Broadway Backwards returned March 13 to raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDs and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center by presenting a night of showtunes with a twist. The 12th annual event, which recruits Broadway favorites to perform numbers they wouldn’t typically have the opportunity to sing due to their gender identity, hit a fundraising milestone as it raised a record-breaking $522,870 for the two organizations.
The show opened with a jarring cacophony of sound bites from Donald Trump, ranging from news anchors reading his inflammatory tweets to the leaked Billy Bush recording. The latter prompted longtime Broadway Backwards host Julie White to take the Al Hirschfeld Theatre stage screaming in confusion.
“It’s okay, because we’re together, and we’ve got each other’s backs,” the Tony winner said as she introduced the show. “Tomorrow, we will fight … But tonight, kids, we’re going to sing and dance.”
Here’s how the night unfolded:
Clyde Alves, last on Broadway in On the Town, kicked off the performances with a high-energy “Tap Your Troubles Away” from Mack & Mabel. The routine featured the Broadway Backwards ensemble decked out in attire forming the complete spectrum of the rainbow.
The first duet of the night belonged to Ariana DeBose (Hamilton) and Megan Sikora (Holiday Inn), who offered a tender rendition of Cole Porter’s “It’s De-Lovely” from Anything Goes. The two set the number at a prom as the two stood-up women—with Sikora’s classic soprano and DeBose’s smooth riffs—find unexpected harmony and intimacy.
Tony nominee Andrew Rannells, most recently on Broadway in Falsettos, brought more Mack & Mabel to the stage as he performed “Wherever He Ain’t.” This was followed by Tony winner Cady Huffman tackling Little Me’s “Real Live Girl” while accompanying herself on both the ukulele and tuba, and a male take on the Chorus Line trio “At the Ballet” from three original Jersey Boys cast members: Daniel Reichard (starting the song as Sheila), Dominic Nolfi (offering harmonies as Bebe), and Michael Longoria (taking the high note as Maggie).
Keeping with the Chorus Line theme, the ensemble returned to the stage to parody “I Hope I Get It” with a Frozen twist as they brought step, kick, kick, leap, kick, and touch to “Let It Go.” This segued into Sierra Boggess lusting after fellow Frozen hopeful and Disney Theatrical alum Katie Terza (Aladdin). Returning to her The Little Mermaid roots, Boggess sang “Kiss the Girl.”
Tony-winning Broadway legend Len Cariou took the stage, and as he approaches celebrating 50 years on Broadway (beginning with his 1968 debut in The House of Atreus), he gave audiences a heart-warming rendition of the Follies anthem “I’m Still here.” Cariou—a Sondheim vet with A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd—got momentarily lost in the composer’s intricate lyrics, but quickly regained his footing to a massive ovation.
Elizabeth Stanley followed Cariou’s number with a lesser-known song: “The Sensitive Song” from Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin’s Cops: The Musical. The number showed off Stanley’s tenderness as the song began as a sweet ballad, but quickly took a turn as she belted out such lyrics as “That’s why I’m dumping you, bitch.”
The next number was introduced by Bruce Vilanch. The comedian set the scene as a gay Hollywood mogul from the 1930s when his latest find and probable boy toy, Chester Williams (played by A Bronx Tale’s Bobby Conte Thornton), greeted swooning fans both male and female. This led into a seductive and borderline kinky “Buddy Beware” from Anything Goes, the staging of which somehow managed to incorporate a metallic body suit and bubbles.
Closing the first act was The Great Comet star and recording artist Josh Groban, who, before singing, explained that one of his first professional gigs was the Actors Fund concert of Chess in 2003. This was his opportunity to take on Svetlana’s Act 2 ballad, “Someone Else’s Story,” with his signature soaring timbre.
The second act opened with Levi Kreis, who won a Tony for playing Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet, channeling another iconic singer-songwriter represented on Broadway: Carole King. Kreis took to the piano to showcase a soft cover of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”
Screen icon Kathleen Turner made her public singing debut at the event, bringing her deep tones to Henry Higgins’ “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” from My Fair Lady. After wild applause and more than a few “Brava”s, Turner joked with host White that she could then sing “Ol’ Man River” in the original key. Alas, she did not.
A pair of Rodgers and Hammerstein duets—both with a same-sex bent, naturally—followed. First, Andrew Keenan-Bolger (Tuck Everlasting) and Jay Armstrong Johnson (Quantico, On the Town) earned laughs with their take on “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” set outside of West Village gay hotspot The Monster and mixing nods to The Sound of Music’s iconic gazebo choreography with dabbing and Vogueing. Rachel York (Disaster!) and Lora Lee Gayer (Holiday Inn) followed suit with a comparatively introspective “If I Loved You,” again, with a scene set in the West Village (York gave a convincing lesbian take on Billy Bigelow).
Tony winner John Glover—last on Broadway in The Cherry Orchard—presented a poignant rendition of “Hello in There” as performed by Bette Midler on The Divine Miss M. The scene, which also featured cello soloist Emily Brausa, followed a gay man looking back on the hardships and triumphs his life as he witnesses the opening of the New York City AIDS Memorial.
Two comedic leading men of Broadway took on classic and contemporary belting standards. First, Santino Fontana revisited Frozen by performing the Oscar-winning “Let It Go.” Next, current School of Rock star Eric Petersen sang “Shy” from Once Upon a Mattress as he searched for his blind date in a reading café.
Carolee Carmello took the 11 o’clock number spot with an exhilarating rendition of the tenor aria “Pity the Child” from Chess. While many performers used interpolated scenes to provide setup and context to their numbers, Carmello managed to convey character development and depth with no added material as she belted into the microphone.
Following a speech highlighting the importance of The Center and Broadway Cares from Kathleen Chalfant, the stage legend introduced Broadway Backwards creator and director Robert Bartley, who, during his speech, paid tribute to the late Florence Henderson—a longtime ally of Broadway Cares and Broadway Backwards—and announced the record-breaking total the event had made that year.
The Color Purple Tony winner Cynthia Erivo concluded the evening with an empowering delivery of “Make Them Hear You” from Ragtime, accompanied by the Broadway Backwards ensemble and singers from Pace University and complete with an encore of the final verse. The anthem was a fitting message for the political bent the evening embraced.