Six months. Last Saturday was the six-month anniversary of Broadway shutting down. So, I thought I’d focus on how it all began and then give some highlights from the six months
February 28 was my birthday and I had a game night a few days later. James and I knew about COVID-19 but weren’t for-real worried. Looking back, James and I realize that was the last normal night we had. It definitely began to feel like an actual threat after that. I remember flying to Scottsdale on Friday, March 6 for a concert with Norm Lewis and wiping down everything around me on the airplane. Then, when Norm sang “Misty” in our concert, he told everyone in the audience to hold the hand of the person next to them and I made a “joke” that maybe the threat of COVID made it not the time to be holding someone’s hand. Still, it didn’t seem like an actual emergency. Before that night’s show, I was telling my producer, Mark Cortale, that I was nervous large gatherings might be affected, but he seemed very calm. At the end of the show, he came up to me in a state of shock and told me that our concert the following week in San Francisco with Keala Settle had just been cancelled by the theatre. That was the moment, as they say, “sh*t got real.”
And yet… I still didn’t realize how bad it would get. I knew that my concerts around the country would be cancelled and I knew that our other main source of income, my Broadway cruises, were looking bad. We had just made it with our last one which sailed the week of February 15, but I knew it would be hard to sell the next two I had coming up in June and July.
And yet…I was still naïve enough that I decided I would turn to my old way of making money: playing in Broadway pit orchestras. I figured I could go back to playing on Broadway if I couldn’t do concerts and cruises. It didn’t cross my mind that Broadway itself would not happen. Looking back, I don’t know why I thought my concerts would be cancelled and not Broadway, but maybe it was traveling that I thought was dangerous and not large gatherings? Well, even though James and I were nervous about traveling, we had committed to going to Texas to raise money for Ann Johnson, who is running for State Representative and felt we had to take the trip. Right before we left, Dr. Jon LaPook called us. He knew of us at first because his father-in-law, Norman Lear, came to see Disaster! on Broadway and told Jon and his wife to see it because it had “added years to his life.” #StillGotIt
James and I met Dr. LaPook face-to-face when he did a piece for CBS on our recording of “What The World Needs Now Is Love” that we put together with Broadway records after the Pulse Nightclub shooting. Here’s the piece which we shot in his lovely apartment.
We’d been friendly ever since, and he contacted us on Tuesday March 10 and asked our help: He knew that COVID-19 was spreading and one of the ways to stop it was to wash your hands. He asked us to put together a Broadway star-studded song about handwashing and to make it 20 seconds long…the length of time you should be washing your hands. I got to work writing it on the night before we left and started contacting celebs. Here’s the video I made in Ripley-Grier studios on 72nd Street that I was planning on sending to Idina Menzel for her to record.
We then decided it was better to film it in NYC and I contacted Billy Porter who was going to fit it into his schedule when he had a break from Pose, hopefully over the weekend. We flew to Texas (wiping everything the hell down) and we also thought it would be fun, for one of the videos, to see Broadway stars in their costumes singing the song. (Again, we had no idea Broadway would shut down). Not surprisingly, there was a lot of red tape we had to deal with to film in a theatre with people in costume.
On March 11 (while in Texas), we were on the phone with higher-ups explaining that we would prefer the red tape be cut quickly because we were trying to stave off a pandemic. We made some progress, but by the next afternoon, we saw the shocking news that Broadway had shut down so it was a moot point. We then parlayed the idea into having a group of stars go to a recording studio and sing it together…a la “What The World Needs Now.” We hoped to do it the following week (not realizing that a group of people singing together was a horrific idea during COVID). After our political event in Texas, James and I flew back to New York and went to our New York apartment to get whatever we needed to stay upstate for what we thought would be a few weeks. We had bought a house in 2017 and had j-u-s-t rented an apartment in New York in August for the first time. Well, once we were upstate for a few weeks we realized it was going to much longer than a few weeks and, as predicted, all of my main work had been cancelled. There was no way we could afford to rent our apartment in NYC. We asked our landlord for a rent reduction (the answer was N-O) and we finally had to hire a lawyer to negotiate getting out of our two-year (!) lease. It was a sad moment for us because it meant we were officially not living in NYC. Not only did we feel like we were deserting the people who were staying and keeping NYC alive, but that apartment also meant so much to us. Here’s my article about when we rented it.
But back to Broadway shutting down. That happened on Thursday, March 12. We got back to our house on Friday and on Saturday I saw a tweet from Jennifer Cody saying that almost everyone she knew was going to be out of work and someone should do something. I told James that we should do an online fundraiser for The Actors Fund (which, if you don’t know, is for anyone in the arts…onstage and offstage, in front of the camera and behind the camera and all over the country). I knew they would soon be overwhelmed with need.
I thought I could get our Broadway friends to sing a few songs online and we could ask for donations. James said it should more than three songs…we should talk to the stars between songs like in Concert For America. We told Joe Benincasa (CEO of the Actors Fund) and Brian Stokes Mitchell (Chairman of the Board) and they both gave us a thumbs up. But when I told Stokes the name (“Broadway At Home”) he told me that he had a better name: Stars In The House with the double-entendre of “the house” as in the theatre and the stars were literally in their houses. Also, he wanted to expand it beyond Broadway, hence the word “Stars”. But, how could we get people onscreen in two different locations?
It’s so funny that now we’re so used to multiple people onscreen, but at that point, we had only livestreamed our concert events; just one camera pointing at a stage. This would require two cameras. How? I thought I had the solution: I could facetime or Skype the celeb on my phone and then hold that up to the computer screen during the show. Thankfully, James thought there might be a better way: he called our very young friend David Katz and they both started investigating how to get various people onscreen at the same time. They discovered Streamyard.com, which they loved because, unlike Zoom (which they also looked into) Streamyard could broadcast to multiple platforms: Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter. And it would be super easy to have graphics and banners and show photos and videos.
Soon Monday rolled around and Dr. LaPook called about the handwashing song. Before we could brainstorm a new one that didn’t involve a #SuperSpreader event, we told him couldn’t chat because we doing a livestream that night for the Actors Fund. Dr. LaPook offered to join and give updates on COVID. Little did we know he’d still be broadcasting with us six months later!
Monday, March 16, we did our very first Stars in The House with the lovely Kelli O’Hara who sang “Cockeyed Optimist,” “Getting To Know You,” and “To Build Myself A Home.” As I said, we weren’t quite sure how to get multiple people onscreen at the same time. Look how excited we are when it works! (Also, how our mics are muted for the first ten seconds).
The next day we committed to two shows a day: 2PM ET and 8PM ET. And last week we celebrated 200 episodes!
Here are some highlights over the past six months:
Tina Fey was one of our early guests and made a joke about how Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick are just sitting at their house, so they can do Plaze Suite. That got James and me thinking and we started Plays In The House. We really had no idea if a play could work with no costumes and set…just people reading right into the camera, but boy, did it! The first one was The Heidi Chronicles with the entire original cast and we had so many amazing shows. We even won the Sunny Award from CBS Sunday Morning for the best in quarantine videos!
After six weeks, we realized that live theatre wasn’t coming back for a long time. I know my concert series that I do all over the country wasn’t going to be happening anytime soon. I called my producer, Mark Cortale, and we decided we should do them every Sunday at 8PM. But, again, how would we do them? All the current Broadway performances on the internet were pre-recorded because no one knew how someone could play piano live in their house while someone sang live in their separate house. There is a delay on the internet called “latency” that makes it impossible. Well, leave it to the young people: David Katz and his pal Kiran Edwards figured out an app called JamKazam that allows me to play piano while a singer sings at the exact same time. David and I would be on the internet every day trying to get it to work and finally we brought on Kelli O’Hara to try it out for real. After she sang, she was extremely emotional. She said it was the first time she had sung with live accompaniment in months. It was like performing for the first time ever all over again.
Typically, the concerts are live Sunday at 8PM ET and only repeated Mondays at 3PM, but Jeremy’s concert will be up for a few more days to watch “on demand.” It was so good! He sang “Maria” from West Side Story and it was so good! Here he is singing from Little Shop Of Horrors, the show he was about to open in when the pandemic hit.
In terms of going out, we have been extra careful. At first, we didn’t go into a store for grocery shopping. We would order from our local store and have them bring it to the parking lot and place it in our trunk while we stayed in the car.
Now that there’s more awareness of how it’s spread and how to prevent it, we’re OK going places as long as we wear a mask with a filter inside. We were able to see the Berkshire Theatre Group outdoor production of Godspell and we spent three days vacations in Provincetown at The Anchor Inn. Of course, that also meant that all three of us got into a screaming fight at a rest stop when a customer and server behind the counter (where the food was) were both chatting up a storm without masks on. Truly mind-boggling to me.
I’ve focused mainly on the very beginning of the pandemic, because once we started Stars In The House, that’s basically been our lives. In one sense, it’s a lot of work, but it’s also kept us so busy that we don’t think about the current things that can bring us down. And there’s so much joy during the shows!
Here’s a highlight reel of Joel Grey’s 88th birthday with amazing surprise guests…ending with Kristin Chenoweth singing “Maybe This Time.” And the real surprise is that Joel Grey’s Wi-Fi conked out and he wasn’t even there for the song!
Another surprise: Two months in, we won a Special Drama Desk Award. It was mailed to us last week and we opened it on the air! It happens at around 43 minutes in.
It’s truly amazing to us that people continue to donate. At first, I think most people thought it was a few weeks that we’d all be struggling, but now so many people have been without income for months. We can’t belive the generosity of people who are facing so much uncertainty yet continue to donate. We always have our celebs read some the names of some donors during the show, and sometimes they do it in extremely creative ways. Here are the four “Queens” from the musical Six. That’s the show that was about to have it’s opening night on the day Broadway shut down. Watch them tout donations; instead of reading them, they are belt/riff them!
The other good news that’s happened over the past six months is: Juli began college! She’s able to take classes online…which, in her case, means literally laying in bed with the laptop on a tray and snacks surrounding her. If that’s how college had been like when I was a freshman, I never would have failed my music history midterm. (P.S. She’s about to turn 20 on September 22 and we’re trying to figure out how to celebrate her birthday during COVID times.)
Amidst all the unpredictability, two things have remained consistant. I am still doing my SiriusXM radio show. Every afternoon, I host on SiriusXM Channel 72. I think it’s nice for my listeners to have the consistency of the Broadway channel, even though Broadway is paused. And I’m doing my SiriusXM/Pandora podcast called Seth Rudetsky’s Back-To-School (where celebs talk about all of their high school travails). It’s actually been easier to get guests because, instead of having to wait for people to be in NYC, I can interview them online from anywhere. That’s why this season I not only have Rosie Perez from Brooklyn, but I also have Wayne Brady and Martin Short from L.A. and Skylar Astin from Vancouver (where he’s filming Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist). You can listen to all my episodes at here.
The absolute best part of the last six months was spending basically 24 hours a day, seven days a week with our four doggies and kitty cat. When things go back to normal, I have to figure out how to travel with them everywhere. I’ll close with some pics of my angels!