'Saturday Night Seder' Organizer on Remote Producing as a Religious Experience

Saturday Night Seder_grid_- Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of Saturday Night Seder

The Oscar-winning composer behind the Emmy contender special and fundraiser recounts how lockdown (and Zoom) made him and so many others first-time producers.

When your parents are lovable and a touch insane, the euphemism “theatrical” is often employed to describe them. Growing up, nothing typified that theatricality more than my mom and dad’s interpretation of our Passover Seder. They’d dress in elaborate costumes (a robed Moses with a fake beard and a feminist Pharaoh, respectively) and literally drape dozens of sheets from the living room ceiling to give us an “immersive experience” of being the wandering Jews in our desert tents after fleeing from the Egyptians — just like the Jews in the Passover story we retell. I’m in my 30s now and we still do this every year.

But this March, as New York City went into lockdown, it became clear that my favorite family tradition wouldn’t go on as planned. As with so many of us lucky enough not to be reckoning with the horrors of COVID firsthand, those initial feelings of isolation, disconnection and helplessness began to sink in. Celebrating a holiday about fleeing oppression and confinement during a literal plague now felt darkly ironic and logistically impossible. The laughter, the bickering, my family’s mediocre-at-best cooking and the sense of love and community usually in abundance on this holiday would be relegated to something called “Zoom,” which we all acknowledged could never adequately translate the joy and togetherness we were increasingly desperate for.

Still, when I saw a friend tweet, “How are we going to do Zoom Seders this year?”, a group of us started to wonder if there could be a better alternative to the depressing image that the words “Zoom Seder” elicit. And that’s how a ragtag troupe of sweatpants-wearing friends from all over the country began to mount a virtual variety show to raise money for the CDC Foundation from our living rooms. An eight-months-pregnant actress, a musical theater-loving sci-fi scribe, a stand-up comedian with a canceled tour, two songwriters with no stages, a smoked fish company’s PR wunderkind and a playwright with no open theaters all got on a Zoom. It’s like the setup to a bad joke.

We shared our fears and hopes about this new landscape, and in between checking the news and bleaching our groceries, we started to concoct our dream remote Seder. There’d be songs and sketches. We discussed how we would ground one of the oldest narratives available in our tradition, but render it in a new, dynamic way that could share what we wanted from this holiday with anyone (Jewish or not) in need of connection.

Everyone threw themselves into it in a way that, honestly, could only have been a coping mechanism. People generously lent their time to give us all they had. Egos were shelved — a true miracle — and everyone pulled triple duty. Original songs were written by folks who had never worked on songs before, biblical material was adapted by atheists and blasphemous jokes about Moses were penned by people who keep kosher. Once we figured out what we wanted to do, we made a talent wish list that would fill a verse or two in Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song,” sent the word out and hoped a few would come through.

And then … so many wonderful things did. Pie-in-the-sky, long-shot, theater-kid-wet-dream collaborations started to take shape. Idina Menzel singing the Four Questions? Bette Midler playing Elijah? Shoshana Bean and Cynthia Erivo singing “When You Believe” with Stephen Schwartz on piano? Perhaps it was because so many who joined had "nothing better to do." Perhaps it was because they were feeling as uncertain as we were, craving connection. Perhaps we all just had a collective desire to use our time to raise money for an organization fighting the literal plague ravaging our country.

Producing this was unlike anything any of us non-producers had experienced. There were 17-hour Zoom calls, writers became directors, actors became editors, onscreen talent made their own props and had their spouses step in as cinematographers and sound engineers. We improvised, using iPhones and some technologies we had never heard of a week earlier. It felt like the best parts of theater camp and tech week mixed with the best Thanksgiving. And then it aired. We got to have one last Zoom call where we all watched together. Our Seder table had been extended. In the same way that the efforts behind the scenes had snowballed, so too did the reach of what we had created, as millions of dollars in small donations came in from around the world.

At the center of Passover is a statement of gratitude. There’s a word, Dayenu, that roughly translates to “it would have been enough.” Basically, to be still alive, to be relatively safe? It’s enough. Anything else is gravy. So would it have been enough for us just to channel our creative energies into making something meaningful during this time? Sure. But to find, in the process, real community, joy and a bit of hope, even without sheets hanging from my parents’ living room ceiling? Dayenu.

This story appears in the July 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.