Music Feature

A Piece of Broadway

by Byron Woodson
I found out how much I didn't know about Broadway, music and charity.
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I found out the other night at a fundraiser for the Covenant House, a nation-wide non-profit that helps the at-risk youth. And I mean a non-profit that works with the at-risk youth that other at-risk youth would say are the real at-risk youth.

This night was a preview of a larger performance called "A Night of Broadway Stars" dedicated to raising money for the Covenant house. It was hosted by Neil Berg, an award-winning composer and the performers were Rita Harvey and Lawrence Clayton, two Broadway heavyweights. Now that we have some of the details and name-dropping down, let's get to the nitty gritty.

I wasn't sure what to expect, but I arrived severly under-dressed in hard-toes, jeans, an untucked button-down shirt and a fake camel-hair jacket (it looks good though). I walk into a room with men in full business suits and women in power suits. I don't feel underdressed because I like wearing suits. I should feel underdressed but I pretend at being a rebel.

The main event starts in a somewhat packed room as the suits congratulate themselves and each other on being good samaritans. You'd start to think that they're volunteering everyday just like the staff, but then I remember they're the suits. Their role is to bring the money. They march out the usual suspects: the board, the hosts, the Executive Director Cordella Hill (who spent her week-long vacation at work) and one brave young soul who is being assisted relates his story of how he arrived at the covenenat house. 

Without disclosing all of the gory details, this youth came from a family that just seemed to fall on hard times, through no fault of their own. And while pulling himself out of being homeless with one parent to living with another whom he'd just me. There he held a steady job and sending money back home to his mother and brothers and sisters. He confronted overt discrimination from his father leading, him to being homeless and unemployed, yet again. 

Smart kid though, he heard through his friends about, and is now connected with the Covenant House, he's employed and enrolled in college come August. I later find out that he told one of the easier stories. That's the kind of work the Covenant House does. I'll just leave it at that. We give him a round of applause, thanking him for bravely and eloquently sobering us up to what it's like for the kids and young adults that he talks to, and is, everyday.

Then, my education began.

I heard of Broadway. It existed for me like the old movie Annie and the Wizard of Oz (and the Wiz). I think I can imagine what it'd be like to see a real Broadway musical, and that's about all it was for me.

Some energetic chap, who later I found out is Neil Berg, gets up and starts talking about his series of "A Night of Broadway" shows that raise money for charities. Now, this guy is pretty well spoken, it's apparent that he's used to talking to this posh kind of crowd, and semi-apparent that he mostly moves in those circles as some kind of celebrity. So that perks me up a bit. 

He then introduces the first singer for the night. Up until now, I thought this was going to be some rinky-dink show of off-broadway has beens. The first clue that I was completely wrong wat that the performer happened to be his wife, Rita Harvey, who sang the lead in Phantom of the Opera for five years. It took every second of her introducing herself and up until she opened her mouth to sink in. She's no has been. She's a legend.

The first seven notes had me sold that this would be a night that I'd remember for the rest of my life. I'd say she sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" but that'd do her performance a bit of a disservice. It's more like she breathed it. It felt like it was the first time I heard and saw it, sitting on my parent's bedroom floor in the mid-eighties watching a television that still had vhf and uhf dials. I fell back into wearing my footed pajamas marveling at the technicolor Wizard of Oz, I think it was a two-night special. Saying that I was enchanted wouldn't be an overstatement, it'd be right on the money. It's not often that you see the mix of mastery and passion in person. And she had both in spades, then she gave it to us halfway between cavilerely and carefully. What enchanted me was that she appreciated each note she sang to us. Because it wasn't a song she was singing, it was a message to us. Just for us. Right then. Right there.

Against what might have been my better judgement, for a few bars I tuned out of her singing and started listening to the piano in the background. I learned to tickle the keys for about two years when I was a kid. My tutor said I had perfect pitch and all kinds of jazz, but to an 8 year old I couldn't appreciate it. When I started to listen to the piano, I realized that just like Peter and the Rabbit, the melody was as much a story as the words. I'd like to be poetic enough to tell you how wonderful it was to be able to listen to the voice and the piano sing in harmony, but I'm not that poetic, so you'll just have to trust me.

And then.

I first thought he was one of the other attendees, being congregated near where some of the other black people kind of migrated in the room, yeah, we kind of do that. But the piano player, who I still didn't know was Neil Berg, introduced next person as the first African-American to play the lead for Les Miserables, no small feat. This cat also sang in the original show Dreamgirls way before any of us heard about it: from 1981-1985, 1500+ performances, mind you.  And my first thought was "man, button one more button on your shirt", but yes, the shirt was sharp.

He sang Unchained Melody by the Righteous Brothers, which is known by my generation as the song from Ghost. I know I just said that saying Rita Harvey sang Somewhere Over the Rainbow would be a disservice. But let me tell you. Mr. Clayton sang that song. In the first few bars I realized that he sang it better than the Righteous Brothers, yeah I said it. By the end of the first verse I realized that he sang better than anyone I've heard. By the end of the song I wanted him to remake all the songs from all my favorite singers and crooners: Marvin, Frank, Smokey, Nat, Luther, and even the one with two names: David Ruffin.  Where Rita sang with a purity that I can only imagine years to achieve and decades to perfect, this man sang with a resonance that sounded like he was whistling through a drum. A while back I saw a youtube video of Pavoratti singing It's A Man's world alongside James Brown (1. imagine that, 2. look it up), if you could just squish those two together, that's what I heard.

Unfortunately, that's about all I can say. I was so overwhelmed by the first two performances I started to talk to and yell at myself for not trying to go to Broadway shows and halfway missed Rita and Lawrence breathe/sang again. Well, that was until they sang the duet from Phantom of the Opera. I loved this becasue it juxtaposed and contrasted their voices so wonderfully. She the dainty and he the villain. It was like listening to the classic ebony and ivory sounds from Rick James and Tina Marie, only without the long history of "oh, i heard that song, it's good" baggage, and without the, please forgive me, relative crassness in their music.

So, I walked out of the room somewhat bewildered, disbelieving that I actually saw, heard and experienced what just happened. I talked to some other dazed people and realized that they had the same experience. So while milling about and gorging on these fabulous desserts I realized that this night was more than just a bit of entertainment. It was more than just a preview. This night was an enticement for the attendees to become raving fans so that they could bring their friends, associates, family co-workers, and maybe even enemies, all to raise money for the Covenant House. 

So while on May 14th at the Kimmel Center the attendees get to see what could be considered the Grammys of Broadway, what they really are doing is contributing money to a cause. Yes, they're raising money for and giving money to the Covenant House. But the real event is when the Covenant House transforms that money into safety and support for kids that find themselves at-risk for God-knows-what, through no fault of their own.

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