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Two Broadway minds develop ‘Concert for America’ to celebrate diversity

Barry Manilow (left) performed at a previous iteration of "Concert for America" in April. The series was founded by Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley (center and right). (Courtesy of Jenny Anderson)

Barry Manilow (left) performed at a previous iteration of "Concert for America" in April. The series was founded by Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley (center and right). (Courtesy of Jenny Anderson)

Concert for America

May 24 at 7 p.m.

Royce Hall

Prices vary

Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley launched “Concert for America” on the day of President Donald Trump’s inauguration.

Rudetsky and Wesley co-founded the monthly concert series to celebrate American diversity and inclusivity.

“Concert for America” brings together television and Broadway stars to perform benefit concerts. It’s aimed at uniting American people and raising money for charities including the Sierra Club Foundation, National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, National Immigration Law Center, Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The series, which began in New York City, will journey to the West Coast for its fifth edition Wednesday at 7 p.m. in Royce Hall.

“We help these charities get the word out about what they do, and we feel that we do it in an interesting way,” Rudetsky said.

[Related: Youth symphony to perform live ‘Back to the Future’ score at Royce Hall]

Rudetsky’s interest in putting on concerts for causes coincides with his experience as a pianist in over a dozen Broadway shows. Rudetsky said there is a pureness to producing a benefit concert – the production is not like a Broadway show where paychecks and dressing rooms sometimes become the main priority of performers, he said.

The couple previously hosted a benefit concert in 2014 titled “Not Since High School,” which featured Broadway performers recreating musical roles they previously performed in high school. The money raised went toward increasing access to art programs in schools, Wesley said.

After the election of Trump, Rudetsky and Wesley conceived the idea of creating a concert to celebrate American diversity and inclusiveness with the proceeds benefiting American children and their families, Rudetsky said.

We raise awareness and we also help people feel connected, and they learn a little bit about the cause,” Rudetsky said.

The project began in January when Rudetsky was in Florida working on a show. Wesley called him, and they discussed the idea of a concert series to give their 16-year old daughter Juli and the rest of America hope for the future.

With less than three weeks until Inauguration Day, the couple set to work establishing a contract for the event, finding participants, advertising the performance and securing a venue.

“There’s sanctuary cities, and we’re the sanctuary concert, doing it once a month to provide this safe space,” Wesley said.

Rudetsky’s career on Broadway as a pianist for “Les Miserables” and “Phantom of the Opera,” in addition to living in New York for more than 25 years, helped him form friendships with talents like Barry Manilow and Chita Rivera. He personally called Manilow and Rivera to invite them to perform at “Concert for America” in New York and Los Angeles.

Wesley found other artists by chance. He said he chose to ask Ingrid Michaelson to perform after finding Michaelson’s “The Way I Am” on YouTube because he felt the song captured the joyous and inclusive spirit of the concert with its lyrical message of acceptance.

“In other words, we tell the singers, no matter who they are – from Barry Manilow to anyone in the lineup – we say, ‘You’re not singing one of your sad love songs,’” Wesley said. “It’s joyous.”

[Throwback: UCLA’s EDMC hosts benefit concert to fund cancer research]

Among the performers at Wednesday’s concert will be Juan Pablo Espinosa, a Colombian actor known for his 2017 television series “La Fan.” Espinosa’s entertainment career began when he moved to America from Colombia to study acting at Emerson College, an opportunity that was not available in his home country, he said.

Espinosa will introduce actress Rivera, who is known for her roles in “West Side Story” and “Chicago” on Broadway. Espinosa said Rivera represents the Latino community and its burgeoning opportunities in the media, especially on Broadway. He said the inclusiveness of the American entertainment industry led him to apply for citizenship.

The LA concert will be Espinosa’s first appearance in “Concert for America,” a cause he personally connects with because of his experience as a Latino actor advocating for diversity in American film, he said.

“As a Latino, to have a voice and contribute, and raise awareness that unfortunately multiculturalism is not looked upon by everybody in the same way, I feel like that is what to me America represents – diversity and equality,” Espinosa said.

After their performance at Royce Hall, Rudetsky and Wesley will take the series to San Francisco and Seattle. Rudetsky hopes the concert will act as a night of relief for Americans who are too devastated to read the newspaper or watch the news in the midst of a trying political climate.

“I want (UCLA students) to feel hopeful for their future, for the future of our country,” Wesley said. “That’s really a challenging task of people right now, and I do want that when they leave Royce Hall.”

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