How a Star-Studded Tribute to Broadway Came Together in Time for the Inauguration
Seth recalls how Schele Williams, James Wesley, Charlotte d’Amboise, Audra McDonald, and more worked together ahead of the surprise.
Last Wednesday, there was a Broadway number during the inauguration celebration [check it out above] and I had to keep my trap shut about it beforehand—but now I can finally write the whole story! So, the whole thing began in Late December when James and I got a nice write-up about Stars In The House from The New York Times.
A few days later, we got an email saying “THIS IS NOT SPAM!” and it was from someone volunteering with the Biden committee. She wrote that she had seen our article and wanted to talk to us about doing something Broadway-related for the inauguration. We assumed she was a student volunteer and wondered what kind of pull she’d actually have. We looked up her name and, yes, she was now volunteering, but she had been a top official in the Obama-Biden White House (wowza!). We chatted with her about doing a number and she told us she’d get back to us. After we hung up, I started thinking about what kind of number we could do, and thought of “Let The Sunshine In” because that’s always the final song whenever James and I always do a charity concert like Voices For The Voiceless or Concert For America. Here’s one with Chris Wood, James, Melissa Benoist, Rachel Bay Jones, and more.
However, I soon thought of the lyrics before the chorus of “let the sunshine in” and realized it would be very weird to have people celebrating the inauguration while singing about a “spider web sitar.” I then remembered that the singing group The 5th Dimension solved that problem by starting with “Aquarius” and segueing into “Let The Sunshine In,” bypassing the opening lyrics. It soon wound up being a moot point because the whole thing faded out.
The inauguration team had so much stuff to handle because of how horrific things had turned [with the January 6 attack on the. U.S. Capitol Building] that it didn’t seem like they were going to add anything else to their plate. I knew that Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss would be producing the event (they do The Tony Awards and the conventions every year), so I wrote Ricky and told him I would help if he needed.
Cut to Wednesday night (one week before the inauguration): Ricky called and told me that the networks would have commercials during the inauguration celebration, but the streaming channels like CNN and PBS needed music to fill for commercial breaks. I first thought he needed a lot of music so my first choice was to have Audra and Stokes sing “Wheels of a Dream” but when I realized it would be just one song, I said it should feature a lot of Broadway performers because we’ve all been out of work and it would represent the hope of us coming back.
I mentioned “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” and we said we’d chat soon. Ricky emailed the next day asking more about why we chose that song and James wrote back that it came out in the late 60s during the height of the war, after the John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. assassinations. James wrote, “The lyric ‘Let The Sunshine In’ isn’t a Pollyana-ish saying it is now here (now that Biden it is present); it is really a plea, a hope, a need for there to be sunshine and light and hope in the world and the country. A message we all need to hear.”
However, when I mentioned “Aquarius” into “Let The Sunshine In” to Schele Williams, whom we wanted to direct the video, she thought “Aquarius” was an odd beginning and didn’t reflect what we had just been through with the pandemic, the insurrection, etc. Meanwhile, James and I wanted to start booking people, but the number still hadn’t been approved. We knew we were in a time crunch because not only did we have to see who was available to sing, but each one would have to be vetted like we all had to be when we performed at the DNC. I don’t know exactly what people were vetted for (we weren’t going to be physically at the inauguration, so it wasn’t about being an actual threat), but I assume they had to make sure each person hadn’t done something super-inappropriate in the past.
Well, the days went whizzing by and now it’s Friday afternoon. Ricky and Glenn wrote and asked what we’d choose if it was between “Seasons of Love” or “Let The Sunshine In.” James and I called Schele and we agreed that “Let The Sunshine In” was this joyous call-to-action but we thought “Seasons Of Love” really represented what we had been through, especially over the last year. Both seemed important. Suddenly, Schele and I had an epiphany: what about doing both songs?
“Seasons of Love” ends on an unresolved chord and if we ended with “Let The Sunshine In” instead, we could end with a big, joyous finish. Ricky and Glenn loved the idea and wrote back that it was a great, fresh take. Now we could finally start sending names and getting them vetted. I also had to get my band together and start recording the tracks. I’m such a tech novice, so I called Kiran Edwards who is one of my two tech gurus that does my live concert series each week. He very graciously helped me record my piano track (numerous times) and I had a base track we could start building. James got the impression we shouldn’t ask too many people because the vetting process was so lengthy, so we narrowed it down to around 30 people and I started dividing up who would sing what.
It’s an odd song—a little high for the women and a little low for the men, but I tried to divide it by who would sound best on each solo. By Saturday night, we had the solos assigned and the piano and drum track recorded but only a few people had been vetted. We decided to go on blind faith and email our assumed group of singers, hoping they would all be approved in time. At 8 PM on Saturday, we sent out emails with details for how they’d record their solos and the group sections. Schele gave acting instructions and how the shots should look. At around 9:30 PM, I started getting emails (José Llana was the first) asking if they were supposed to record to just a drum track. UGH! I had a piano track, a drum track, and one that combined them both but we had only sent the solo drum track! It’s so hilarious that people actually tried to find their tonality with just light drumming to guide them! We sent another email with the proper track attached and reminded people that the deadline for sending the video and audio tracks was 4PM Sunday. Schele asked Jabari Payne to edit the video and I asked Shelbie Rassler to mix it with me (they had both worked on our “Georgia On My Mind” that we did for Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight).
We got a ton of excellent singers, but soon I was thinking about that great “Music And The Mirror” video that was done for American Dance Machine and realized we should also have dance. I wanted to add Charlotte d’Amboise but I knew the Biden peeps were overwhelmed with vetting. Still, I asked Charlotte to film herself and we begged them to vet her. She had her friend film her and her husband Terrence Mann play the track I sent of myself singing. Well, here are some outtakes (including one from Audra after seeing Charlotte’s dancing). Enjoy!
During this Stars In The House episode, James mentioned that I had made the recording that Charlotte was dancing to. It was me, softly singing along to the piano track. My sister Nancy was watching and called me after to tell me that she was very relived. She had thought it was Terrence Mann singing during the video and kept thinking “What the hell happened to his voice!?!?!?” It was hilarious but a devastating indictment of how I sounded. I will defend myself by reminding everyone that I was marking, hunched over my kitchen counter. Also, I’m untalented.
When I sent the video of Charlotte dancing to Schele, she completely flipped out. Schele thought it so represented what Broadway is! She watched it over and over again, called her kids in to watch it, and then went to YouTube and they all watched Charlotte do “Music and the Mirror”! Schele decided that Charlotte would be the “center square” during the “Let The Sunshine In” segment.
After we added Charlotte, James and I realized we had to have Chita Rivera. It was way past the vetting deadline but James wrote a plea-filled email ending with the fact that Chita would be the only one in the video who had received the Presidential Medal Of Freedom from President Obama. It worked! They approved her and Chita appeared in the video, wearing the medal, no less.
Schele wanted the opening shot to be me playing the piano and, even though it was only three seconds, James wanted to have various family members in the shot so they could virtually be there. You can see both of our Moms, his grandparents, our doggie Mandy, our dog Maggie (who passed away in 2012), and photo of me and my siblings when I was a baby! (P.S. The whole thing had to be done again, though, because I forgot Schele had wanted the beginning of “Seasons of Love” to represent the sacrifices we made over the last year and the people we’ve lost. Well, as you can see here, I didn’t get that acting note the first time. And…reshoot!)
In conclusion, it was a mad rush, but we’re so happy that so many pitched in and we love the result. Peace out!