The 2021 virtual edition of Broadway Backwards provided an emotional and exuberant evening of musical theater performances as it explored how an isolated New Yorker faced the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic and ultimately found hope.
The unprecedented stream, which included new performances blended with favorite onstage numbers from the past, raised a record $749,555 for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York City. The total surpasses the previous record of $704,491, raised in 2019 at the last in-person version of Broadway Backwards.
The online event debuted March 30, 2021, and streamed for four days. It was produced by Broadway Cares.
The virtual show opened in a wintry, pandemic-riddled New York City, where a young man named Billy, played by Jay Armstrong Johnson, makes his way home. Following him on his commute through the city were visions of Stephanie J. Block, Deborah Cox and Lea Salonga, performing a present-day version of Dear Evan Hansen‘s “Waving Through A Window.” As he asks the divas in his mind, “Is anybody waving back at me?,” Billy distracts himself from his loneliness with wine, prescription medication and an imaginary late-night television show called Up All Night with Colella.
Hosted by Jenn Colella, Up All Night with Colella guides the theater-loving Billy through a late night deep dive of show tunes, including memorable numbers from previous editions of Broadway Backwards.
The show concluded with a star-studded version of “You Will Be Found,” also from Dear Evan Hansen. This song featured performances by Amy Adams, James Monroe Iglehart, Cheyenne Jackson, L Morgan Lee, Raymond J. Lee, Telly Leung, Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Ruthie Ann Miles, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Jessie Mueller, Kelli O’Hara, Karen Olivo, Bernadette Peters, Sis and Elizabeth Stanley with special appearances by Debbie Allen, Matt Bomer, Brenda Braxton, Len Cariou, Glenn Close, Loretta Devine, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Cherry Jones, Aasif Mandvi, Michael McElroy, Javier Muñoz, Jim Parsons, Eve Plumb, Roslyn Ruff, Tony Yazbeck and journalists Anderson Cooper, Don Lemon and Robin Roberts.
In between, Billy rode a wave of emotions reflected through his imagined conversations with Colella and her sharing of relevant clips.
Colella started the journey with a visit to the Cook County Jail for an all-male version of Chicago‘s famed “Cell Block Tango” starring Joshua Buscher-West, Marty Lawson, Alfie Parker Jr., Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva, Alex Ringler and Ryan Steele.
Darren Criss battled a case of pre-wedding jitters with the rapid-fire patter of Stephen Sondheim’s “Getting Married Today” from Company, joined by Ward Billeisen, Michael James Scott and the Broadway Backwards ensemble.
Broadway legend Chita Rivera razzle-dazzled with Kander and Ebb’s “All I Care About is Love” from Chicago surrounded by a bevy of feathery beauties, many from the original 1996 Chicago revival cast.
Gaelen Gilliland and Eric Petersen created an archetypal 1950s couple preparing for a dinner party in “One Boy” from Bye Bye Birdie where Heather Lee Bair and Marty Lawson provided same-sex distractions for the paid.
A lovestruck Bonnie Milligan sought advice from a park bench-sitting stranger in “I Met a Girl” from Bells are Ringing. As an archetypal cynical New Yorker, Debra Monk helped Milligan find herself amid a park full of LGBTQ love connections.
Tituss Burgess revived his crowd-pleasing 2015 performance of “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls with Charl Brown, Jaime Cepero, Steven Cutts, Brandon Pearson, Dennis Stowe and Curtis Wiley.
Tony Yazbeck showed off impressive tapping skills in a high-spirited “Forget About the Boy” from Thoroughly Modern Millie, joined by Eddie Korbich and brilliant ensemble dancers.
Michael McElroy and Bryan Terrell Clark pondered the question “What About Love?” in a gorgeous and heartfelt version of the duet from The Color Purple.
Ariana DeBose, from the film adaptations of The Prom and the upcoming West Side Story, showed off her impressive dancing skills in a fun and flirty rendition of Bye Bye Birdie‘s “A Lot of Livin’ to Do.”
Cynthia Erivo led a gospel-infused, roof-raising rendition of “Make Them Hear You” from Ragtime backed by the Broadway Backwards ensemble.
Andrew Keenan-Bolger delivered a hilarious take of Kinky Boots‘ wildly popular “The History of Wrong Guys” complete with a guest appearance by Kinky Boots co-star Andy Kelso.
Colella’s guided tour through the Broadway Backwards canon also includes stunning solos by Len Cariou (“The Party’s Over” from Bells Are Ringing), Carolee Carmello (“Pity the Child” from Chess) and Andrew Rannells (“The Man That Got Away” from A Star is Born). Through the journey, Colella helped Billy let go of the sadness his isolation has brought upon and to be “unapologetically, proudly you.”
The stream featured an introduction by Chasten Buttigieg and special appeals by Ariana DeBose, Debra Messing, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Tony Shalhoub and Ben Vereen.
Creator Robert Bartley returned as writer and director for this virtual version of the show. He was joined by Mary-Mitchell Campbell as music supervisor, Ted Arthur as music director and Eamon Foley as director of photography and video editor. Joshua Buscher-West joined as associate director, Nick Connors as orchestrator, Benedict Braxton-Smith as music producer and audio engineer, Matt Kraus as sound designer, Tyler Milliron as VFX Designer, Samantha Rodriguez as costume designer and Larry Smiglewski as stage manager, with special thanks to Chad Eric Murnane, CSA, and Mark Brandon, CSA, at Binder Casting.
The presenting sponsor of this year’s Broadway Backwards was Morgan Stanley. The event also was generously sponsored by The New York Times and WarnerMedia. The co-chairs of the Broadway Backwards host committee were Marc Levine, Doug Nieters, Stephen Paine and Jeffrey Trachtman.
✛ Benefactors, Sponsors and Supporters