9:00am PT by Chris Gardner
'Stars in the House' Raises $575K for The Actors Fund
Not quite halfway through Stars in the House’s 10-hour “Vote-a-Thon” hosted by Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley, Annette Bening found herself fighting back tears, offering, “The spirit you’ve brought to this show from the beginning, it’s so human and makes everybody want to be a part of it.”
Bening was speaking directly to Rudetsky and Wesley, the indefatigable couple who launched the virtual Stars in the House on March 16 as a “combination of music, community and education.” The entertainment series recently passed a significant milestone of raising more than half a million dollars for The Actors Fund, an organization that provides lifelines for performing arts and entertainment professionals, many of whom had gigs vanish overnight due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just how they’ve accomplished that — a total north of $570,000 to be exact (as of mid November) — is also no small feat. Together, with a team of 10 paid staffers and a handful of dedicated volunteers, Rudetsky and Wesley have produced upwards of 300 episodes of Stars in the House over eight months, including concerts, performances and headline-making cast reunions from the Great White Way to Hollywood. Those who’ve reconnected include the casts of Night at the Museum, Family Ties, Scandal, Knots Landing, Frasier, Glee, 30 Rock, Taxi, Star Trek: Voyager, and musical casts from A Chorus Line, Rent, Spring Awakening, Les Misérables, Fun Home, Urinetown and others.
CBS News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook is also a regular guest, delivering the latest coronavirus updates. That means hundreds of performers have joined the pair on Stars in the House, a journey they plan on continuing until stage Broadway reopens. Asked how they were able to mobilize so quickly, Rudetsky and Wesley said in a joint phone interview that they knew their friends and peers would need the help, and they knew The Actors Fund was the organization to offer it.
“When everything shut down, I knew I was out of work,” says Rudetsky, who, in addition to credits as an author, Emmy-nominated writer on The Rosie O’Donnell Show, pianist and Broadway musical creator, hosts a SiriusXM Radio program. “We knew that The Actors Fund would be completely overwhelmed, and we said, ‘We gotta do something.’” Adds Wesley: “We immediately thought of our friends who might need help paying their rent.”
Though they started with an ambitious schedule of 14 shows per week, they are currently down to five. Rather than complain about the exhaustion levels, Wesley says the workload has been a balm. “It’s appointment TV on YouTube,” he explains. “And there’s a comfort in the regularity of seeing people and having a regular scheduling during the uncertain times. I knew that would make me not as anxious.”
Rudetsky and Wesley, best described as artists and activists who previously mounted the Concert for America series and collaborated on the Broadway production of Disaster!, have been singled out for their pandemic efforts by more than just Bening. The duo received a special Drama Desk Award and a Gotham Icon Award from the Museum of the City of New York for keeping the theater community connected and uplifted during 2020. Also noteworthy: Stars in the House was selected to be added to the web archive of the Library of Congress, a distinction that means the work will be saved as a catalog of the times.
Says Actors Fund president and CEO Joseph Benincasa: “Their drive to keep the performing arts community connected, while also raising more than $570,000 to date for The Actors Fund, is what makes our industry so wonderful. And thanks to the generosity of thousands of Stars in the House viewers and special guests — including our chairman, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and vice-chair, Annette Bening — The Actors Fund has been able to provide crucial, life-saving assistance to more than 14,000 entertainment professionals in need. We're incredibly grateful.”
Rather than bask in the praise, Rudetsky and Wesley pushed the spotlight on their loyal viewers, many of whom have opened their wallets to contribute to the cause. Without a corporate sponsor, many of the donors are plunking down in the neighborhood of $35, something Wesley credits to it being a true “grassroots show” that is being watched across the globe. “That’s been the most surprising, cool thing.”
Up next, they are looking forward to the holidays with some special content that could include cooking demos — with recognizable stars, of course. “Hopefully people won’t be traveling,” he says, as the virus continues to spread at record rates. “And people can just spend it with us.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.