Only Make Believe Gala 2018: Broadway Stars Celebrate the Charity and Award Recipients Joe DiPietro and Bethenny Frankel
By Iris Wiener
Broadway’s best came out to celebrate the work of non-profit organization Only Make Believe November 5th at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. OMB consists of a dedicated team of actors and artists who create and perform interactive theatre for children in hospitals and care facilities. Who better to understand OMB’s guiding principle that freeing a child’s imagination is a valuable part of the healing process, than Broadway’s finest, most endearing performers? Theater Pizzazz spoke with guests about their affection for Tony Award-winning playwright and Founder’s Award recipient Joe DiPietro, as well as their own childhood ‘only make believe’ experiences that inspired them to find wonderment and magic in performing.
Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, who is currently working with DiPietro to get their new musical about Princess Diana ready for La Jolla Playhouse, spoke about playing the piano since the age of 7, dreaming of making it one day. “It’s going to happen,” he joked. “I still keep believing, and that’s the idea behind the wonderful organization that is OMB.” Honorary board member Brad Oscar (Something Rotten) remembers listening to Broadway cast albums and putting on shows in his basement, envisioning what it would look like on the stage. “It was very normal to me,” he laughed. “I hope that every year more and more people are exposed to knowing what OMB is and what it does and will support and encourage their work so that believing and imagining can become the norm for these kids as well.”
According to founder Dena Hammerstein and DiPietro, the organization has grown exponentially in its nineteen years. “When we started we served one hospital and twenty kids, and since then we have served over 65,000 chronically ill children,” said DiPietro. Additionally, in the past year OMB has reached different types of audiences. “This summer we went to a sunshine camp for kids with cancer, where they have a week interacting with other kids without anybody ever indicating that there is anything wrong; they are just there to have fun,” said Hammerstein. “We’re also working with the migrant children now and continue to evolve. I think that’s why OMB evolves- we don’t stay standing.”
On hand to celebrate OMB’s great achievements were artists from many of DiPietro’s wide-berth of work, including Judy Kaye, who famously did not stay standing in Nice Work if You Can Get It, when her Duchess Estonia Dulworth swung from a chandelier. Michael McGrath, who played Cookie to Kaye’s Duchess, joined her at the OMB gala for a medley from the musical. “I love working with Joe, and I love being around him because he is so supportive of people working with him,” she said of DiPietro, with whom she will reunite when she plays Queen Elizabeth in Diana after finishing a run in Anastasia on December 30th. Kaye said that her scenes in the highly-anticipated new musical are fantastic. “They’re not really long, they don’t have to be, they’re just really potent. That’s exciting!”
Kaye’s childhood ‘only make believe’ included “swashbuckling things, like pirates and westerns” in which she would pretend to be gunslingers, jefes or savers. “I was also a Jewish kid but I loved to play Catholics; I’d go out in the backyard and would cross myself!” she laughed. “’Only make believe’ was everything for me so I tried on everything for size.” Likewise, McGrath had a penchant for excitement. “A lot of times I would pretend to be an army man because it would allow me to get killed and do my falls down the hill,” he said. “I always wanted to be a stuntman- that was my make believe.” Nowadays, McGrath said that he would be the one swinging from a chandelier, given the opportunity, but instead he is looking forward to playing Stan Fields in Broadway’s Tootsie. “There are some surprises for people who are big fans of the movie,” he said of the new musical. “I think they’re really going to love it.”
Another exciting reunion to take place was in the uplifting finale, when Montego Glover, Chad Kimball and Bryan gave the lucky audience a reminder as to what made the Tony-Award winning Memphis such a special piece of theatre. Glover described the sound check as being warm, funny and exhilarating, as the team hadn’t been together on a stage since they were on Broadway over six years ago. While she said that as a child she wanted to be a flying princess (“I wanted to soar through the air, be light, and see the world through a birds eye view), Kimball said that he would pretend to be cops in epic games of Cops and Robbers. For OMB’s gala he admitted to being a bit nervous and nostalgic, remembering having first heard Bryan play “Memphis Lives in Me” fifteen years ago at his house in New Jersey. “Hearing that same song today was really special, and to honor Joe, who is so humble and works so hard for OMB and on all of his projects, makes it extra great.”
The love for OMB and DiPietro was also demonstrated with performances from artists such as Constantine Maroulis, who reminded New York why The Toxic Avenger needs to be resurrected with “You Tore My Heart Out,” a poignant, yet funny number from the musical. Bryan accompanied Jeanna DeWaal as they debuted one of the princess’ ballads in Diana. DiPietro’s All Shook Up received a nod from Marc Kudisch taking on Elvis tunes, while DiPietro’s next jukebox musical, which features a mix of Tom Jones’ hits, was brought to life by Stephanie Gibson and Autumn Hurlbert. In a show-stopping moment, Brad Oscar shared an original, jocular number poking fun at some of DiPietro’s more colorful female characters.
Reality star Bethenny Frankel was honored with the Sir Ian McKellen Award for her global philanthropic work for families in crisis through her B Strong Disaster Relief charity. After joking about the irony in the fact that she is a “reality star accepting an Only Make Believe star,” she lauded OMB. “The reality is that there is a special place in heaven for people who work with children.”
Sharing this thought was Marlo Thomas, star of DiPietro’s Clever Little Lies. “I spend so much time at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital so I know firsthand what these kids go through and feel like being surrounded by doctors and what the entertainment and the laughter does for them, it’s so healing. [OMB is] really doing the work of angels.” Thomas went on to present one such angel with the inaugural Founder’s Award. “This award has been created just for [DiPietro]. It has never been given before, so it’s not fake news to say that he is the most talented and most respected and most handsome man to ever receive it,” she joked. “[But] the real official reason that Joe is receiving this award is because he is not make believe. He is the absolute genuine article of a generous human being, and for his giving heart, his loving manner, his modesty, and because he is so prolific.”
DiPietro credits his own ‘only make believe’ with helping him learn how to write and teaching him about the intimacy of theatre. “I would lip sync to show tunes because I couldn’t actually sing them. My parents took me to see shows like Annie and The Wiz, so we always got the cast albums and then I would learn all the songs.” He went on to demonstrate Thomas’ sentiments with his closing thoughts on OMB and its future. “We have no political motives. We have no religious motives. We’re just there for any child in need. We will serve, and the work has been so remarkable.”
Photos: Iris Wiener and Debra Beattie