Bartley Shares Bytes on ’Broadway Backwards’ Benefit
Over an eight-year-span, starting with its humble beginnings in a simple room at the LGBT Center on West 13th Street, "Broadway Backwards" has grown into one of the year’s most anticipated and enjoyable benefits. Where else do you get to hear some of Broadway’s biggest luminaries sing show tunes they never have before -- and never will -- because they were written for people of another gender?
This year’s edition, to be held at 8pm on Monday, March 24 at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, will be bigger and better than ever before, says creator and director Robert Bartley. As always, proceeds from the event will go to both Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and the Center, and Bartley hopes this show will break last year’s fundraising record of $347, 600.
This year, more than 20 stars have signed on to participate in this extravaganza, including Stephanie J. Block, Robin De Jesus, Jonathan Groff, Norm Lewis, Kyle Dean Massey, Andrew Rannells, Max von Essen, and Tony Yazbeck -- not to mention, Tony Award winners Beth Leavel, Debra Monk, Billy Porter, Roger Rees, and Julie White.
"Every year, more and more celebrities come out to support us," says Bartley. "When we started out, I called on people I knew or had acted with. I always credit Charles Busch, who was the first person we asked and who immediately said yes, to give us some recognition. Now, people ask if they can join the show.
Sometimes, we have to say no or we’d have a six-hour show. The most important things is that we have always tried to keep a balance of openly gay performers and straight performers, as well as mix up people from theater, cabaret, television and film."
Asking Bartley who he is most thrilled about having on stage is rather like asking a parent to choose a favorite child, but two performers do come to mind. "It’s wonderful that Len Cariou is coming back again. It’s always a very powerful moment for the audience to have ’Sweeney Todd’ supporting the gay community," he says. "And I am most excited that we will have Patricia Morrison on the stage. She will be 99 years old this month, and she’s still got it. I won’t say exactly what she’s singing, but it is from one of her hit Broadway shows."
One of the reasons that "Broadway Backwards" continues to be so successful, adds Bartley, is the way he and his team (including musical supervisor Mary-Mitchell Campbell) approach the musical numbers presented in the show. "Of course, we play with the humor of the gay community, but we’re not being campy," he says. "Every year, we try to develop the artistic side of the show, so there are more scenes and set-ups. And we do our best to honor the original intent of the songs’ lyricists, but we present the songs so we’re seeing our stories on the stage of a Broadway theater."
For example, since the show is being staged on the set of the Tony Award-winning musical "Kinky Boots," Bartley chose to do that show’s popular number, "The History of Wrong Guys," with Andrew-Keenan Bolger singing the lead (originated by Annaleigh Ashford) opposite Andy Kelso, who is currently starring in "Kinky Boots" as Charlie.
Another number that’s sure to be a crowd-pleaser is "I Can Hear the Bells" from "Hairspray," which will be led by longtime Broadway favorite Bryan Batt.
"Originally, I just wanted to do a simple little song in front of a microphone, but when they gave me this as an option, I jumped on it," says Batt. "It’s such a fun song, but it’s not something I would ever get to do -- not even in my club act. And I get to perform it in front of some of my favorite people in the world. Plus, I’ve always considered it part of my duty since I started on Broadway to do any benefit I can for BC/EFA. So it’s a win-win-win situation for me."
One song that Bartley expects to be a highlight of the show is "Freddy My Love" (from "Grease") to be sung by former "Avenue Q" star John Tartaglia. "We love doing songs that are familiar to audiences but in a new light," says Bartley. "Since the military repealed ’Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ we decided to present this song as sung by an ordinary guy wondering if something has happened to his marine who is overseas."
"This is my second time being part of "Broadway Backwards," and I am always impressed by the smart takes they do on each song. I am so curious to hear what everyone else will be doing," says Tartaglia. "But the bottom line about why I wanted to be part of this evening is not only is it selfishly fun for me as an actor, but I think it’s part of our responsibility as members of the Broadway community to be able to give back with our gift."
A few tickets are still available for "Broadway Backwards." For more information, visit the Broadway Care/Equity Fights AIDS website.