“How can I help?”
The question was on nearly everyone’s mind last December after learning of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. But while most people were thinking about how to answer, one Broadway producer was taking action.
39-year-old Van Dean, who lives in Stamford, Connecticut, doesn't exactly give off the impression of a big Broadway producer. However, when he talks about the work he’s done in Newtown, you can’t help but feel his cordiality and tenderness for the community.
In a phone interview, Dean recounted the days after the shooting, and described how Newtown based composer and lyricist, Brett Boles, contacted him and posed the idea of holding a benefit concert. The only problem was that emotions were still high, and residents were only beginning to comprehend what had occurred.
“The town had been through enough funerals and memorials,” Dean told me. “We wanted to not only honor the children but honor the community as well.”
With this in mind, he posted a message on Facebook asking friends for help. In less than an hour, over a hundred actors, musicians, and friends volunteered—and in subsequent weeks, that number grew to 700.
The initial concept for From Broadway With Love had several Broadway names performing at a local high school, but the seating couldn’t hold nearly enough and was so close to Sandy Hook that Dean was afraid it would seem like the benefit was intruding on the community rather than inviting its attendance. He ultimately decided on the Palace Theater in nearby Waterbury, where a hundred Broadway stars would perform alongside 300 students from the town.
Over a dozen producers joined Dean and Boles to coordinate the event in just a month and a half. The team organized the venue, talent, transportation, lighting, and more—most of which was donated. A production that should have cost upwards of two million dollars was achieved for only seventy thousand. And while there were an uncountable number of moving pieces, no one ever doubted that the show would come together.
Michael Unger, who directed From Broadway With Love told me, “I’d never seen anything like it. We didn’t have a week of tech [rehearsals]. We had hours.”
On January 28, first responders and the families directly affected by the tragedy were provided tickets at no cost and treated to performances by Tony Award winners Brian Stokes Mitchell, Stephen Schwartz, Michael Cerveris, and Marc Shaiman as well as actors Richard Kind, Linda Eder, cast members from Sesame Street and more. But the performances from Sandy Hook Elementary School students and other Newton based groups were some of the show’s more special moments.
Not every moment in the concert was explained to the people in attendance—instead some were meant as tiny nods to the community. For example, a number of young girls from Newtown were learning songs from the musical Hairspray. Two of the girls were killed in the shooting on December 14th. So during From Broadway With Love, Nikki Blonksy, who played the lead role in the film adaptation of the musical, appeared onstage with the other girls, without any explanation or backstory.
The proceeds from the event were donated to the “Newtown-Sandy Hook Community Foundation." However, it was never about the money. “It was to help the community and to show our support. The money we raised was a drop in the bucket, but for people that attended.” One victim’s family told producers that it was the first time they had seen their daughter dance since she lost her older sister.
The benefit concert was filmed so that Newtown could watch when they were comfortable—on their own terms—and an hour-long version of the show was eventually broadcast throughout the tri-state area on certain PBS stations in late July.
But Dean wasn’t done. “We didn’t want to do one thing then leave,” he said. “We didn’t want to focus on this tragedy until the next tragedy happens. This wasn’t a one-time thing.”
Shortly after From Broadway With Love, Dean met up with Dr. Michael Baroody, a local plastic surgeon, who had started a non-profit based in Newtown called the 12.14 Foundation. Dr. Baroody personally knows a number of the families affected by the shooting at Sandy Hook and plans to build a performing arts center as a living memorial for those that were lost, but after speaking with Dean, they knew they couldn’t wait years for the building to be completed. They needed a project for the children to do that summer.
They asked Unger to helm the production, who thought it would be appropriate for the town to do Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s Seussical: The Musical—a show that follows Horton the elephant as he tries to save a small, endangered community that lives on a speck of dust. To quote Unger, it’s “about hope and joy – and even though horrible things happen in the world, hope and joy are a necessary part of moving on.” The director felt the students would relate and could express how they felt through acting, and Ahrens jumped at the offer to rewrite lyrics to better fit the children.
For the students that wanted to be involved but didn’t want to appear on stage, the producers assigned “apprenticeships,” so they could work alongside professional sound designers and stagehands. And to make sure the most students could get the opportunity to be onstage, Unger double cast the major roles. With over a hundred thousand dollars worth of costumes, props, and set pieces being donated, everyone that was a part of Seussical: The Musical saw what it’s like to be involved with a professional show. And to top it off, they had the opportunity to perform alongside Broadway actor John Tartaglia, who starred as The Cat In The Hat.
When I reached out Unger and asked him about his experience directing the students, he sent me a letter that he had given Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. It read:
“The high school performer who was playing Horton during this rehearsal was delivering the material as if he were reading it rather than writing it – he was not LIVING in the role and, therefore, transported neither him nor us. I told him that his promise to this dust speck, this time, had to be an ABSOLUTE commitment – that he had failed them before but that he had now learned his lesson. He was given a rare second chance.
“I explained that if you don’t connect to your character in a natural way, you sometimes have to use your own history as your character’s history. I told this particular actor that the dust speck and the Whos ARE Newtown. The world failed to protect Newtown one day and it is our duty to those who were lost and should be our promise to all those around us that we will never let Newtown down again. I said to him, ‘Protect that dust speck as if you were protecting your hometown. Because it is, and you are.’”
According to Unger, what followed was one of the purest acting moments he’d ever seen. “I decided to be a theater director because I wanted to change people,” he told me on the phone. “But change them in a third party way, you know. I never thought I could change people at their core. I knew it could be done, but I never saw its effect firsthand. I was humbled by it. It changed me.”
For the Newtown children, Seussical: The Musical was life changing, but for their parents, it was a return to form. One parent, whose two sons were at Sandy Hook, told me being a part of the show gave their smiles back.
What better way to help?
See the full conversation with Van Dean, Michael Unger and Richard Kind about "From Broadway With Love" on HuffPost Live HERE.