MCC Theater’s annual gala is more than a three-course meal and a paddle raise. The company’s tentpole fundraising event, called Miscast, centers on entertainment. For the annual fête, Broadway stars play roles against their type: leading ladies croon male ballads, comic actors take on dramatic 11 o’ clock numbers. Its gala is usually in the spring, though, and like everything else thwarted by the coronavirus, it was postponed; the 2020 Miscast gala-event hybrid will finally go online Sun., Sept. 13.
“This event has sort of grown and become something of its own,” explained casting director Bernie Telsey, who serves as the co-artistic director of MCC. “It’s almost like its own brand: the Miscast event, which just happens to be a gala.”
The hot-ticket event at the Hammerstein Ballroom typically has an exclusive guest list, but this year anyone can experience the show in real time on MCC’s YouTube channel. Many theatres haved attested that virtual galas can quadruple their reach and increase small donations. As someone who has experienced Miscast solely through its YouTube trove—Katrina Lenk performing Tveye’s “If I Were a Rich Man” with a violin and an impressive eyebrow dance is a fave—I am very much looking forward to getting to witness the magic of Miscast in its entirety from the comfort of my couch.
While the past two decades of Miscast galas live on in perpetuity online, garnering thousands of views, the challenges of premiering the show on a virtual platform went beyond recording testimonials and conducting a virtual text-to-pledge campaign. The question became, as Telsey put it, “How can we pivot and actually create something that is specific to this arena of virtual programming rather than just move it?”
The answer was to create videos of recorded performances, including some past Miscast favorites, amid a lineup of all-star presenters. While the song choices are behind a veil of secrecy, the performers this year have been announced: the original cast of Hairspray, Norbert Leo Butz, Heather Headley, Rob McClure, Isaac Powell, Robert Fairchild, Joshua Henry, Ingrid Michaelson, Lauren Ridloff, Adrienne Warren, Beanie Feldstein, Leslie Odom Jr., Nicolette Robinson, and Phillipa Soo. Presenters include Jocelyn Bioh, Julianna Margulies, Raúl Esparza, Piper Perabo, Judith Light, and Thomas Sadoski. There will also be some surprise guests.
The performance lineup, which takes a year of planning, had to be rejiggered in four months. Generally, Telsey and producer Scott Galina begin to look at who will be performing what on Broadway in a given season, and then brainstorm paradoxical songs. They also consider Miscast favorites to bring back, and have a back and forth with performers about character and song selections. Telsey explained that the team looks for numbers that will “transcend, engage, and surprise” an audience. “It’s much more than just switching ages or switching the genders—it is trying to find a song that at first might be a real surprise, and then when you start listening to the lyrics in the song, you’re actually moved and affected,” said Telsey. “It makes you actually see that story in a fresh way, and when that happens, it’s so much fun.”
First the pandemic, and then the resurgence of Black Lives Matter, changed this year’s long-planned program. “We were going to do this in June, and the whole world needed to take a pause in June,” explains executive director Blake West, noting that many out-of-work actors did not want to sing what was originally planned. “Here we are in September, and we’re still in this crazy time, so we tried to give some hope and some upliftingness to the evening. We recognize where we all are, but at the same time, we want to let people feel a little bit encouraged by what could be in the future.”
The gala’s concept of what constitutes a “miscast” role has also subtly changed, as gender-swapped roles and inclusive casting becoming de rigueur in the theatre. Telsey pointed to this season’s postponed Broadway Company, in which Katrina Lenk is to star in the lead role of Bobbie. It’s even possible that the Miscast gala deserves some credit for this industry shift. For Telsey, the process of planning the event has certainly expanded his casting Rolodex.
“I think by us having to stretch and see performers in a different light makes me then go, ‘Oh my God, why didn’t we think of them for that job we were casting?'” concedes Telsey. “It does definitely bleed over to stretching my own self as a casting director so I don’t get pigeonholed.”
Beyond the much-awaited performances, the evening is designed to raise funds for the company and other causes. MCC will donate 10 percent of the money raised during the broadcast to the Mental Health Coalition, a new initiative founded by Kenneth Cole. The remaining proceeds will support MCC’s programming, including its youth company, education partnerships with New York City public schools, and its literary development work.
“We’re all just incredibly excited about the fact that it’s going to happen, and incredibly excited about what we put together, but I know that we’re all really thrilled that we are meeting what we promised we were going to deliver on,” said West. “And we’re going to deliver something pretty spectacular.”
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