Broadway in South Africa!
Broadway In South Africa: The Concert is a star-studded evening that will feature world-premiere songs created by award-winning Broadway composers, performed by Broadway stars. This benefit concert will raise money for the January 2009 South African initiative of a new, not-for-profit organization called Broadway In South Africa (BSA), and will take place on Monday, October 6, 2008 at 7:30PM in the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Peter Norton Symphony Space (2537 Broadway at 95th Street).
BSA commissioned composers Jeff Blumenkrantz, Bobby Cronin, Jonathan Reid Gealt, Adam Gwon, Michael John LaChiusa, Henry Krieger, Steve Marzullo, Bill Russell, Jeremy Schonfeld and Georgia Stitt to create music based on poems, stories and drawings created by African students.
The new works will be performed by Sebastian Arcelus, Stanley Bahorek, Sean Bradford, Tituss Burgess, Eden Espinosa, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Mandy Gonzalez, Frankie James Grande, Adam Kantor, Kendra Kassebaum, Norm Lewis, Julia Murney, Billy Porter, Kate Shindle and Lisa Nicole Wilkerson.
The concert will also showcase Broadway dancers Gabriel Croom, Timmothy Erlich, Kenway Kua, Ray Mercer, Brandon O'Neal, Luis Salgado, Rickey Tripp and Phillip Turner performing a powerful modern dance piece with traditional African movement, choreographed by Charles O. Anderson, artistic director and founder of Dance Theater X.
BroadwayWorld had the great opportunity to chat with the master-minds behind this ambitious concert and project. In conversation were BSA Executive Director Sean Bradford (The Lion King), BSA Concert Director Jen Bender (The Lion King Resident Director), BSA Concert Artist Kate Shindle (Legally Blonde), BSA Production Staff Adam Kantor (Rent), BSA Production Staff Stanley Bahorek (Spelling Bee) and BSA Publicist Lisa Nicole Wilkerson (The Lion King).
Eugene Lovendusky: This is such a extraordinary concert coming up … How does all of this work?
Jen Bender: Broadway in South Africa is the project, while the concert is a benefit and a launch for the project. For this concert, we got letters, essays and drawings by South African kids. Then, I contacted composers and asked them to write an original piece inspired by the material. What’s amazing is that each new song is so different. Some people took the words exactly as they were on the page and set them to music. Some people saw recurring themes about family. Some people wrote about an American’s experience looking at this culture. It’s remarkable how children’s art created even more new art.
Sean Bradford: We wanted to do something that was a little more unique and brought South African culture here. It’s not a new concept to give childrens’ poems or drawings to composers as source material – but that’s where we started for this concert. Some of the songs they have come up with are so crazily mind-blowing!
Jen: I matched-up the songs with some of my favorite Broadway friends and singers. There are 16 teaching artists going on the trips, and each teaching artist will introduce the songs during the concert – so throughout the night, the audience meets everyone involved with the project. These performers are not just singing their favorite tunes like they would at any Monday night benefit. The concert singers had to invest time to learning the brand-new music, the language. Everyone performing has tapped-into the South Africa-ness.
Kate Shindle: I am singing two songs – I’m singing songs by Jeff Blumenkrantz and Michael John LaChiusa. Unbeknownst to each other, they both used the same essay and then wrote a song from the same drawing! Jeff used it as a jumping-off point: He saw a building in the picture a little girl had drawn and started doing lots of research and crafted a whole story about this building in Johannesburg [Click Here to hear the song via Jeff's podcast]. But Michael John used exactly what was on the page, verbatim. I think both songs are fantastic and they are both totally different.
Sean: The money from the concert goes toward building our organization. Broadway in South Africa is a concert, but it’s also a new non-profit arts service organization. We’re trying to build sustainability and programs there that will have a long-term effect, so we can go annually and continue to bring more artists and really see the evolution of our work.
Jen: One of our beneficiaries is Keep A Child Alive, an organization in South Africa that raises money for children and families with AIDS. A portion of the money that we raise in the South African concerts will go to Keep A Child Alive. We will show video-packages during the concert so the audience sees where the money is going. Everything in the concert is written specifically for the concert; everyone performing is personally behind the project; and all of the organizations we are serving will be represented at the concert.
Eugene: What’re you going to do when you get to South Africa?
Stanley Bahorek: Change the world!
Sean: We have 12 crazy days. We will do a 4-day arts camp for 50 kids in a township outside of Capetown at a Center that actually has started doing arts-education programs that we’ll be working with; and bringing-in kids they haven’t worked with before. They’re going to take acting, music, dance and playwriting. We will also be rehearsing for our first benefit concert in Capetown. The concerts in South Africa benefit Keep A Child Alive – they provide Anti-Retro Viral Treatment to children who are living with HIV and AIDS. Then we fly to Johannesberg to go to the school where the kids wrote the essays. We’re in-talks to do a Master Class at Oprah Winfrey’s School for Children. We’re doing a big concert in Johannesberg with the High School Musical kids – a hugely watched reality show there. We’ll do some workshops around there. Then we fly to Durban to visit the Agape Orphanage (one of the Keep A Child Alive sites). They have an amazing choir and theatre there, nurtured by Alicia Keys, and they are the most talented singers ever! We’re doing a lot of work.
Jen: We’re going to hit the ground running. We’re going to use this trip to get things started – but we’re also going to be planting the seeds so that we may return to this work every year. We want to give the teachers these tools too, to spread the gospel of living through art.
Eugene: That is so inspirational! Why is it important for cross-cultural art to be getting attention like this?
Jen: The short answer is that, as artists, we sit around and ask: “What can we do?” If we had medicines for AIDS, we’d be down there for that. But what we have as Broadway performers is our art! By working with kids who have very little opportunity – with poor townships or still in a depression post-Apartheid – we are giving them tools of self-expression. No matter what they want to do, even if it’s not to sing and dance, we will be teaching them how to use their imagination. Anything is possible, and we’re using The Arts as one catalyst to show these kids that they have an endless future.
Kate: Cross-cultural exchange is no more important today than it ever has been – but we’re in a fortunate position of having the value and significance of Broadway giving us personally the opportunity to impact what’s going on in South Africa. That’s mind-blowing. People can just get-together with their friends and say: “I want to do this.” You don’t have to be President to change the world. Cross-cultural exchange and tolerance are not new ideas particularly in a country that had many years of slavery and Apartheid. But this is a really awesome opportunity, even for those of us peripherally involved in it by singing a couple of songs at the concert.
Stanley: In the post-Apartheid South Africa, there happens to be a lack of cultural identity…
Sean: Yeah, it’s such an interesting place. This country gained its independence – but unlike other Third-World countries, it had a complete infrastructure in-place. They had roads, technology, buildings – but then they have seven different cultures who have very strong identities there. It’s like: “Whose turn is it now?” But, as we’ve grown and learned from history, it’s not about turns. You can’t necessarily take something that happened in the past and hold people responsible for it – it’s about forward-movement. What do we do from this point on? Everyone from every side is about moving forward. But at the same time, it’s exciting for a group of diverse artists like us to show that we can work together.
Stanley: The cultural-exchange element of this project is what has most inspired me to be part of this. We’re sharing theatre and dance, but we’re also teaching them creative writing and improve – which they can use to tell their own stories!
Lisa Nicole Wilkerson: We also know that we’re going to gain from being there – we’ll learn so much from the children. We are looking to grow as artists by teaching them.
Adam Kantor: We’re not going there as preachers or missionaries – we believe there is positive work that can be done on both ends. For them and for us. Some of us have done this trip before…
Eugene: You’ve been before?
Adam: This project sort of started when we were students at Northwestern. A few years back, their acappella group, called THUNK, and about 17 of our members went to Capetown and did a mini-version of what this Broadway in South Africa trip will be.
Kate: We all know the arts can accommodate a political agenda, but they don’t have to be accompanied by a political agenda. The cool thing about a bunch of American kids going to work with South African kids, in a way, there’s a little part of improving America’s standing in the world without it having to be political.
Stanley: Like show-and-tell. Let’s all get together and sit on carpet squares.
Sean: There’s a line in a documentary video about the Agape Orphanage called We Are Together (a clip will be shown at the concert) that says “singing is one of the only things that everyone can do at once.” It’s about, what together, you can create.
Eugene: Seriousness aside, how psyched are you to be going to South Africa?
Stanley: So psyched! I’ve never been!
Lisa: This is my first time too – and I am stoked. When we got confirmation for our tickets, I danced in my house just a little bit. It’s thrilling! It’s thrilling to know that the work that we’re doing is going to be taking shake in a number of months and it’s going to change our lives. I’m a little overwhelmed just with the knowledge that we’re going to be doing this. It’s such a wonderful group of people to be working with…
Sean: I don’t know how we roped them in to do this! In our first couple of meetings, we had no idea how we were going to do this… I was literally messaging people on Facebook: “Hi, you don’t know me. I’m not a stalker, but do you want to do this?” And somehow we got 16 ridiculous people to teach. And then 36 more ridiculous people to sing in the concert and learn new music! We know that we can do it – at this point, we have nothing to lose. Only something to gain.
Jen: I don’t think you’ve ever met 16 people who are so excited to go to a Third-World Country. It’s like we’re going Disneyworld! We are so excited. I’m all South Africa all the time right now. I’m watching videos! Working at The Lion King, I am literally surrounded by it. Especially Sean, Lisa, Nicole and me: We do a show that’s based in South Africa and we work with people from South Africa… to be able to actually experience the culture that we are presenting to thousands of people every night? It seems so over-due!
Eugene: How has The Lion King been involved?
Sean: They have been so providing to us through all of the planning. They let us use the lobby! [laughs] And we shot with Deborah Cox here today too. She’s on the honorary board and that video will be shown at the concert [Also posted on the BSA website and Facebook Event page]
Lisa: The concert is really a conglomeration of artists from various shows on Broadway, but many of us on the production team happen to be from The Lion King. But because there are some South Africans in the show, they will be presenting a piece at the concert.
Eugene: On Monday, October 6, incredible vocal talents will perform incredible new compositions for an incredible cause. What do you want the audience to be talking about at the end of the evening?
Adam: [with imaginary check-book] “How many zeroes?”
Stanley: I want them to think – and excuse me for being cliché – this is some of the best that musical theatre can be. This is really interesting source material, that has multiple purposes and speaks many languages. You can’t help but be inspired by it. It’s unique and original. It’s something out of nothing that can then fuel 16 people to go across the world!
Kate: Even for those of us who aren’t going on this trip, it’s an opportunity to be inspired by each other!
Eugene: When the world-economy is on center-stage and America is holding one of the most important elections in history, you’re all an example of young people doing something for the better. How do you encourage young people to get up and do something?
Kate: You have to encourage them to find something they’re passionate about. Engaging social or political activism is about teaching them to find their voice through service.
Stanley: Just engaging people. Not talking at somebody but allowing someone to talk with you. And you can share your own passions.
Kate: I don’t think you can force people to be politically active or socially active. You can just be there to clear some of the noise out of the way if they discover it’s something they want to do. There’s something really exciting about being a young activist, because you’re not afraid of how hard it is. It’s an exciting spirit of adventure.
Adam: And also being open to other people. We’ve operated as a team. Sean is very much the heart of this project in many ways. He’s so driven, it blows my mind. But I’ve sort of latched onto his drive. It’s about finding others who share your passion or your interests – or at least being open to other people.
Lisa: As long as whatever you exude is something genuine, that’s what people feel. They know when you’re being honest and truthful. If they feel that, they can then make their own decision to come on-board or go a different route. But at least they will have an essence of what you are giving. We are all truly passionate about our art, and as a result, it’s driving us to do this project. And that essence will hopefully touch the hundreds of people on Monday. And if they’re touched, they’ll go home and talk to their family. It’s like when you drop a pebble in the water – it sends ripples out. You don’t know how it will affect people, but as long as it comes from a place of truth, then you’ve done your job.
Broadway In South Africa: The Concert – Individual tickets ($60 and $100) and are available by calling Symphony Space at 212-864-5400 or visiting SymphonySpace.org. Also, $20 tickets are available for audience members 25-years-old or younger (on-sale at 6:45PM on October 6 at box-office). VIP sponsor packages range in price from $500 to $5,000, and are available by contacting Sean Bradford, BSA founding member, at ArtForANewWorld@gmail.com or 917-370-6915, or by visiting BroadwayInSouthAfrica.com.
Broadway in South Africa (BSA) is a cooperative nonprofit venture created by professional working actors, dancers, singers, directors, musicians and producers from New York City – all brought together by their desire to affect change in the world through art and, themselves, learn from the potential of bridging the gap between two different cultures artistically. As BSA’s deep philosophy is that all children deserve the opportunity to explore their own creative potential, and should never be denied exposure to art because of their life situations, the organization’s aim is to create cross-cultural exchange between professional artists and youth in need via workshop and performance initiatives in South Africa.
Photos: Broadway In South Africa logo; (top) Frankie James Grande, (below, l-r) Lisa Nicole Wilkerson, Jen Bender, Sean Bradford, Courtney Reed & Stanley Bahorek; Kate Shindle; Jen Bender; Sean Bradford; Adam Kantor; Stanley Bahorek; (l-r) Sean Bradford, Lisa Nicole Wilkerson, Frankie James Grande, Jen Bender & Stanley Bahorek; Broadway In South Africa Benefit Concert details