This past Monday night I was honored and overjoyed to attend the 4th annual Arts For Autism Broadway benefit concert!
For those of you who have not yet heard about this event, please allow me to tell you about the magic that is late June evening each year.
There’s Nothing Like It
Arts For Autism is an annual concert held at the Gershwin Theater (yes, on the set of Wicked!) to raise awareness and funds for Autism Speaks. 3 of the 4 years the event has been hosted by none other than Broadway royalty Kelli O’Hara, who has a particular connection with the cause - the third year was hosted by Christopher Jackson, who is also connected personally with the cause.
The entire evening is filled with love and joy and support as students of music, theatre, and dance from across the country (Colorado, Texas, and New Jersey to name a few) perform in their Broadway debuts alongside current Broadway performers.
Additionally, the line-up always includes various Broadway stars - Stephanie J. Block, Betsy Wolfe, Teal Wicks, Christopher Jackson, and many more - performing solos and/or speaking as to why they chose to support this wonderful event.
It’s a star-studded evening with one of the most inclusive and loving audiences I’ve ever been a part of, and it’s all put on by Believe NYC - headed by incredible Artistic Director (and one of my best friends) Jacque Carnahan - and Educational Travel Adventures, spearheaded by the brilliant and generous Michael Holzer.
Without the vision, drive, and giving spirit of these two wonderful individuals, this event could not occur.
And this is the type of event that we need. It’s inclusive. It’s positive. Its’s inspiring. And it’s filled with love.
Each year the concert has been dedicated to specific groups of people who are associated with or affected by the cause.
The second year - my first time involved with the concert - the dedication was to the parents. Hearing directly from the parents of children with autism of greatly varying degrees was incredibly moving.
They spoke about their struggles and loneliness, but also about the joys and wonders of their children. They spoke about community and how that has helped them throughout the years. And they spoke about how the arts has been a wonderful and unexpectedly useful tool in helping their children succeed both in communication and life in general.
Last year was dedicated to the siblings. Again we heard about the joys and the struggles, but in completely different ways. The love that pours from these families is undeniable proof that we need more understanding, awareness, and inclusion, and these messages are nothing short of inspirational.
On a personal note, I was immensely proud that in each of those two years a student of mine (and parent!) spoke during the concert. These students were involved as performers in the concert as well, but the pride I felt watching them stand before a packed audience at the Gershwin Theater and tell their stories can not be overstated. This is a magic that I will never forget.
This year’s dedication was to the teachers. This one got me, and got me deep.
My immediate thought and expectation was that this dedication was speaking directly to those who work with these students daily and in very specific situations - in schools, one-on-one care, home needs, etc.
Oh how foolish and shortsighted I was!
I was not prepared to feel included in this category, but it struck me during the speeches that people like myself are included. And how silly of me to forget!
The studio where I teach is an inclusive one, but I tend to forget that this is unfortunately not the norm.
I cannot tell you precisely how many places - studios, camps, programs - I have applied to, visited, or seen that do not include students with autism. And this is both depressing and wrong, in so many ways.
Not only does this fail to enrich the lives of those potential students - for there is zero doubt in my mind that the arts are an enriching tool - but it fails to enrich the lives of everyone at these places.
Inclusion is community. Community is enrichment. Enrichment is education. Education is joy. And joy is love.
I am lucky, and I forget that I am. Some of my students have autism, and the fact that I get to work with them at all is a fantastically positive influence on my life. And hopefully I’m a positive influence on their lives as well.
That’s what we celebrated on Monday. And it was a beautiful night.
Their Broadway Debut!
I would be utterly remiss if I didn’t speak about the incredible, unique, and inspiring experience that this event is for the participating students!
The previous two years I was lucky enough to be involved directly in this concert, having students of mine from Long Island as performers and having had three orchestrations of mine included last year. I have seen firsthand how this experience can change the lives of young people. I have watched them grow over a three-day whirlwind, and come out the other side as both better performers and better humans.
There’s nothing like it.
Students from all over the country travel to New York City the weekend before the concert and experience an entire vacation and rehearsal process in less than three full days.
In the months prior to making the trip, each group puts together a number to perform for the concert. They keep in communication with Jacque about what they would like to perform, the content of the number, and how it connects with the cause of the concert.
They then spend weeks and weeks rehearsing these numbers to perfection, with only one in-person visit from the Artistic Director, and also determine where to leave space in their number for whichever Broadway performer will be joining them onstage.
On the first day in the city, the student groups each do a workshop at one of the major rehearsal studios in midtown. These workshops are to make certain their numbers are as tight and ready to perform as possible, and they are headed by Broadway performers and the concert’s Musical Director (this year Meg Zervoulis of The Prom).
Then, that evening, all student groups gather together for the first time to watch Jacque’s gloriously heart-felt and inspirational one-woman show, based entirely on her theatrical career (thus far!). It’s a beautiful night watching these young people come together in awe and inspiration at Jacque’s beautiful story - not to mention her killer voice!
On the second day, the students all gather to rehearse/work through the entire show with the director - the lovely David Alpert. This is the first time the students get to perform for one another, as well as see/meet some of the insane Broadway talent. It’s a long but rewarding process!
That evening the groups are set to see Wicked at the very theater where, the following day, they will themselves be performing!
And finally, the big day three!
This long day consists of one gigantic tech process for that evening’s concert - at the Gershwin Theater - where the students hang out all day, warm up, get to walk the stage, put together their spacing for the opening and closing, space their own numbers, add the Boradway guest performers, and watch the magic of Broadway unfold before their eyes. I’ve sat through this process twice now, and it’s a blast!
And then, at long last, the concert itself. Pure magic and joy.
I wish I could describe how this affects these students, because I’ve never seen anything like it.
Pure, unadulterated joy.
Get Those Tickets!
If you’ve missed any of these concerts, then let me tell you that you have missed something you cannot and will not get anywhere else.
The first 4 years have been beautiful and wonderful, and I can guarantee that year 5 will be just as special, if not more so!
All I can say is that I hope - sincerely hope - that I will see you in the audience with me next June. <3