Last week began with such an amazing event!
My husband James Wesley-Jackson and I produced our ninth Voices: Stars For Foster Kids concert. Our relationship with this cause began in 2015 when James and I took a training class to adopt a foster kid. After we finished training, we found out that the then-commissioner of the NYC Administration of Children’s Services had cut funding to the organization that provided our classes as well as cut funding to an organization called You Gotta Believe.
You Gotta Believe is the only organization in NYC dedicated solely to helping older foster youth find forever families. Why is that specific focus so important? Because people looking to adopt mainly want babies, so once an adoptable child hits 8-years-old, they are considered “special needs” because it’s so difficult for them to find them a family. If no one will take them in, those kids go into foster homes and age out at 18 or 21 years old with no adults to support them. They lack not just financial support, but also all other types of support. They don’t have anyone to answers questions like, “Should I take this class?” or “Should I ask this girl out?” They don’t have a place to come home for Thanksgiving and the holidays. Not surprisingly, 50% of these kids become homeless or end up going to jail.
You Gotta Believe (or YGB) helps these older kids find loving families because they believe that “no one ages out” of having a family. The organization finds families for tweens, teens, and former foster kids who are in their 20s and 30s. They are amazing!
So! Back in 2015, James and I decided to do a benefit and raise both organizations some money since the city was cutting their budget. We asked for advice from a very fancy producer-person, someone who produces big shows, and he told us it would take a full year to pull an event like this together. When we heard this, we were like, “whatevs” and put together the benefit in less than six weeks. Jordan Roth graciously gave us the St. James Theatre for the event, and we had lots of stars perform like Tituss Burgess, Darren Criss, and Megan Hilty. There was also a hilarious duet between Jane Krakowski and Tina Fey (that I co-wrote with Tina) where Jane sang “Don’t Cry Out Loud” and Tina deconstructed the lyrics. It went a little something like this!
JANE: Baby cried the day the circus came to town--
TINA: Okay the circus is traveling to her town… so we know this song takes place in 19th century Europe or present-day Rhode Island.
JANE: So she painted on a smile and took up with some clown--
TINA: Is "clown" a euphemism? Like, “Oh, boy, I dated some real clowns back in college!” Or did she literally hook up with an actual clown? It could go either way, I once had an unrequited crush on a guy who then went to clown college, so…
Here are some more highlights from the evening!
That benefit raised a lot of money. Unfortunately, afterwards, the organization that trained us to be foster parents dissolved for various reasons, but You Gotta Believe is still going strong. James and I now do a benefit for them every year! The format of the event features former foster kids and parents of former foster kids telling their story with interviews by James and I. Near the end of each segment, they talk about a song that has meant something to them on their journey, and then we have the song performed on stage by a fabulous star!
During Monday’s event, there were so many highlights—Patina Miller started the whole show with “Magic to Do” and Adam Pascal ended it by singing the first two verses of “Let the Sunshine In." And Donna Murphy talked about adopting her daughter from Guatemala with her late husband, Shawn Elliot (from Jacques Brel is Alive And Well And Living In Paris).
P.S. If you don’t know that stunning show, watch this!
While Donna and Shawn were waiting for all the details to be ironed out, and by “details” I mean there was no guarantee the adoption would go through, they would send cassette tapes of themselves talking and singing so their future daughter could hear their voices and connect with them. Donna then performed one of the songs she recorded for her then-baby, which was a lullaby-like version of “Getting To Know You” (from The King And I, the musical for which she won her second Tony Award).
During the benefit, Donna’s performance was accompanied by a slide show of personal photos showing Donna, Shawn, and their daughter, Darmia, ending with a current photo of Darmia, now a senior in high school!
Someone in the audience posted this:
Another highlight was Sharon Catherine Brown (who is about to come back to Broadway in Days of Wine and Roses) talking about the process of adopting her son, Elijah, from foster care. She mentioned that she was warned that it might not work out, and, therefore, she should never refer to herself as Mommy in front of Elijah. Well, during one visit before the adoption went through, Elijah asked if he should call her Mommy. She didn’t know what to say. Should she follow her instinct and say, “Yes!” or listen to what was drilled into her by the powers-that-be. She finally asked him, “What do you want to call me?” He said, “Mommy,” and she said that was fine! She did officially indeed become his Mommy!
The song Sharon used to sing to Elijah was “Falling Slowly” from Once. Gracie McGraw (who gets her incredible voice from country music superstar parents Faith Hill and Tim McGraw) came out and sang it for Sharon. I handed Sharon a mic before the number just in case she wanted to join in and, through tears, she spontaneously added harmony. It was so good!
My friend Gay Willis (one of the most amazing Christine Daaés ever) filmed this from backstage:
Throughout the show, James and I interviewed families that were brought together through You Gotta Believe and their stories were so heartbreaking (before the adoptions) and heartwarming (after the adoption).
One young man who was adopted as a teen told us that when he was in foster care there was no affection allowed between the foster parents and kids except handshakes. He then told us how amazing it felt when his new parents took him in and his mom hugged him for the first time.
TV actor (“Teen Wolf”), model, and former foster kid Cody Saintgnue told us that he had an injury as a baby because one of his parents put a cigarette in his eye. He told us about meeting the woman who adopted him and how she eventually upended her life and moved to L.A. because he wanted to perform. The love and joy he felt talking about her was contagious!
One mother told us about meeting her child for the first time when the young girl was still in foster care. The girl asked her if she had food. Why? Well, she explained, the foster family she lived with had a fridge with a lock on it. When she’d ask for more food, she’d be beaten. It was so shocking to hear. The beautiful part, however, was that this mom and daughter found each other through You Gotta Believe and, from what they told us, there is now plenty of eating! Then the mom talked about the best part of You Gotta Believe, the fact that the organization is always there for you. Not just up to the adoption, but forever. Years can go by, and you can call YGB for help through any situation. From what every family said, you can call at any time, day or night. At one point, her daughter ran away, and the mom immediately called You Gotta Believe. Someone helped her through every moment, ending with a reconciliation, and a big meal!
Bellamy was adopted out of foster care and talked about being a young girl desperately wanting to connect with her biological family. She told us that she was cast in the title role of Annie at 8-years-old. When she learned the song “Maybe,” it was the first time she didn’t feel so alone. The lyrics made her realize that others felt the way she did, even fictional characters! I asked her if she listened to the Annie cast album (which I call “The Red Album”) and she told me she listened to it all the time. We then spent some time obsessing about Andrea McArdle and how much she meant to Bellamy. Then James brought out our surprise guest: Andrea McArdle!
To say Bellamy flipped out is an understatement. It was a total surprise. Then, Andrea sat right next to Bellamy and sang, “Maybe.” She sounded stunning. At the end of the song, I asked Bellamy to sing the last word, and she was too emotional to do it. You can watch the whole song here:
@broadwaywiz 🎶 Wow, just had the most incredible Broadway experience at you gotta believe fundraiser! 😍🎭 I got to hear Andrea McArdle, the original Annie, sing "Maybe" from Annie on Broadway, and it was pure magic! ✨ 🌟 Andrea McArdle originated the role of Annie many years ago, and her voice is still as powerful and captivating as ever. 🎤 It's amazing to witness a piece of Broadway history live on stage! #Broadway #Annie #AndreaMcArdle #OriginalAnnie #MusicalTheatre #BroadwayLegend #IncredibleTalent #fyp #broadway ♬ original sound - Joy Rosenthal
Speaking of donations, the Broadway community was shocked by the sudden death of the hilarious, warm, and super-talented Michael McGrath. His death was so unexpected that there was a lack of financial preparedness for his funeral service. If you can, honor his memory and the contributions he made on and off Broadway by making a donation here.
Here is a great video where Michael talks about an amazing moment he had with Martin Short and the hilarious aftermath.
I’ll close with this great Broadway story Michael told me at the same Chatterbox episode from which we took the above video.
Michael’s first big Broadway musical was My Favorite Year. He was in the ensemble, understudying the leading role Benjy Stone (played by Evan Pappas). Well, right after the show opened, Evan started to get sick. Of course, like most Broadway shows, there hadn’t been any understudy rehearsals yet and Michael was so busy learning his own stuff that he hadn't worked on Benjy on his own. He went home after the show knowing that he might very well have to go on the following night. Michael sat down with his wife (the fabulous Toni DiBuono from Forbidden Broadway) and started going through his lines while she held the script. They were there for a few hours and got to a scene that began with his line. He was silent. She waited. Silence. Finally, Toni closed the book and told him, "You just don't know this part. I'm sorry but I have to go to bed." Michael wound up staying up by himself 'til 6AM (!) reviewing everything and then finally went to sleep.
The next morning, the stage manager told him he was definitely going to go on that night! Well, he did the show and, amazingly, it went great! So great that, at the end of the show, Michael was prepared to do the bows in the assigned order: the cast, then him and Tim Curry, and then just Tim Curry. Well, when he was about to leave the stage to give Tim the solo bow, Tim grabbed his arm and told him to stay. Tim then got down on one knee, crossed his sword over his chest and presented Michael to the audience. Of course, Michael started crying when it happened, and then so did I when I heard the story! So lovely.
Speaking of My Favorite Year, it also happened to be my first Broadway show. And I was also an understudy. I was the sub piano player for the regular pianist, the fantastic Joe Thalken. However, I only got to play it a few times because the run was so short, so I always call it My Favorite Week. Anybody?
One of the other understudies of note was a young blonde who covered the romantic lead. Her regular part had her coming out during the opening number wearing a box of cigarettes that completely covered her head, making her unrecognizable. Now she has two Tony Awards. Yes, it was Katie Finneran!
I kept insisting to Michael that Casey Nicholaw was also in the ensemble. He kept saying he wasn't. I kept saying he was. We were both certain. Someone in the audience looked it up and, turns out . . . he wasn't. Finally, I conceded and told Michael he was right. He said, "I am. And you know why? Because I was in the show!" Good point.
Farewell, talented and sweet man.