Interview: Jeff Calhoun Reflects on How His Epic Covenant House Gala Became An Emmy Contender

By: Jul. 09, 2020

Interview: Jeff Calhoun Reflects on How His Epic Covenant House Gala Became An Emmy Contender

On May 18, Tony-nominated director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun pulled off a truly remarkable night of entertainment, turning Covenant House's annual in-person gala into a fully produced digital streaming concert. Not only did the event bring together more than fifty powerhouse stars, but it raised crucial funds to provide care and support to homeless and trafficked young people in 31 cities across six countries.

A Night of Covenant House Stars was co-hosted by 6-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald (CBS' The Good Fight) and CBS 60 Minutes correspondent John Dickerson and included performances and appearances by Dolly Parton, Audra McDonald, Jon Bon Jovi, Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, Rachel Brosnahan, Stephen Colbert, Morgan Freeman, Martin Short, Dolly Parton, Dionne Warwick, Stephanie J. Block, Tony Shalhoub, Charlie Day, Chris O'Dowd, Zachary Levi, Zack Quinto, Deborah Cox, Quentin Earl Darrington, Ariana DeBose, Darius de Haas, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Eden Espinosa, Jordan Fisher, Stephanie Hsu, Randy Jackson, Capathia Jenkins, Jeremy Jordan, Ramona Keller, Alex Newell, Karen Olivo, Dawn O'Porter, Laura Osnes, Benj Pasek, Jodi Picoult, Shereen Pimentel, Andrew Rannells, Keala Settle, Jake David Smith, Will Swenson, Bobby Conte Thornton, Ana Villafañe, Frank Wildhorn, Broadway Inspirational Voices, Covenant House Youth and more.

Below, director and Covenant House Board member Calhoun reflects on the epic night, which is now a 2020 Emmy Awards contender!

What were the biggest challenges you faced in putting together a show as big as this one, remotely?

Sometimes I find the best work gets done when there isn't a lot of time to think about the challenges and adrenaline becomes your muse. This certainly was the case when I was told we had 6 weeks from start date to air date. Many were concerned because I had the Coronavirus and began the process from a bed in Mount Sinai Hospital. But truth be told, marrying my two passions (directing and Covenant House) was the best medicine.

The primary challenge was trying to contextualize our programs and missions at CH with the appropriate song and/or artist. I didn't want the show to be a boring informercial yet, I didn't want any number to feel gratuitous either. For example: Jeremy Jordan, Laura Osnes and Bobby Conte Thornton were not just welcoming our viewing audience with Elton John's "Your Song." They were also introducing our audience to Covenant House so the lyric, "HOW WONDERFUL LIFE IS WHILE YOU'RE IN THE WORLD" had double the impact.

In explaining that Covenant House is in 31 cities in 6 countries, we got to see the broad reach of our sites accompanied by the lyrics to that masterpiece "Somewhere," "SOMEDAY, SOMEWHERE, WE'LL FIND A NEW WAY OF LIVING, WE'LL FIND THERE'S A WAY OF FORGIVING, SOMEWHERE." The lyrics to every song had to serve as an appropriate soundtrack to the messages of Covenant House:

- "This Is Me"- an anthem for our youth.

- "Not While I'm Around"- an ode to our Mothers and Babies programs.

- "Ain't No Mountain High Enough"- a celebration of our frontline workers, etc...

- "Casa Alianza"- an original song sung in Spanish to highlight our work in Nicaragua, Mexico City, Guatemala and Honduras.

Piecing this together was the real satisfaction for me.

Have you gone back and watched the event since?

I have not but, I've sent it to every aunt, uncle, cousin, distant cousin and everyone I've ever met.

Do any of the performances/appearances stand out as favorites?

The stars and celebrities were all dynamic. However, I love the testimonials from our Covenant House youth. Their bravery in telling their personal stories always inspires me and I think they are the best messengers to convey the power of Covenant House.

What was the biggest challenge in adapting what is traditionally an in-person event to a virtual version that is now categorized as a Variety special?

To my surprise, I quickly realized how much better we were able to integrate music with our Covenant House mission by using television production than we have in the past at our live events. For instance, Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep both read inspiring testimonial letters from two of our alumni. I didn't want our stars to upstage our alumni, so I chose to have us only hear their famous voices while we see images of our triumphant alumni on screen. I might be the only director in history that had the opportunity to have these movie stars on camera but chose to only use their voices. I believe that gave this particular segment gravitas and appropriately put the emphasis where it belonged.

What are you proudest of looking back at the amazing event that you put together?

I'm proud that so many people had the opportunity to meet some of our amazing youth and get to know the beautiful folks on the frontlines at Covenant House. I'm also extremely proud that all of us on the creative team and all the talent volunteered their time. The fact that all the money we raised could go directly to help our homeless youth during these difficult times is the most rewarding part of the entire experience.

Has working on this inspired you to create other virtual events moving forward?

Hmmmmmmm...I love live theater but, if another virtual event can help Covenant House, count me in!

Jeff Calhoun has been associated with 17 Broadway musicals. Originally a performer, Jeff's last role as an actor was to replace the vacationing Tommy Tune in My One and Only at the St. James Theater on Broadway. Since then, he has become a director and choreographer, helming productions across the US and abroad. He is currently represented on Broadway by Disney's Newsies, for which he earned his second Tony Award nomination for Best Director of a Musical. Jeff also received critical acclaim for his groundbreaking Deaf West production of Big River. A special Tony Award was presented to this production for its integration of both hearing and deaf actors. Jeff lives on the Upper West Side with his husband Michael Alicia. Jeff joined the Covenant House Board in December 2013.

Watch the epic event in full below!

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