ARTS FOR AUTISM 2017 Raises $45,000 with Help from Kelli O’Hara and More
“There isn’t one way to tell a story,” expressed The King and I’s Kevin Moon Loh in a heartfelt speech at the Gershwin Theatre this past June 19th. “The power of song, the power of dance, it has a farther reach than just entertainment. We can do something really important.” Nowhere was the power of the arts more profoundly championed than at the 2nd Annual Arts for Autism Concert, where Broadway Superstar Kelli O’Hara returned to host the 2nd annual benefit to raise money and awareness for Autism Speaks. A spirit of inclusion and understanding filled the packed house as over 25 Broadway performers from the season’s hottest shows shared the iconic Gershwin stage with over 150 student performers from around the country. Not only did they inspire us with their songs and words of perseverance, hope, and heart, they raised over $45,000 for Autism Speaks. That number sings for itself.
O’Hara guided the audience through a night of stunning performances and stories, showcasing the profound impact that the arts have for people on the spectrum. This year’s concert was dedicated to the parents of children with autism to thank them for their incredible patience, commitment, and care. O’Hara’s best friend from childhood, Katie, and her son Finley, who is on the spectrum, joined alongside two other families to share stories and expand the narrative of what children on the autism spectrum can do. Keynote speaker Andrew Duff also shed light upon the profound impact the arts had on his life, sharing that he learned to navigate the intricate world of social cues through theater. “Nights like tonight are why I do what I do,” said O’Hara, speaking directly to her own son in the audience. For O’Hara, like Loh, music transcends entertainment. It promotes a deep, visceral level of understanding and acceptance.
Student performance groups from New Jersey, Maryland, Utah, Texas and Colorado spent months preparing for this incredible opportunity. “It’s not just a Broadway stage – it’s the Wicked stage,” exclaimed one eager student performer. Artistic Director, Jacque Carnahan, was committed not only to providing passionate students with the once-in-a-lifetime chance to perform on a Broadway stage…and the beloved Wicked stage, at that…but to encouraging students to use their talents to better the world. The joy of the evening came from the genuine feeling of community; performers at the beginning of their artistic journeys all the way to performers with Tony Awards shed their egos to share the stage and promote a cause they believed in so whole-heartedly.
Directed again by David Alpert, the show featured Broadway talent from the most critically-acclaimed titles of the season to the Box-Office sensations. Favorite numbers included a show-stopping rendition of “The Wizard and I” from 2017-Tony-nominee Stephanie J. Block, a poignant duet about the challenges of parenting from Tony-award-winning musical Dear Evan Hanson performed by Jennifer Laura Thompson and Garrett Long, a moving performance from Waitress by Shuffle Along’s acclaimed Adrienne Warren and the Moving Youth Dance Company, and a mesmerizing Hamilton medley featuring the students from Adams Davy and Broadway performers Carleigh Bettiol, Sasha Hutchings, and Betsy Struxness. The evening also included moving statements of hope from 6 students on the autism spectrum from the Shining Stars School. Their joy of basking in the spotlight (indeed – they did not want to leave the stage!) was a highlight of the evening, inspiring audience members to cheer with pride and love more akin to a sporting event than a traditional Broadway stage.
One of the most powerful moments of the evening, however, was the Broadway debut of Mina Cuesta. On the spectrum, and nonverbal as a young child, Cuesta dreams of one day performing in the show Wicked. Well, she had the rehearsal of a lifetime when she took to the stage with Kelli O’Hara to sing a magical duet rendition of “Climb Every Mountain” from The Sound of Music. Their angelic sopranos melded together beautifully. Both performers were so genuinely thrilled to be sharing the stage with one another, they both shed tears, exiting together arm-in-arm as the audience rose to their feet in a standing ovation.
The final number of the show brought the entire Arts for Autism student company to the stage. Written by Scott Evan Davis in collaboration with the students of the P94m Spectrum School, “If the World Only Knew” is the anthem of the Arts for Autism Concert, expressing that there would be no fear nor limitations if the world only knew what someone with autism could do. Led by Hamilton star Christopher Jackson, whose son is on the spectrum, Jackson was deeply connected to the lyrics and proud to close out the magical evening. Not a dry eye was left in the house, but these were tears of understanding and acceptance, compassion and empowerment.