyle Love Supreme troupe. Pre-taped appearances came in from lyricist Tim Rice, pop singer James Bay and Alanis Morissette and the cast of “Jagged Little Pill.”
The most poignant moment came when 18-year-old Demi Weitz provided a surprise for her father, Richard Weitz, a partner at WME who began the RWQuarantunes series with her as a pandemic tonic in March 2020. It’s been a running gag that, for all her musical love, Demi can’t carry a tune; said the senior Weitz, “My joke has been, all her life, ‘Demi, you’re the worst singer I’ve ever heard.'” But in honor of her father’s birthday, which had been the day before, Weitz secretly took a vocal lesson and then recorded an even more top-secret virtual duet of “For Good,” the anthem from “Wicked,” with Chenoweth.
“I never saw that one coming,” said a crying Richard Weitz, after the surprise duet clip wrapped up. “He walked in on my hotel room and me recording in the hotel bathroom,” said Demi, saying the secret had almost been given away. Chenoweth followed the duet video by coming on the webcast live with her guitarist/boyfriend Josh Bryant to sing Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” “from a daughter to a dad.” Chenoweth also brought up (but did not sing) another pertinent song, “Fathers and Daughters,” vowing, “If she decides to marry one day, I’ll sing that song and you can dance to it.”
With the surprise appearance of the core “Dreamgirls” trio, the live Zoom format didn’t allow for much group harmonizing, but each of the three women sang snippets of their signature moments from the show, to the delight of the others sharing the screen.
The Weitzes joked that surely Holliday would not be willing to pipe in with an excerpt of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” “I can’t even go to the Target without having to sing that song,” Holliday said, obliging viewers just as she (apparently) does Target shoppers. The fact that the tune became a rare Broadway-to-pop crossover hit came up, but Holliday noted that the hit single status didn’t come until the summer of the following year, meaning that 40th anniversary won’t be until 2022… for which she’s grateful. “Since we’re waiting on the pandemic, I need an extra year,” she said.
Deborah Cox, a frequent RWQuarantunes guest known for her “Aida” run on Broadway, briefly joined the trio mid-discussion. “You and I went the same way — we have a huge gay following,” Holliday told Cox. “We would be on the gay circuit and see each other.”
Both Holliday and Devine gave Ralph credit for coming up with some of the original “Dreamgirls” vocal arrangements… and for her efforts in keeping a kind of harmonizing going 40 years later. Said Ralph, “I cannot believe it’s 40 years this year. I’m so thankful the three of us are able to remain in contact with each other all these years and do what we do in memory of those we lost from our company. We lost one-third of our original company,” she pointed out, naming director Michael Bennett and others. She signaled her eagerness to “kick off what I know is going to be a great 40th anniversary year,” with the hint of more commemorations to come.
“That’s because of you, Sheryl Lee,” said Holliday. “Sheryl Lee is what you call the alumni queen — the one from college where you be wanting to forget everything [and she’s] ‘Excuse me, do you know what is coming up in three months?’… In the early months of the pandemic, she would reach out and send me a message: ‘You don’t have to speak to me, just let me know you’re OK’… Because I’m not on social media that much… There’s been that constant thread of communication. And by having the Divas Foundation, she’s pulled us, Loretta and I, in. She’s raised a lot of money, not just for Broadway Cares, but a whole lot of organizations.”
James Monroe Iglehart, who won a Tony for playing the genie in “Aladdin,” enthused over what “Dreamgirls” meant to him growing up. “That’s the show that made most Black kids go, ‘That’s what I want to do,'” he said.
Monroe Iglehart seemed reluctant to follow even an only semi-singing appearance by the classic-era Dreamgirls, but nailed an exuberant reading of the Disney show’s “Friend Like Me.” “That’s what you call ‘not singing for a year so I can hit that note all day long,'” he joked after the song’s climax. The actor also appeared in an opening sketch filmed earlier in the day, as himself, albeit with the genie’s power to grant three wishes, which allowed him to grant the Weitzes admittance to the New Amsterdam after they mock-tried getting past the locked doors of some other Broadway theaters.
The show’s live performances kicked off with Bernadette Peters, accompanied in her home by Marvin Laird, her musical director of 30 years. Peters sang two Stephen Sondheim songs, “They Ask Me Why I Believe in You” (a song for a TV special Sondheim took out of the trunk for a Peters Carnegie Hall engagement) and “Send in the Clowns. “It’s like you’e grown up before our very eyes,” Peters, a returnee to the RWQuarantunes series, told Demi, a soon-to-graduate high school senior who’s been key in the fundraising effort as well as hosting for 13 months.
Headley had one of the show’s more bravura turns with “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?,” delivered in highly animated fashion despite Headley being seated at a desk in her home. “If I could move my face, it would be saying holy catballs,” said Jimmy Jam. “That version we just heard, that should be on a record somewhere.”
Headley reciprocated by singing a snippet of Janet Jackson’s “Pleasure Principle,” a record Jam worked on. “For my first album, Clive had had sent me to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who pulled things out of me that I was not ready to have pulled,” she said. Jam credited Elton John with making the introduction. “We were doing a Janet/Elton duet from ‘Aida,’ and he said to me, ‘You have to meet the girl that sings in ‘Aida.'” Jam said that Headley would appear on an album he and his sometimes partner have been working on for years. They and Headley “have the most unbelievable song on the Jam/Lewis album,” the producer promised. “When people hear it, they will lose their minds.”
Other highlights that followed included Stephanie Mills reviving a song from “The Wiz” that turned into a No. 1 R&B hit for her; Morissette popping up in a bookstore to sing the opening of “You Live, You Learn,” soon joined by the entire “Jagged” cast; “theater-pop” duo A Great Big World collaborating on their hit “Say Something” and promising a legit Broadway show is in the works; Melissa Manchester and Carole Bayer Sager reliving old times after the former sang “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” which she recently re-cut for an album reviving some of her classic material; Robert Cuccioli doing a solo “This Is the Moment” from “Jekyll and Hyde” (“26 years later, that is the original key,” marveled an onlooker); and Joshua Henry, recently of “Hamilton,” getting all Burr-sir with a soft-spoken “Blow Us All Away.”
Diane Warren, in Oscar best original song contention with “Io Si (Seen)” from “The Life Ahead,” appeared live to introduce a pre-recorded version of that song by its Italian singer and co-compower, Laura Pausini, who was presumably asleep in her home country as the U.S. webcast was going down. With Teal Wicks, “one of the Chers” from that Broadway musical, came on to talk Cher shop talk with Warren, who reminisced about two songs she did with the uber-diva. One was “If I Could Turn Back Time,” which Cher hated so much that “I had to hold her legs on the floor” to get her to do it, Warren said. The other was their nominated song from “Burlesque,” which ran into love from Cher but hate from the movie’s director. Nevertheless, Cher persisted. “The director hated it and kept trying to take it out of the movie,” Warren said, “but Cher said, ‘I’m done. Have fun doing promotion for the movie without me.'”
Christopher Jackson, of “Hamilton” fame, did a live Zoom with his fellow cast members in the improv troupe Freestyle Love Supreme (minus the very occasional member Lin-Manuel Miranda) to do what they usually do: take suggestions from the audience to completely improvise a multi-verse hip-hop song. In this case, the Weitzes donated the requested thousands of dollars to have FLS come up with a comical number on the spot about the more fraught or tense moments of their father/daughter relationship.
Lena Hall, another frequent presence on RWQuarantunes benefits, brought up the rear with arguably the webcast’s biggest voice, belting “Midnight Radio” from the show she might be best known for, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” followed by the second “Wicked” number of the night, “Defying Gravity.”
RQuarantunes came into the event having already collected $21.8 million for a variety of charities with all-star, invitation-only livestreams since March 2021. Sunday’s event added another $1.3 million-plus to that total to put it over $23 million.
It was the third time RWQuarantunes was specifically aligning with Broadway Cares, as the two teams had collaborated for livestreams that raised $868,000 back in June and $1.2 million in October. Those were hosted, as per the usual, from the Weitzes’ kitchen counter in the L.A. area, not from a Broadway theater. (Richard and Demi Weitz have been taking the show a bit more on the road lately, hosting web benefits from such empty venues as the Ahmanson, the Hollywood Bowl and most recently Dodger Stadium.)
Viola said that “it’s like Christmas all over again.” With the help of the prior two benefits with RWQuarantunes, “we have been able to build a bank. We have awarded the Actors Fund over $7 million that allowed them to create a safety net of services for thousands of people in the entire entertainment industry,” not just actors.
Next up for RWQuarantunes will be a benefit done in collaboration with a frequent viewer and guest, actor Mark Hamill, on (what else) May the 4th. The charity for that event will be the USC McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative, designed to help youth in the neighborhoods surrounding USC get a leg up in their educations.
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