Brian Stokes Mitchell
This Is Us
Star Trek: Voyager
On Thursday, March 12, Broadway theaters shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Two days later, married couple Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley spoke with TV star-turned-Tony Award-winner Brian Stokes Mitchell, chairman of the social/financial services nonprofit The Actors Fund, about doing a streaming series to raise funds for people in all forms of entertainment who were affected by Covid-19.
And two days after that, on Monday March 16, Stars in the House premiered with another Tony winner, Kelli O'Hara, as the first guest.
Since then, the show has raised (at press time) more than $450,000 for The Actors Fund, along the way offering a welcome antidote to the woes of life in times of Covid. Viewers from all over the world, including frontline medical personnel, have posted their thanks for the respite the show provides.
Originally focusing on Broadway musical stars at home – Mitchell had conceived the title as a riff on the word "house" as a term for the physical theater and audience and the fact that performers and viewers were now in their homes – the talk show/variety series soon expanded to include TV series cast reunions, variety artist acts and play readings.
Reunions have included China Beach, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Dallas, Desperate Housewives, Frasier, Glee, L.A. Law, Melrose Place, Smash, Star Trek: Voyager, Taxi, White Collar and current series such as Barry, One Day at a Time, This Is Us and Young Sheldon.
"There are the people that keep people alive. And then there are therapists out there, and we're sort of like, I guess, artistic therapists," says Rudetsky, a three-time Daytime Emmy nominee as a writer for The Rosie O'Donnell Show and a former Broadway pianist with an encyclopedic knowledge of musical shows and performers.
He's SiriusXM's afternoon Broadway host and also hosts Broadway-themed concerts with solo performers.
"It's really about giving people a chance to connect throughout the day and have something fun to focus on. I don't want people to think they can watch only if they donate. I want them to watch to feel connected."
Rudetsky is the host with the rapid-fire, droll delivery, who can play seemingly any Broadway song spontaneously on the piano; Wesley, who has a powerful set of pipes himself, is the calmer one and the TV fan of the two.
They launched a series on two days' notice thanks to a team and format already in place, having produced numerous star-studded concerts-with-conversations for social justice causes around the country, including one at UCLA's Royce Hall last September on behalf of immigration law.
Intended to be a solution to Broadway's hoped-for short-term closure, the New York-based show originally streamed two live episodes seven days a week at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Eastern time, reflecting Broadway show times.
With Broadway closed at least till the beginning of 2021, they've relaxed the schedule for summer, usually streaming eight episodes a week and calling on guest hosts for some shows. Live and past episodes are available on YouTube.
For all its laughs and feel-goods, the show does have a serious side. There are regular pandemic updates by CBS News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook.
For several weeks after the social unrest began following George Floyd's murder, the show benefited the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and continues to spotlight issues of concern to performers and companies of color.
And there's a deeper-than-fun reason for the unannounced guests who frequently pop in to surprise their friends: Dr. LaPook had told Rudetsky and Wesley that it's important for people in isolation to have social contact.
Easing isolation for viewers is the idea behind the television reunions as well.
"We were learning that the show was reaching such a wide audience from around the world. And we were getting emails from people all over, who were scheduling their days around the show – it was becoming appointment TV," says Wesley, a former actor-singer who is now a playwright and producer.
"And I thought, it's comfort TV for them. If I were in their shoes, what would make me feel comfortable and feel a little bit more relaxed, rather than just watching the news all day and worrying? Well, what's better than getting your favorite TV characters, those actors, together?
"Seeing them from their own living rooms, that'd be really cool. And it would make me feel less alone, because we'd been getting emails for weeks from people who were alone, self-quarantining, or under stay-at-home orders. And so, their television is their friend."
The two began asking actors they knew to round up their former castmates. "We knew Marilu Henner, and she was the one who gathered the whole gang for Taxi," Wesley says, of the first reunion. "We knew Chris Sullivan, for This Is Us. And we knew Marcia Cross, for Desperate Housewives."
For many casts, it's often the first time they've seen each other together, albeit virtually, in years. For L.A. Law, Susan Dey (Grace Van Owen), who had passed on other reunions since the show ended in 1994, participated on Stars, noting the good work Rudetsky and Wesley were doing.
"It's sweet and it's touching to see them getting connected, because that's ultimately what the show is about, emphasizing the importance of staying connected now more than ever," says Wesley, echoing Rudetsky.
"When you see familiar faces from your favorite TV shows reconnecting, it's really heartwarming and it makes you feel connected, too."
Marilu Henner (Elaine Nardo) was only too happy to ask the Taxi cast when she received the request. "Seth and James are great guys, and The Actors Fund really needs it," she says. "And we're all stage actors, so that's important, too."
Famed for her memory, Henner did find herself correcting castmates about some details of the stories they shared. As for the viewers, "I think they get a real kick out of how we relate to each other, and to see where everybody lives," Henner says. "And I think everybody looks great, and everybody's a lot of fun."
Cast reminiscences often impart facts that viewers might have long forgotten or never known. The five episodes of Dallas airing in April 1978 that comprised the first season were filmed in Texas during snowy January and February, on a different, swimming pool-less ranch than the one familiar as Southfork.
And China Beach's Dana Delany almost lost her career-defining role as Vietnam War nurse Colleen McMurphy to Helen Hunt; it was down to the two of them for the final casting decision.
Some performers have noted that they themselves have been helped by the show's primary beneficiary. "I love The Actors Fund," says Susan Kelechi Watson (Beth Pearson), who made that disclosure during the This Is Us reunion.
"They helped me when I was at my lowest point financially as a working actor. They also validated my experience, and told me I shouldn't have to be a 'starving artist.' No one had ever said that to me before. I chose to believe them from that day on."
Reunions have begat other reunions; at the end of the Desperate Housewives episode, Marcia Cross offered to organize a Melrose Place reunion and Delany volunteered China Beach.
And during the latter get-together, Robert Picardo proposed gathering the Star Trek: Voyager cast to celebrate the show's 25th anniversary.
With other plans canceled because of Covid-19, Picardo recalls, "I said, 'It might be our only opportunity to have a full-on reunion, and I think it would generate a certain amount of interest in our dedicated fan base.' Seth and James said 'Yes' right away."
Because neither host was familiar with Voyager, Picardo found common ground by telling them that many of the cast had done Broadway, and also suggested how to divide the large cast up for on-screen segments.
He first asked Kate Mulgrew (Capt. Kathryn Janeway) and once she said yes, everyone else was on board within 36 hours. Viewer response was so strong that the episode set a record for donations up to that point.
"It felt great," Picardo says of the fundraising results. "I wanted to come through for The Actors Fund and also for my colleagues, that it was a worthwhile investment of their time. They are all delighted, too."
Picardo, who played doctors on both China Beach (Dr. Dick Richard) and Voyager (The Doctor), says that the two reunions somewhat reflected their series.
"China Beach, though it had moments of humor, was primarily a drama, and our executive producer John Sacret Young wanted the cast to have a sense of mission, to tell stories that would create a dialogue and perhaps a sense of healing after the divisive war.
"Even though we all like to laugh, and the reunion was great fun, the material we talked about was different than Voyager."
Rudetsky and Wesley's own mission continues, for which The Actors Fund chair Mitchell is deeply grateful.
"Normally, we give out $2 million to 2,000 people in a year, and now we'll probably be up to $25 million by the time we hit the fall," says Mitchell, who co-starred as Dr. "Jackpot" Jackson on Trapper John, M.D. and more recently has appeared on Prodigal Son, Billions and The Good Fight.
He won his Tony Award for Kiss Me, Kate.
"A number of people I'd been talking to had come up with the same kind of idea – 'Let's do shows from the house!'– but Seth and James were far ahead of anyone else conceptually. To do what they've been doing every week – they've raised so much money and so much awareness."
Mitchell, who has recovered from his own bout with Covid-19 contracted in late March, thought the TV reunions a "brilliant idea" when he heard about them.
"So many people get so comfortable with these TV families who come into their houses, and now, you get to see them in their houses, and hear them tell their experiences on the shows and see what their relationships are like off screen," he says.
"It gives you this intimate peek into their lives, into how they think. It's a way of making the world smaller.
"When you see people being people, when you listen to these conversations, I think it makes all of us a little bit more understanding about different people's journeys. You come away a little more open, more understanding, less judgmental. It's another one of those subtle ways of communicating, 'Hey, everybody, just love one another.'"
Rudetsky and Wesley are committed to doing the show until Broadway re-opens. "That's what we're saying," Rudetsky says. "The Actors Fund needs money."
To check out Stars in the House, click HERE