Broadway luminaries and cheerful audience members united in full and jubilant force May 23, 2022, lending their light to celebrate LGBTQ+ lives, culture and contributions with the in-person return of Broadway Backwards.
The 16th edition of the show, which had not been performed live since 2019 because of the coronavirus pandemic, raised a record-breaking $758,582 to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York City.
Jenn Colella returned as host, leading a cast of 86 performers and a 13-piece orchestra that enchanted a standing-room-only audience at Disney’s New Amsterdam Theatre with LGBTQ+ affirming numbers.
The evening kicked off with a scorching rendition of “Le Jazz Hot” from Victor/Victoria, performed by the vivacious Matt Doyle. A 2022 Tony Award nominee for Company, Doyle stepped into Julie Andrews’ famous shoes with the help of a sizzling ensemble of Broadway Backwards dancers. What starts with Doyle cooly crooning evolves into a dynamic celebration of jazz, starting the night off with an electric energy.
Closing the evening was 2022 Tony Award nominee Joaquina Kalukango, bringing the house down with a spirited finale of Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” from Company, featuring Broadway Inspirational Voices. The finale began with a spoken word recount of the hardships and realities faced by marginalized people during the last two years. Subjects ranged from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, to the unjust killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd to the most-recent onslaught of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, including Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
Three-time Tony recipient Bernadette Peters’ recognizable tones soared above a big band rendition of “Nothing Like a Dame” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. The audience was treated to her immeasurable charm as she longed for that one person that “there ain’t no substitute for.” The audience responded with a standing ovation for Peters.
The audience couldn’t take their eyes off typically invisible “Mr. Cellophane” when portrayed by the captivating Alexandra Billings. Beginning with a compelling personal monologue that shared the actor and activist’s first time seeing a transgender person on TV in the 1970s and seeing something similar in themself, Billings delivered a heart-stopping plea to be seen and heard. Her final lyrics “everyone will know I’m there” rang loud and proud through the New Amsterdam Theatre. There was nothing “inconsequential” about this Amos Hart from Kander and Ebb’s Chicago.
Andrew Keenan-Bolger swept the audience off its feet in a cheerful reinvention of “He Plays the Violin” from 1776. Rather than pining for Thomas Jefferson, Bolger’s love interest was a dreamy violin student with skill to spare, played by Dominic Dorset. Romance bloomed in this joyous number under the watchful eye of the music teacher, played by Bill Nolte.
MiMi Scardulla was faced with the age-old question: can she change her party gal ways to marry her partner, or will she leave her at the altar? Scardulla answered this in “Get Me to the Church on Time” from Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady, backed by Aaron Craven, Kate Coffey, Danielle Erin Rhodes, Janelle Farias Sando and the character-rich Broadway Backwards ensemble.
Mrs. Doubtfire’s J. Harrison Ghee sashayed to Z Infante’s rescue as their fabulous Fairy Godperson in a reimagining of “Impossible” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Infante’s deliciously scornful stepmother was played by Janelle Farias Sando, who slights and insults them saying, “You will always be who you were born to be.” During their empowering, groove-heavy duet of “Impossible,” Ghee assures Infante that living as their authentic self is more than possible.
Baritones were booming as John Riddle brought his boyfriend, played by Company’s Claybourne Elder, home to meet his family (Veanne Cox, Nick Kohn and Mallory Micheallann) in a reinvisioned version of “One Second and a Million Miles” from The Bridges of Madison County. Alienated from his family, Riddle found solace and support in Elder during this impressive showcase of Tony winner Jason Robert Brown’s duet.
Broadway mainstay Ken Page owned center stage when he delivered a velvety version of Fats Waller’s “Squeeze Me,” teasing the audience with “when you kiss me, daddy, I stay kissed.” His sultry rendition of the Ain’t Misbehavin’ classic was touchingly dedicated to the late Armelia McQueen, who originated the song on Broadway and passed away in 2020.
Eve Plumb and Mary Testa bantered and bickered like a modern-day Tevye and Golde about why they hadn’t gotten legally married yet in a revamped rendition of Fiddler on the Roof‘s “Do You Love Me?”
Kept husband Brandon Uranowitz gave a cliffhanger of a performance of “Just One Step” from Jason Robert Brown’s Songs For a New World, teetering from the edge of a contrived 57th floor New York City balcony.
Tony winner BD Wong was on the verge of a nervous breakdown while trying desperately to get ahold of best friend Pepa in “Model Behavior” from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The fabulously willy-nilly number featured costume changes, props and even a matador with support from Jake Corcoran, Mallory Michaellann and Michael Olaribigbe.
Be More Chill’s George Salazar showcased his charming vocals and vulnerability, searching for his own sweet oasis in “Somewhere That’s Green” from Little Shop of Horrors.
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, composer and 2022 Tony nominee Michael R. Jackson, who created the breakout Broadway musical A Strange Loop, picked up the microphone himself to dream of his unremarkable but true love in “Bill” from Showboat.
Putting her hosting mic aside, Colella sang an intimate and glorious rendition of “The Next Ten Minutes” from Tony winner Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years. With duet partner and Tony Award winner Lauren Patten joining, each star was matched note for note in vocal prowess.
Tony winner Lillias White found Ernie Pruneda being threatened by two bullies (Aaron Craven and Quinn Moran) shouting anti-queer slurs. White answered in song with a spectacular duet of “Stand By Me,” a beautiful example that love and support will lift those in need.
Sweeney Todd’s “Johanna,” written by Stephen Sondheim, was given a rocker redo by stellar vocalist and Tony winner Lena Hall.
2022 Tony nominee Sidney DuPont wowed with his stellar vocals in “The Man That Got Away” from A Star Is Born, his voice booming to the back of the mezzanine.
Stephen Sondheim’s iconic ballad from A Little Night Music, “Send In The Clowns,” was sung with charm and ease by Tony winner Len Cariou, who’s performed in every Broadway Backwards since its second year.
Tony winner Danny Burstein made a special appearance to discuss the impact of supporting the lifesaving work of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and The Center.
Broadway Backwards creator Robert Bartley wrote and directed this year’s return to the stage alongside associate director Adam Roberts. Bartley and Roberts joined James Kinney and Joshua Buscher-West in choreographing the show. Mary-Mitchell Campbell served as music supervisor; Ted Arthur was music director with Nicholas Connors and Nick Wilders as associate music directors. The creative team included lighting design by Craig Stelzenmuller, costume design by Tyler Carlton Williams, Jeff Johnson-Doherty, John Kristiansen and Natalie Loveland, prop design by Jenna Snyder and Alexander Wylie and sound design by Marie Renee Foucher. Jeff Brancato was production supervisor and Gregory R. Covert was production stage manager. Binder Casting’s Mark Brandon and Chad Eric Murnane served as casting consultants.
What began as a small, grassroots concert performed in the community room at The Center in 2006 has grown into a highly anticipated event presented in one of Broadway’s most beautiful theaters. In its 16 editions, Broadway Backwards has raised $6.3 million for Broadway Cares and The Center.
The 2020 performance of Broadway Backwards was canceled just days before the show when Broadway shut down. In 2021, the show persevered through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and presented a virtual show of newly filmed musical pieces and a collection of favorite numbers from past Backwards editions, reaching out to those struggling with isolation during the theatrical shutdown. The stream was viewed by more than 140,000 Broadways fans around the country.
Photos by Curtis Brown and Rebecca J. Michelson