How Over 40 Broadway Stars Came Together to Sing "What the World Needs Now Is Love" at the DNC

Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley tell THR of the logistics, last-minute additions and backstage pep talks to help them sing through the tears and impact others: "It really felt like it was changing people."

Broadway banded together at the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday night, as Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Richard Kind, Debra Messing, Rosie Perez, Darren Criss and a slew of stage stars performed an emotional version of "What the World Needs Now Is Love.”

The performance followed a day of speeches centered on the theme of gun control reform by Lee Daniels, Angela Bassett, survivors of the Orlando nightclub shooting and parents of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant and more. It spurred a standing ovation from the packed Philadelphia arena, who loudly chanted, “Love trumps hate.”

“It really felt like it was changing people,” Rudetsky told The Hollywood Reporter on Thursday morning. “That’s what we talked about before we went on — Rosie Perez was nervous about singing, and I said, ‘It’s not about our voices, it’s about this message and trying to get through to people.’ And Ben Vereen said, ‘It’s really our jobs as artists to enlighten people,’ and that old chestnut of, ‘If we can change one person, we can change the world.’”

The convention commissioned the performance two weeks ago from Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley, who organized and produced the star-studded recording of the 1965 track to benefit the victims of the Orlando shooting massacre, and to aid the surrounding community. The couple was vacationing in Provincetown then, and spent all their time making calls from their hotel room.

“It was a lot of scrambling to see who was available, but it was extraordinary,” said Wesley. Some of the first to sign on were Menzel, who was already set to attend the convention but rearranged her plans to stay longer and sing, and McDonald, who is seven months pregnant. B.D. Wong flew in from San Francisco, and Bell got the day off from shooting her new show The Good Place. “She literally got up at five in the morning and flew middle-seat coach across the country to join us,” said Wesley. “All the different lengths everyone took to get there, it was so important to them.”

Convention organizers needed the full list of participants by late last week to attain security clearances, and Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless hadn’t made the deadline. “I had to beg them to say, ‘Can you make an exception? I wouldn’t want to be the person who tells our future president Hillary Clinton that Cagney & Lacey couldn’t come and sing at her convention!” laughed Wesley. The former co-stars rode a bus with the other New York-based actors, rehearsing their solo lines along the way. “[Daly and Gless] were going to split up their solo line, but decided to sing it together and put their arms around each other.”

Broadway stars at the DNC. Photo courtesy of Seth Rudetsky.

Just before singing the anthem, the group of 40-plus singers — including Adrienne Warren, Lena Hall, Montego Glover, Michael Urie and Anika Larsen — listened to the impassioned speeches from backstage. “We were all sobbing and telling each other, ‘How are we going to be able to sing if we’re all crying?’” said Wesley. Rudetsky added, “It was devastating, hearing those speeches from these parents who have the bravery to talk about their children. I can’t imagine being that brave to talk about something that tragic, and also not be filled with rage.

“But once we were doing it, it was beautiful, moving and thrilling,” Rudetsky continued. “It also felt like a rock concert — we’re all Broadway performers, we’re not used to being in stadiums. It was much bigger than a Broadway theater!

"What the World Needs Now Is Love” — the original recording also featuring Lin-Manuel Miranda, Sara Bareilles, Carole King and many more, as well as the newly-released dance remixes — is available for purchase on iTunes. Proceeds from the sale of the songs benefit the LGBT Center of Central Florida.