Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The 24th Annual Easter Bonnet Competition

“Life is a blessing and then you die.” That beautiful spin on a gloomy saying was offered by the cast of Memphis yesterday at the 24th annual The Easter Bonnet Competition, the final element in a six-week fundraising effort during which Broadway and Off-Broadway performers raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (BC/EFA) and its charitable efforts.

In songs, dance, skits and jokes these show folks filled the Minskoff Theatre with energy, talent and joy, entertaining the audience as well as competing to see which show created the best Easter bonnet. The performances were lively, such as the one led by Jim Brochu, star of the one-man play Zero Hour, in which singers sang “The Bonnet” to the tune of “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof and ritualistically passed around their bonnet from person to person. Others were touching, such as the cast of Billy Elliot’s singing “The Stars Look Down . . . in West Virginia” as a memorial to the 29 miners who were killed there earlier this month, adapting this new song from one in their show.

Other shows participating with either a bonnet or performance were Dancers Responding to AIDS, Fela!, In the Heights, La Cage aux Folles, The Lion King, Mamma Mia!, Million Dollar Quartet, Next Fall, The Phantom of the Opera, R.Evolución Latina, and Wicked.

Between numbers a series of hosts offered timely humor, such as Dylan Baker’s announcement that the touring cast of In the Heights had wanted to participate via video link but they had been detained in Arizona for documentation verification, and Michael Urie’s comment that Sarah Palin wasn’t coming -- “although she can see it from her house.” “She’s still pissed that she didn’t get the lead in American Idiot,” he said.

Other rotating hosts included Chard Kimball, Tony Constantine Maroulis, Corbin Bleu, Colman Domingo, Jan Maxwell, Michael Mulheren, Laura Osnes and Loretta Ables Sayre. The poised and adorable children from South Pacific offered insiders jokes under the topic of what they had learned backstage -- you can’t get out of a math test by saying you had mercury poisoning (an allusion to Jeremy Piven’s dropping out of the 2008 Broadway revival of Speed-the-Plow using that claim) and “When I grow up everyone will be able to marry,” which drew a huge round of applause.

The diminutive Leslie Jordan made me want to see his show, My Trip Down the Pink Carpet, after he shared a funny and sensitive story from his southern childhood. His father was a high-ranking military man and “I was not the son he had in mind.” Jordan, an excitable child, remembered being taken to a wedding when he was three. He squirmed and fidgeted and wouldn’t sit still until he spotted the bride walking down the aisle and was riveted.

Later, when he was taken to see Santa Claus at the downtown department store, he proclaimed for all to hear that he wanted a bride doll for Christmas. His father was horrified, but his mother assured him that young Leslie would forget about it. When Christmas Eve came around, though, their son was excitedly talking about the bride doll Santa was going to leave for him. His mother said to her husband, “Are you going to explain it to him?” His then father put on his coat, headed out in the rare snowstorm and drove from store to store until he found a bride doll that was almost life-size for his tiny son. The next day, upon spotting the doll under the tree, Jordan said, he squatted down and “peed myself.”

The Easter Bonnet competition is being repeated today, with the winner being announced, as well as which show raised the most money from their post-show pitches during this annual spring fund drive. My friends and I over dinner voted the La Cage aux Folles hat the best, which seems appropriate since the competition began 24 years ago in the basement of the Palace Theatre with the original cast creating a few colorful hats, voting on the best with dollar bills and raising $1,200.

Since then these fundraising efforts, which this year involved more than 50 shows and touring companies, have raised $35,784,000 for BC/EFA, supporting AIDS service organizations around the world. Urie read a moving letter from one of those sponsored organizations in Charleston, SC, where recipients had been astonished to learn that their help was coming from people who work on Broadway.

The evening had begun with an appearance by, and standing ovation for, 106-year-old Doris Eaton Travis, an original Ziegfeld Follies Girl (1918-1920) who looked smashing in white pants and a glittery gold jacket. “I don’t do the things I used to,” she said, before kicking up her legs (with supporters on each arm). “I’m becoming more sedate.”

It concluded with another dynamo, Memphis costar Montego Glover, singing “Help Is On the Way,” the David Friedman song made famous by the late Nancy LaMott as BC/EFA’s anthem. It was a powerful ending, under the musical direction of Mary-Mitchell Campbell, who accompanied Glover on piano.

In a letter printed in the program, BC/EFA executive director Tom Viola wrote about how “amazing” it is that so much money has been raised over the years. “But what is most remarkable is how much more than money that ($36,784,000) figure truly represents. It is made up of tens of thousands of acts of outrageous creativity and extraordinary kindness, incredible generosity of talent, time and energy; hilarious onstage antics and heartfelt, quiet moments of remembrance and loving embrace.

“I truly cannot think of any other industry that for over two decades has put aside all contentions, controversy and competition to come together time and again, season after season in ways large and small, to raise funds collectively and offer support as a community to those facing a now wide-variety of crises and challenges.”

I have certainly experienced this generosity of spirit in the community for many years. Irving Berlin definitely got it right when he said there’s no people like show people. Congratulations and blessings to all involved. It was a wonderful evening!

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