In what sometimes seems like another lifetime, I was a young actor and dancer in New York City hoping to ‘make it big’ and have a career on the Broadway stage.
My first year in NYC was about has hard and dispiriting as any bad TV movie might portray. I won’t go into all the trials and tribulations of getting through that first tough winter in the Big Apple, but I will jump to the good news that after several very tough auditions/callbacks, I was thrilled to be cast in a brand-new national company of the mega-blockbuster musical, CATS, as the ‘Magical Mr. Mistoffelees.’
At the age of 22, I was amazed to go from near poverty – living in a 6 floor walk-up apartment where I sat on the floor, ate on the floor and slept on the floor because I couldn’t afford to buy furniture – to making a real, honest-to-god salary in a big hit show.
Back in the day, CATS was the Hamilton of its time in terms of being a box office juggernaut. And for the two years my company was out on the road, our performances were sold out months before we’d arrive in major cities like Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Miami, St. Louis, Hartford, Baltimore and more.
Needless to say, they were heady times for a young actor. I had a good steady job, my first boyfriend (also in the show), and saw just about every state in the country. Pretty much the plan I might have had in my head.
But, with all that adulthood goodness came actual adult situations and real ‘life lessons.’
It was in those days, working alongside this group of theatre professionals, that the AIDS epidemic creeped closer and closer into my life.
Living in New York City I was aware of the horrific casualties occurring, especially in the gay community. But it was during the CATS tour that people I knew, people I worked with, were becoming ill from the virus.
Within the first year of my CATS experience, several in and around my theatre tribe passed away. Among those were our CATS dance supervisor, as well as Tony Award-winning director/choreographer Michael Bennett.
My life perspective was quickly expanding on many levels.
Rather than become numb to the news about HIV/AIDS, my company decided to do ‘something.’ What could we do though? Singing and dancing were about all the tools we felt we had.
So, we organized and produced what would be the first large-scale fundraiser to help those affected by HIV/AIDS by a touring company.
Titled ‘One Singular Sensation,’ the one-night-only benefit performance paid tribute to Michael Bennett through several segments made up of numbers from his many Broadway shows including Promises, Promises, Company, Seesaw, A Chorus Line, Ballroom and Dreamgirls.
For weeks, after evening performances of CATS, we would sneak into empty hotel ballrooms and meeting rooms to rehearse these numbers late into the night. During CATS performances, cast members were sewing and altering costumes for our ‘gala event.’
It was really my first experience of being in the middle of a visceral, community response to something bigger than ourselves.
But it became even more than that.
On the day of the event, we headed into the theater secured by the two-year-old Good Samaritan’s Project AIDS organization for the performance. That afternoon, we began to run through our numbers with no real thought as to how we were actually going to do this. I look back now and I guess we thought we’d sing really loud and turn the lights off and on.
Suddenly our crew guys showed up out of nowhere. We hadn’t asked them to pitch in because CATS was about to head into a couple of months of one week runs.
For those who don’t know, on the closing night of one city the tour crew dismantles the sets, packs up the lights and costumes, travels to the next city and immediately puts it all back together within 36 hours so we can open the following Tuesday night. Because their work was so grueling, we didn’t think to ask them to help out.
But now, here were Larry, ‘Moose,’ Al, Ric, Steve and more looking around this theater space. When we asked what they were doing, they just waved us off saying, “Keep doing what you’re doing.”
The next thing we know, lights are being focused as we rehearsed; sound equipment cannibalized from the CATS production was being installed and EQ-ed; and since Moose didn’t like the one lame spotlight in the place, he went off to rent one out of his own pocket. It was truly theater magic.
Turning to the crew guys in the midst all that chaos, I asked “Why, how…?” And I’ve never forgotten our head carpenter, a big-hearted, burly guy who truly embodied the nickname ‘Big Larry,’ saying simply, “Because it was important to all of you.”
The event – thanks to a serious dose of community spirit – raised over $36,000 that night. I recently found a calculator that adjusts for inflation which indicated in today’s dollars that would be about $82,000.
At the age of 23, I was somehow able to be ‘present’ enough to take in the specialness of the moment. And I’ve tried to remember to pay attention to subsequent episodes where life served up opportunities for activism and being involved.
Since that time, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS came into existence, more and more benefit performances occurred, and are now a regular part of the tapestry of theatre life.
It’s through chapters like these I became a better man. And a better gay.
In 1993, I jumped on a train by myself and headed from NYC to Washington, D.C., to take part in the March on Washington for Lesbian & Gay Rights. I didn’t know anyone that was marching, I just went. Arriving at the march, I just started walking with everyone. I eventually met some folks that day and made some friends I know to this day. But sometimes, you just ‘start marching.’
Throughout the years, as I experienced my own growth in activism, I learned the power of raising our voices.
I share this story because a few months ago, as the world was facing another global virus, a cast member from that company of CATS reached out to us all, reminded us of that charity event back in 1987, and asked, “What if we did something to help folks today?”
With the country facing this hideous pandemic and a raucous presidential election playing out, that overwhelming sense of community – that word again – made it clear what the answer was.
And so, 30+ years later , my company of CATS reunited for a special virtual theatrical event, With Love, Now and Forever! Cats4CovidRelief.
The event is an upbeat celebration of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s international musical hit, and a tribute to the inspiring efforts of the theatre community during these difficult times.
The 30-minute streaming event is free for everyone. Any funds raised will go to the Broadway Cares Covid-19 Emergency Assistance Fund, which supports The Actors Fund.
Since it was established on March 17, the Emergency Assistance Fund has raised over $6.8 million to help those in the entertainment community (not just actors, but backstage crew, musicians, box office personnel, wardrobe personnel) with health care, emergency financial assistance and counseling during the pandemic and work stoppage.
The video premiered last Friday, and in three days has raised nearly $20,000 for those in the entertainment community affected by COVID-19. The event will be available through October 28.
Hosting the musical celebration are Tony Award-winner Brian Stokes Mitchell, Chairman of the Board for The Actors Fund, and Tom Viola, Executive Director of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (a personal hero of mine).
Click the link for a spectacular, new performance of the show-stopping “Memory” performed by Grammy Award-winner Leslie Ellis (‘Grizabella’) and award-winning playwright/actress, Christine Toy Johnson (’Sillabub’), as well as a few more lighthearted surprises.
This virtual reunion has reinvigorated my spirit and reminded me the power of “community.”
It’s been fun to be a part of something that’s meant to help folks.
Please join us – even if you’re one of those who hate CATS the Musical – for an upbeat streaming event as we make our way to what’s next.
p.s. The event page will be removed from Broadway Cares’ website at the end of October 28, but at this writing the full With Love, Now and Forever! Cats4CovidRelief video is on BC’s YouTube channel as an unlisted page here.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent those of Instinct Magazine nor its contributors.