Over 80 student faces packed the stage of The Palace Theater on January 28, mugging, grinning, and switch-kicking throughout Tony Award winning Hairspray hit "You Can't Stop The Beat," alongside the show's Tony Award-winning show composer Marc Shaiman, film star Nikki Blonsky, recording legend Micky Dolenz and Broadway diva Capathia Jenkins. The standing ovation that met the final note and choreographed flourish stopped the show in its tracks.
The night before Sandy Hook Elementary School burst onto the nation's radar in the worst possible way, members of the Newtown, CT, middle school choir performed their annual holiday concert. A sweet collection of voices, the event marked the last time the community would come together in song without the burden of the tragic events of December 14, 2012 -- the date of the shooting which took the lives of 20 Newtown students -- as part of its personal history.
"[The children] haven't had a chance to come together in that familiar way and sing since that night," said Jeffrey Saver, the musical director shipped from Broadway to work with students on the starry January 28 benefit performance. "This rehearsal has been a return to something normal for them. It's hard to put into words why being able to be with your friends, just making music again, matters. But it does."
From Broadway with Love: A Benefit for Sandy Hook, which brought over 150 Broadway performers and musicians to Connecticut, was conceived by producer Van Dean (Cinderella) and singer-scribe Brett Boles (Foreverman) as a grassroots event (with roots on Facebook) that would not only soothe a damaged community, but bring song back into the lives of students throughout the school district by pairing Broadway's best with children and teens from across the Newtown area.
"Anyone who has lost a loved one can tell you music is not just medicine, but the medicine," said Tony Award nominated guest performer Philip Boykin (The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess), who lost his father days before the benefit. "There are songs so happy you can't help but forget your heartbreak for a few minutes, and they are a blessing. And there are songs that break your heart open again, but in doing so remind you that you're not alone in your pain."
Richard Kind, one of the event's headlining funnymen and upcoming star of Broadway's The Big Knife, elaborated. "Music, laughter, song--that's what we, what Broadway, can do to help, and everyone wants to help this community," he said. "If they needed miners, miners would come from the far corners of the world to drill. If they needed biologists, biologists would flock from around the country to be Newtown's biologists. Broadway was asked to help in the way we can, so here we are."
By "here," Kind meant Waterbury, CT, home to the Palace, the 2,535-seat theater where nearly 100 vocalists and 40 orchestra musicians, as well as dozens of tech specialists, convened for the two and a half hour From Broadway with Love event. Buses transported the gypsy-army two hours from midtown Manhattan in the snow for a whirlwind rehearsal and sold-out show, then shuttled participants back the same night -- to prepare for Tuesday's Broadway performances.
"There was no question we needed to be here," Tony Award nominee Robin de Jesus (La Cage Aux Folles) and former resident of the Newtown area said of the trek out of NYC. "A benefit in New York with money going to the families is not the same as coming here to give whatever we can in person. We take it seriously."
He paused to gesture to the sprawling orchestra on the Palace stage.
"We brought a harp! When was the last time you saw a proper harp? When you see a harp that size you gotta know we have our A-game going."
In addition to the harp, over 700 volunteers contributed to the benefit, including the program's all-star artists and composers, orchestrators who arranged numbers for school choir members, musical tinkers who cut sensitive words like "died" and "kill" from song lyrics, baby-sitters, assistants, stage managers, and more. The donation of time and services allowed 100% of proceeds from the concert to go directly to the Newtown community and families affected by the shooting.
Questions about the long-term usefulness of a one-night invasion of showbiz stars, who float regularly around major telethons and gala dinners, were quickly squashed by teachers and volunteers from Newtown and Sandy Hook, who said "distraction" has been an essential part of recovery for their community (which is home to four dance schools, including a magnet school for the arts adjacent to the Palace). For many children, recovery means, and has meant, taking refuge in the performing arts specifically.
"We try to keep them playing music, keep them dancing," one local music teacher said about working with the students through the aftermath. "It is one of the best ways to push the worst things out of their minds. We've seen more smiles on our kids today, with stars they love and admire encouraging them to keep singing and dancing in person, than we've seen in entire weeks combined."
It was a sentiment echoed by parents and community members in person and on social media.
"My granddaughters who live in Newtown will be performing in this amazing production," Joe DeMarkey posted to the FBWL Facebook page the day before the event. "They spoke to me minutes ago and expressed their excitement over the rehearsal process.
This is the first time since December 14th that I have heard such enthusiasm."
"Thank you all for such a wonderful event," local resident Karen Lane Wilk posted to the page immediately post-show. "To see so many of our kids having such a good time did my heart good."
For Broadway's representatives, heartwarming and healing was the mission all along. After curtain, the cast met with families for an informal reception that--in contrast to tears that songs by Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, and Frank Wildhorn triggered during the show--was all squeals of excitement (Facebook profile photos with Brian Stokes Mitchell, Micky Dolenz, and Michael Cerveris? Finally, something moms and daughters can get equally excited about!), Muppets, courtesy of Sesame Street, and kids aged 3-18 running up and down the aisles.
"It could have been any of our children," Tony Award winner and benefit performer Brian Stokes Mitchell commented, "any of our communities, that suffered this tragedy. These are all of our children here tonight. To help them recover is not a favor, but a responsibility no one minds taking on."
When asked about the big night and ensuing celebration, Hailey Avari, one of the half-pint Sandy Hook pixies who performed during the Hairspray numbers, was momentarily pensive. Then she looked up and smiled.
"I like my dress," she said, before pulling a plush mini-Muppet, provided by the Sesame Street cast, into view. "And I got a Grover!"
A complete list of performers and songs from From Broadway With Love: A Benefit for Sandy Hook is below. Producer Van Dean states that a DVD and CD of the one-night-only event are in the works.
1. "Seasons of Love" from Rent, featuring Tony Award nominee Robin De Jesus (In the Heights), Ashley Blanchet and the From Broadway with Love Chorus
2. "Beautiful City" from Godspell, performed by composer Stephen Schwartz
3. "Defying Gravity" from Wicked, performed by Julia Murney (Wicked) with accompaniment by the show's composer, Stephen Schwartz
4. "On the Atchinson, Topeka and the Santa Fe" from The Harvey Girls, performed by Tony Award winner Christine Ebersole (Grey Gardens)
5. "Funny and the Joke" from My Favorite Year, performed by Janet Metz and Richard Kind
6. "I Wan'na Be Like You" from The Jungle Book, performed by Richard Kind
7. "Ol' Man River" from Show Boat, performed by Tony Award nominee Philip Boykin (The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess)
8. "Still" by Brett Boles, performed by Brett Boles and the From Broadway with Love Chorus
9. "When You're Good to Mama" from Chicago, performed by Drama Desk Award winner Mary Testa (Queen of the Mist)
10. "Finishing the Hat" from Sunday in the Park with George, performed by Tony Award winner Michael Cerveris (Evita), Newtown High School Chamber Choir and From Broadway with Love Chorus
11. "Sunday" from Sunday in the Park with George, performed by Tony Award winner Michael Cerveris (Evita), Newtown High School Chamber Choir and From Broadway with Love Chorus
12. "Somewhere" from West Side Story performed by Newtown High School Chamber Choir
13. "Raise Your Voice" from Sister Act, performed by members of the Broadway and touring cast of Sister Act
1. "Overture" from Gypsy, performed by the From Broadway with Love Orchestra
2. "Just One Person" from Snoopy! The Musical performed by the Sesame Street performers and From Broadway with Love Chorus
3. "Blue Suede Shoes", "Brown Eyed Handsome Man", and "I Hear You Knockin'" from Million Dollar Quartet, performed by cast members of Million Dollar Quartet and Lee Rocker on bass
4. "I'm a Believer", used in Shrek, performed by Micky Dolenz and From Broadway With Love Chorus
5. "Good Morning Baltimore" from Hairspray, performed by Nikki Blonsky, dancers from "Dance Etc." and From Broadway with Love Chorus with accompaniment by Tony Award winning composer Marc Shaiman (Hairspray)
6. "You Can't Stop the Beat" from Hairspray, performed by Nikki Blonsky, Brooke Tansley, Micky Dolenz, Capathia Jenkins, 72 Newtown Dancers, and From Broadway with Love Chorus, accompaniment by Marc Shaiman
7. "Sing" from Alive in the World, performed by Paul Scott Goodman and From Broadway with Love Chorus
8. "The Impossible Dream" from The Man of La Mancha, performed by Tony Award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell (Kiss Me Kate)
9. "Finding Wonderland" from Wonderland, performed by Capathia Jenkins, Frank Wildhorn, and From Broadway With Love Chorus, with accompaniment by Frank Wildhorn
10. "If I Had My Way" by Frank Wildhorn and Jack Murphy, performed by Linda Eder, Frank Wildhorn, and From Broadway With Love Chorus, with accompaniment by Frank Wildhorn
11. "One Voice" by Barry Manilow, performed by From Broadway With Love company and students from Sandy Hook Elementary School
A DVD and CD of the event is forthcoming.