UPDATE, with responses to Melania Trump’s speech: Jayne Houdyshell said last night that she didn’t mind missing Melania Trump’s live speech at the Republican National Convention, which conflicted with the New York Civil Liberties Union’s summer fundraiser. “Theater people are my peeps, and I don’t know a single Trump supporter,” Houdyshell said at NYU minutes before the benefit. Actors’ objection to Trump: “We know acting when we see it.”
Houdyshell knows acting better than most, as she won a Tony Award last month for her role in the Stephen Karam drama The Humans. “I never heard Donald Trump say anything that rang true to me,” Houdyshell continued. “His thoughts and beliefs seem to change moment to moment, depending on who he is talking to.”
Celia Keenan-Bolger’s circle is so lacking in Trump fans that when the actress encountered a man in the subway wearing a baseball cap with Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” she admired his courage, she said in an interview. “You have a lot of balls, dude, wearing that in New York City,” she recalled thinking. “You must not be from here.” Keenan-Bolger, who mobilized Broadway actors and fans for President Obama’s re-election, said she will support the Democratic nominee, although Hillary Clinton wasn’t her initial choice. “I was a Bernie supporter.”
This afternoon, New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman likened Melania Trump’s speech, which included phrases and lines from Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic convention address, to a high school caper. “Somebody thought they could get away with it,” Lieberman said in a phone interview. “But presidential politics is the big time.” Susan Blackwell, a writer and performer who hosted the benefit, said if the prospective first lady were a student in an academic setting, she’d face consequences. “As a writer and teacher of writing, I know that is possible to unwittingly ‘borrow’ from others,” Blackwell said in a text message today. “But when you compare the two speeches, it’s clear that there are verbatim passages that have been lifted.”
Blackwell said she found it interesting that whoever wrote the speech turned to Michelle Obama and not a Republican candidate’s wife. “It’s fun to think that they were aiming to steal from the best, but actually I think they were lazier than that,” Blackwell said. “Perhaps they just googled ‘Candidate wife National Convention speech’ and went with the first thing that caught their eye.” The Trump campaign hasn’t explained the similarities.
Last night, Lieberman opened the show, Broadway Stands Up for Freedom, by donning a Trump cap and appropriating his bluster. “I just love the First Amendment,” she said in her best Trump accent, getting laughs. “It’s such a major amendment.” Also: “We’re going to build a wall. A wall of separation between church and state.”
Once Lieberman discarded the Trump hat, the evening got down to the business of inspirational and educational song, dance and talk. Houdyshell read an award-winning essay by a Muslim girl at a New York City public school about the discrimination and hostility she encounters locally. Keenan-Bolger with Todd Buonopane sang William’s Doll, a 1974 song by Sheldon Harnick and Mary Rodgers, about a boy who plays with a doll instead of masculine toys. Director Liesl Tommy vividly recounted her tense but successful battle to do color-blind casting for a stage version of Frozen at Disneyland. And Erich Bergen (CBS’s Madam Secretary) , who attended the Catskills summer camp Stagedoor Manor with Lieberman’s daughter, Liana Stampur, performed a duet of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough with another Stagedoor alum, Kate Ferber. He also sang an excerpt of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s What the World Needs Now is Love, a song used for fundraising for victims of the June 12 Orlando mass shooting.
Bergen, who exuded a Hugh Jackman-like charm, was a winner with this crowd. Trump — less so.