One of the most important and inspiring events to take place in Manhattan this fall will be happening October 28 at Town Hall, when the 17th annual Broadway Stands Up for Freedom concert will be held. Co-founded by Erich Bergen (“Jersey Boys,” “Madam Secretary”) and Liana Stampur, the annual extravaganza is a joint fundraising event by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and the American Civil Liberties Union, and this year’s special focus is transgender rights and women’s reproductive freedom.
Among the honorees this year is Celia Keenan-Bolger, who won Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critic Circle Awards for her turn as Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird” and is also a founding member of the annual concert’s planning committee.
Overseeing the whole shebang will be Donna Lieberman, for nearly 20 years now the executive director of the New York chapter of the NYCLU, which was active in the successful marriage equality litigation of past years and is currently engaged in the efforts to win nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ Americans in the courts — among its many activities in defense of civil liberties and rights.
I had the pleasure of meeting with the articulate, warm, and quite fun Lieberman on October 16 in her office at the very bottom of Manhattan, with a magnificent view of the greatest harbor in the world. When I told her she had long been familiar even to apolitical me, as one of the indefatigable good guys and gals in our city, she demurred, “Aw, I’m camera shy,” then seeing my reaction, added, “I’m being self-deprecating!” In fact her favorite pictures are ones where she is photographed with the late marriage equality pioneer Edie Windsor and with a group of mothers whose children were killed as victims of the NYPD’s broken windows enforcement policy.
I observed how with marriage rights won four years ago, many in the LGBTQ community may have begun to take the work and achievements of groups like the NYCLU and the ACLU for granted — with basic human rights in this country assumed to be finally set in stone and inviolate. Then Donald Trump was elected, and everything changed.
“And, of course, now with all manner of threats to democracy spilling out of the White House on a daily basis, our work is more important than ever,” Lieberman observed. “And it is gratifying to see millennials, whom it’s seemingly so easy to criticize, connecting with us and really rallying. The NYCLU has set up many on-campus organizations for activism, especially in the wake of Charlottesville, the immigration camp, and other developments put forth by this administration.”
Lieberman whose own father was a victim of the McCarthy era and lost his job, is especially excited abut this year’s concert.
“The Broadway community has always been maybe my favorite ally, so giving and generous, and, really, in these times, what could be better than for everyone to come together as theater people know how to do it better than anyone?,” she said. “I am so glad we are honoring Celia, who’s been an activist forever, besides being such a brilliant performer. And that performance of hers in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ a play that relates so directly to the struggle going on now, again, well I couldn’t think of a more worthy recipient of the first Michael Friedman Freedom Award” — named for composer and lyricist who died two years ago at age 41.
“Our theme, ‘My Body My Business,’ could not be more timely at a time when women and women’s rights are facing threats, again, along with the trans community,” Lieberman continued. “How appropriate and thrilling that we have Rachel Chavkin [‘Hadestown’] as our director, along with Anne Tippe [“Octet”], to pull everything together.”
The always lovely, funny, and unpredictable Laura Benanti will host, and the range of gorgeous, gifted performers on hand this year is impressive, indeed: Kelli O’Hara, Montego Glover, Judy Kuhn, Phillipa Soo, Eva Noblezada, Shaina Taub, Alysha Umphress, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, among many others.
Also honored, along with Keenan-Bolger, will be three-time Tony-winning producer Eva Price and the founders of Level Forward (Adrienne Becker, Abigail Disney, Rachel Gould, and Angie Wang), a female-led entertainment company that has a deep commitment to producing projects spearheaded by women and people of color, along with creating innovative and oh-so welcome revenue-sharing partnerships with nonprofits.
“Now, more than ever, we must come together as a community to fight for the rights of women and trans people, especially those most marginalized because of their race, class, disability, or immigration status,” Lieberman summed up. “Art has always been a powerful cornerstone of social justice movements, and this year’s concert will continue the tradition of using music to bring people together, celebrate our victories, and inspire us for the fights ahead.”
BROADWAY STANDS UP FOR FREEDOM | “My Body My Business | Oct. 28 at 7:30 p.m. | Town Hall, 123 W. 43rd St. | Tickets begin at $32 at broadwaystandsup.com