Broadway Backwards Highlights: From "The Man I Love" to "Barcelona," Stars Gender-Bend Show Tunes
By Harry Haun
Brian Stokes Mitchell, Tony Sheldon, Estelle Parsons, Karen Ziemba, Judy Kaye, Malcolm Gets, Ashley Brown, Tituss Burgess, Anthony Warlow and more stars twisted classic songs into unexpected pretzels at the annual Broadway Backwards concert. Playbill was there.
On March 18, two days before spring officially arrives, the weather outside was frightful, but Broadway Backwards gingerly put its best foot forward anyway and managed — even in a blinding snowstorm! — to sell out the century-old Palace Theatre.
It was Annie's night off, so somebody stashed the Christmas tree and borrowed Daddy Warbucks' elegant living room and staircase for a hot-and-topical groom-and-groom union. This occasion, an increasingly common phenomenon, triggered a cluster of gender-bending show tunes — slugged "Wedding Medley," consisting of Cabaret's "Married," I Do! I Do!'s "My Cup Runneth Over" and The Drowsy Chaperone's "Love Is Always Lovely in the End." (This show is nothing if not well-researched.)
This annual fund-raising event — written, directed and choreographed by Robert Bartley (a triple somersault even Noel Coward never attempted) — is produced by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS to benefit BC/EFA and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center of New York City. Its objective, seriously said, allows "gays and lesbians [to] see their stories told through the great songs of musical theatre."
Then, less loftily — from a purely acting standpoint — it gives performers a clean, clear, guilt-free shot at songs that they would never, in the best of all possible worlds, get a chance to sing. A megawatt galaxy of stars turned out and tuned up for Edition No. 8.
It was the sort of show where Brian Stokes Mitchell sang about "The Man I Love" and seemed honestly to mean it; where Jan Maxwell held forth with heartfelt intelligence on "How To Handle a Woman"; where "A Weekend in the County" was party-planned within the giddy recesses of a gay gym; where an Irish-jigging Karen Ziemba went home with Bonnie Jean; where Bruce Vilanch and a buttoned-down Malcolm Gets compared their respective lives and concluded "The Grass Is Always Greener" (the Kander-and-Ebb showstopper that won Tonys for Lauren Bacall and the late, great Marilyn Cooper in exactly the same place, the Palace); where Judy Kaye lured Anita Gillette to "Three Sunny Rooms"; where 85-year-old Estelle Parsons recalled the waiting game she played when she "was a young man courting the girls" in "September Song"; where a stewardess was delayed from flying off to "Barcelona" by an overheated Mary Poppins (the Broadway original, Ashley Brown).
Sometimes, subtly, it was the aggressively retained pronoun that made the song gender-inappropriate — hence, "My Funny Valentine" from Len Cariou and "Time Heals Everything" robustly rendered by Big Daddy Warbucks himself, Anthony Warlow (reminding award-voters anew, lest they've forgotten, how terrific he is).
The Hooverville squatters were run off for the evening so some lively production numbers could be staged on their turf under the massive bridge: "Six Months Out of Every Year," Meg's sports-widow lament from Damn Yankees, was entrusted to an ensemble of male couples and female couples; Broadway's most recent Judas, Josh Young, was tapped to "Bring on the Men," and Avenue Q's very funny and agile Howie Michael Smith professed to pals he was "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm" from How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
There were two wild cards of the evening — "Vespers," a raunchy, rolling-around pas de deux by Patrick Corbin and David Grenke while Tom Waits croaked out as best he could "Waltzing Matilda," and a factually based monologue by Noah St. John, "The Last Mile," about a young man who realizes the marriage of his two mothers is about to end — but not before the family car hits 100,000 miles on the speedometer.
He later said they did divorce and that was The Last Big Family Moment. It was nice he had that moment and lovely he shared it with a Palace full of sympathetic souls.
The one standing ovation of the evening opened the second act: the Dreamgirls' dynamic Act One curtain-closer, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," plus the entire scene leading up to it. Two Texas Jennifers won awards for Effie's anguished meltdown — Holliday the Tony and Hudson the Oscar. Tituss Burgess pulled out all stops and vocal restraints to get the number into that same ballpark. Bravo!
Woven throughout the evening were comedy sketches about a couple of gay gray-beards being forced to the brink of commitment by the legality of gay marriage. It was also a means of working in some topical humor as recent as a new pope and renewed Twinkies as well as touching on more established signs-of-the-times like gay parenting a Pakistani baby.
Jim Brochu, a Drama Desk Award-winning Zero Mostel, and Tony Sheldon, the Tony-nominated Bernadette of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, fitted snugly together like Ollie and Stan on a lavender toot. Their funniest running-gag: greeting each other as characters in Broadway shows. "Vera!" said Brochu to Sheldon expansively. "Mother Burnside," countered Sheldon to Brochu, who bristled at the accuracy of that crack.
As usual, John's Pizzeria on West 44th Street sponsored the Broadway Backwards annual after-party. Because part of the restaurant had been committed to another event, there was a noticeable lack of glamour and paparazzi-popping. Although it is the largest pizzeria in the country and it was 98 percent press-free, the joint was as packed to the gills as ever.
The event brought in $345,000, breaking Broadway Backwards' own record. Cheers!
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