NEW YORK — To those who view the entertainment industry and the Church as sworn rivals, it seemed like a strange duet: the Catholic Church and the Broadway performing-arts community coming together for a shared event.
Yet, in the aftermath of the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, the Actor’s Chapel — a parish in the heart of New York’s theater district — joined together harmoniously with more than 500 Broadway and New York-area performers Nov. 12 to stage the Voices United fundraising choral festival.
"Take the joy that you receive here this evening and share it with your neighbors, family, friends and the suffering communities around us," Father Richard Baker, the pastor of the Actor’s Chapel, urged the audience at the event. "We have faith on our side; therefore, no matter what happens, we will not be knocked down."
While the storm didn’t delay the Voices United concert, it had to overcome some earlier scheduling snags. Planning for the event began more than two years ago, and it was originally set to take place in February 2012 at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, with the casts of two Broadway shows committed to perform.
After it was announced that Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York would be elevated to cardinal in Rome during the same time period, this date was scrapped because many of the concert’s organizers needed to travel to Rome for the occasion.
Despite the rescheduling, the Voices United concert remained just as grand of an occasion. Headlined by Broadway stars Linda Eder (of Jekyll and Hyde fame) and Ryan Silverman (Phantom of the Opera) and emceed by Raymond Arroyo, host of EWTN’s The World Over show, it took place on the same Beacon Theater stage on New York’s Upper West Side that hosts Broadway’s prestigious Tony Awards.
Proceeds benefitted the outreach ministries of the Actor’s Chapel, particularly Covenant House New York. Covenant House provides housing and care for homeless youth who would otherwise be forced to live on the streets of the city. According to its executive director, Jim White, the ministry has taken in several mothers and children recently displaced by the storm.
Voices of Unity
As the master of ceremonies, Arroyo opened the evening by reminding the audience, "We are here tonight, at a time where there are so many voices of disunity, to come together. Our efforts and our cause here this evening point us to the common good."
Unity and the common good were themes that resonated throughout the night, both in the spoken word and in the song selections.
According to Mark Pacoe, director of music at the Actor’s Chapel and co-artistic director of Voices United, "The Actor’s Chapel is in the center of the performing-arts capital of the world. We’re very diverse, and, oftentimes, the community around us isn’t always in agreement with the Catholic Church on certain political issues. But that’s not what this event is about — this is about unity and finding areas upon where we can and do agree."
Voices United also used the occasion to grant its annual Father George Moore Award. The 2012 award was given to the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal for their commitment to the city of New York and love for its people.
Father Moore was pastor of the Actor’s Chapel from 1976-1991, a period where Times Square and the surrounding neighborhood was filled with crime, pornography merchants and other seedy establishments.
Earlier, though, the chapel had a storied Broadway connection. Constructed underneath St. Malachy’s Church in 1920 as the theater industry overtook the Times Square neighborhood to minister to its participants, it played host to numerous famous stage stars.
"Fairbanks [Douglas Fairbanks Jr.] married Joan Crawford at St. Malachy’s. Herb Shriner’s children were baptized here," the church’s website recounts proudly. "Thousands jammed West 49th Street outside the church in final tribute to Rudolph Valentino. George M. Cohan, Spencer Tracy, Perry Como, Irene Dunne, Hildegarde, Florence Henderson, Elaine Stritch, Lawrence Luckinbill, Rosiland Russell, Danny Thomas, Bob and Dolores Hope and Ricardo Montalban all worshipped at St. Malachy’s. Fred Allen, Don Ameche, Cyril Ritchard, Pat O’Brien and Jimmy Durante served many a Mass."
In 1968, there were still more than 16,000 people attending the church each month, but the neighborhood had fallen into substantial decay by the time of Father Moore’s arrival. Believing it was the work of the Church — and the Actor’s Chapel in particular — to continue to serve the community and point them to Christ, Father Moore instituted a pastoral-team concept in order to help deliver a range of community services, frequently in collaboration with other local and community groups.
That legacy lives on in the Voices United initiative.
"Voices United exemplifies everything that the Actor’s Chapel believes in," said Mary Schartau, director of development at the Actor’s Chapel. "And with this event we have been given a tremendous opportunity to showcase some amazing choir music, while at the same time giving back to the people of our community who most need our help."
‘A Truly Catholic Church’
After a full 90 minutes of joyful and diverse music and song, a grateful Father Baker took the stage to thank the audience and performers for their participation in the evening’s event.
"What we have here and at the Actor’s Chapel," he reminded the audience, "is a truly Catholic church."
Christopher White writes
from New York.