Interview: Meet some of the organizers behind this year's GMHC CABARET AND HOWARD ASHMAN AWARD

The fundraiser on February 26, 2024 is a star-studded cabaret honoring Alan Menken

By: Feb. 19, 2024
Interview: Meet some of the organizers behind this year's GMHC CABARET AND HOWARD ASHMAN AWARD
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Interview: Meet some of the organizers behind this year's GMHC CABARET AND HOWARD ASHMAN AWARD

For years, the GMHC has been supporting people living with and affected by HIV and AIDS with services including free testing, meals and nutrition, and legal support. Their annual cabaret fundraiser has become a tradition, and this year they’re back with guest honoree Alan Menken, who said in a statement, "I am beyond honored to be given the Howard Ashman Award from GMHC, the vital and widely respected HIV and AIDS service organization. Howard was my dear friend and genius collaborator on the musicals we created together. And his memory and legacy remain deeply embedded in everything I do. I am also appreciative that GMHC continues to uplift Howard and all those who have died of AIDS-related complications. We will never forget their humanity and contributions to the world.”

James Monroe IglehartThe lineup for this year’s concert at Joe’s Pub will consist of a star-studded lineup of singers, including James Monroe Iglehart, who won a Tony award for his portrayal of the Genie in the Broadway production of Aladdin. Iglehart said in a statement, "I am so excited about being a part of this event celebrating Alan Menken and benefitting GMHC's programs and services for people living with and affected by HIV and AIDS. This man wrote the music of my music teenage life! From Little Shop to Aladdin, I dreamed of singing an Alan Menken tune. Not only did I get the dream of playing the Genie on Broadway and singing my favorite song 'Friend Like Me,' Alan also wrote an original song for me for the animated TV show Rapunzel’s Tangled Adventures. This man has changed my life, and I can never thank him enough!”

I spoke with Jason Cianciotto, GMHC’s Vice President of Public Policy and External Affairs, and his husband Courter Simmons, who will host the show on February 26th as Cacophony Daniels.

RK: How long have you been doing this cabaret to support GMHC? What was the inspiration in creating this cabaret?

JC: The first GMHC Cabaret & Howard Ashman Award occurred in 2013, when Sarah Ashman Gillespie, Howard Ashman’s sister, accepted the inaugural award on his behalf. This is the ninth event, as we had to skip two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since 2013, Ashman Award winners have included Lea DeLaria, André De Shields, the late Terrence McNally, Javier Muñoz, Kathy NajimyAndrew RannellsMichael Urie, and Tom Viola.

CS: Our inspiration came when Jason first started working at GMHC and we saw framed posters from big GMHC fundraising events that occurred in the 1980s and 90s in Broadway theaters and even Carnegie Hall, which included Broadway stars performing songs or sometimes the entire score of a show, such as Mack & Mabel, to raise money for GMHC’s services and programs for people living with and affected by HIV and AIDS. We were inspired to try to bring back the spirit of those events in a more intimate setting, using the connections we had to close friends who performed with me in various companies of Jersey Boys. One of those original performers, John Edwards, is also among those who will be celebrating Alan from the stage this year!

JC: The idea for the Howard Ashman Award was inspired when we were reminded that Howard died in 1991 due to AIDS-related complications, while watching the documentary “Waking Sleeping Beauty.” Howard and Alan Menken’s music changed the world, yet few people at the time knew that it was AIDS that took Howard from us. What impact could it have on our collective fight to end the HIV epidemic if more people were aware about this part of Howard’s life? We also learned that GMHC’s programs in the 90s included the Howard Ashman Children’s Playroom, which supported kids who either were living with HIV and AIDS via maternal-fetal transmission or who had parents who were living with HIV, which is a powerful connection.

RK: Can you give us a teaser of what to expect from this year's show?

CS: Since this year’s show is honoring Howard’s longtime friend and collaborator Alan Menken, it will feature music from their best-known works: Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Little Mermaid. We’ll also have a few gems from their more obscure catalog, such as a song from their uncompleted musical about Babe Ruth (Howard loved baseball!). And everything will be sung with a fantastic four-piece band by a bevy of Broadway stars and Tony Award winners! The program will also include new and original mashups, created by our wonderful music director Kyle Branzel, that enable us to both include more songs in the time we have and more ways for people to love them. For example, Tony Award winner J. Harrison Ghee is opening the show with “Feed Our Poissons,” a mashup of “Be Our Guest,” “Le Poisson,” and “Feed Me.” And I am thrilled to be the host as my drag-queen persona, Cacophony Daniels!

RK: Alan Menken is such a legendary composer. How do you feel about having him as an honoree?

CS: Really the honor is GMHC’s! Alan’s friendship and collaborations with Howard spanned decades and changed the landscape of musical theatre and film. The music that they made over 30 years ago is still playing, on and off Broadway, and has been remade into newer, live action films. And there is so much incredible music that Alan has created after Howard’s death with other amazing people like composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz, who is presenting the Ashman Award to Alan. We couldn’t be more thrilled to honor Alan and his continuing contributions, not only through his music, but also to the LGBTQ+ community and people living with HIV and AIDS through the work he does in remembrance of Howard.

RK: What do you think are a few of the critical challenges facing people living with and affected by HIV and AIDS?

JC: Unlike when Howard died in 1991, we now have the means to end the HIV epidemic by ensuring those living with the virus have consistent access to medications that make the amount of virus in their blood virtually undetectable and that communities most exposed to the virus can utilize a full suite of prevention tools, from condoms to pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP, which is medication that when taken as prescribed is over 90% effective at preventing HIV infection. Yet, in New York City in 2022 there were over 1,600 people newly infected with HIV. Why is this happening?

There are still so many challenges that prevent consistent access to health care and the safety and security of stable housing, nutritious food, safe education, and gainful employment, issues that drive up the number of new infections. The fact that the majority of these new infections are among people of color and gay, bisexual, and transgender communities show just how devastating racism, homophobia, and transphobia continue to be. A core reason for the Howard Ashman Award is to help raise awareness about HIV and reduce stigma, which we know will then help to reduce the number of new infections.

RK: How does GMHC work to address those issues?

JC: We serve New Yorkers living with and affected by HIV and AIDS with comprehensive, client-centered, psychosocial programs that address the structural drivers of the HIV and AIDS epidemic including HIV/STI testing; referrals for PrEP and PEP; meals and nutrition; housing; legal and immigration support; workforce development; benefits advocacy; and mental health and substance use treatment. We do community outreach to help people understand about our work, and how we can be of help to the communities we serve. Our social media work, interviews in media outlets and fundraisers offer us the opportunities to raise awareness about the critical issues of the HIV and AIDS epidemic. Partnerships with other HIV and AIDS service organizations and other organizations are effective tools in addressing the issues as well. GMHC also advocates for stronger public policies at the local, state, and federal levels.

RK: What are you most looking forward to about this cabaret and fundraiser?

CS: We can’t wait to fill the room at Joe’s Pub with music and fun and to raise as much money as possible! The fight against HIV and AIDS is far from over, and we are thrilled to bring the Broadway community together, not only to keep that fight going, but also to celebrate two people, Howard and Alan, who’ve helped to make the world more beautiful through their art and music. On a more personal note, we are excited to have this experience with our son, who has been able to attend the event with us since we adopted him in 2017. Unlike when we were teenagers enjoying Howard and Alan’s musical world, our son is among the newer generations of youth who directly know about how the HIV and AIDS epidemic impacted them, and that is important progress.

Interview: Meet some of the organizers behind this year's GMHC CABARET AND HOWARD ASHMAN AWARD

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For tickets to the GMHC Cabaret and Howard Ashman Award event, please visit www.gmhc.org. You can see a full list of performers above.




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