‘It’s about making it all happen’: How star-studded benefit shows come together during the pandemic

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From the Concert for Bangladesh to One Love Manchester, high-profile benefit concerts have been pop culture fixtures for decades now. But on top of the logistical mountains that organizers face under normal circumstances, how do you produce an engaging, Live Aid-style spectacle when everyone’s stuck at home during the coronavirus pandemic?

That’s the challenge facing a growing list of producers and event planners at the moment, notably the organizers of Saturday’s One World: Together at Home event, which will present more than 100 famous figures, performers and personalities during a daylong digital and broadcast celebration of the front-line workers fighting COVID-19 around the globe. 

It bodes well that One World is the brainchild of Global Citizen, an advocacy group that already leverages its established entertainment and broadcast world connections — along with partnerships with corporations, NGOs and grassroots groups — for a regular concert series in its ongoing campaign for an end to extreme poverty. 

Other positive ingredients include a perfectionist pop superstar, Lady Gaga, as co-organizer; a trio of versatile hosts — Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert — who’ve gained recent experience working from home; and a cause the world can get behind: saying thanks to front-line workers.

Another boost is the bevy of famous faces involved: Canadians such as Céline Dion, Lilly Singh and P.K. Subban are among the performers and celebrities set to join the likes of Stevie Wonder, The Rolling Stones, Billie Eilish, Paul McCartney, Lupita Nyong’o, Shah Rukh Khan, Andrea Bocelli, Lang Lang, Keith Urban and David Beckham.

The goal is to create “a moment of global unity,” Hugh Evans, co-founder and CEO of Global Citizen, said in a statement Friday.  

“Our hope for the special is that everyone will come away believing that we, as a shared humanity, can emerge from this moment forever grateful for the work of doctors, nurses, teachers, grocery store workers and all those who are the backbone of our communities.”

Though the world is locked down, isolate-at-home lifestyle is a mere few months old, we’re beginning to see more of these “virtual benefit shows” popping up. But how exactly does one pull together an entertaining, engaging and — above all — resonant live-streamed fundraiser? 

Turning a video chat into entertainment

A  talented group of collaborators, an ability to roll with the punches and “flying by the seat of my pants” have helped Erich Bergen add a new section to his resumé of late: producer of live-streaming fundraiser specials.

In the hours after Broadway shut down in March, Bergen — an actor from TV’s Madam Secretary, stage musicals Waitress and Jersey Boys as well as the Jersey Boys film — reached out to theatre champion Rosie O’Donnell to pitch a virtual, one-night-only revival of her Emmy-winning talk show as a fundraiser. 

Streamed just 10 days later and packed with a galaxy of Broadway stars, The Rosie O’Donnell Show benefit raised more than $600,000 US for the Actors Fund, which offers financial, health care and other supports for those in the entertainment industry. 

Singer Josh Groban, clockwise from top left, actor Jason Alexander, actress Rachel Brosnahan and singer-actor Darren Criss were among the stars featured in Saturday Night Seder. ‘The easiest part has been being able to get to everyone, because everyone’s home,’ said producer Erich Bergen. (Saturday Night Seder/YouTube)

‘Everyone’s home’

“Some of these things have to come together in a moment’s notice, and it’s just about making it all happen,” Bergen said. “The easiest part has been being able to get to everyone, because everyone’s home.”

After O’Donnell’s special, Bergen followed up with last weekend’s Saturday Night Seder. The brainchild of Dear Evan Hansen and The Greatest Showman songwriter Benj Pasek and actor-musician Adam Kantor, it became another star-studded showcase. Loosely modelled after a traditional Passover Seder, it raised about $2 million for the CDC Foundation’s Emergency Response Fund to battle COVID-19.

Despite pivoting to teleconferencing and video chats for our workdays now, “it’s not necessarily what you want to look at when you want to relax at night and you want entertainment,” Bergen noted from his flat in Harlem, N.Y. “How do you change it up? How do you design it differently to trick the brain into thinking it’s entertainment versus work?”

For Saturday Night Seder, the creative team began with a writers room penning a script and leaned on performers to learn, film and submit their parts over a three-day period. Certain sketches were shot with teleconferencing applications. However, when best-laid plans go out the window, flexibility came into play.

Two days before their scheduled streaming date, the Seder‘s creative team decided they needed to re-evaluate. On the eve of streaming, they revised and reconfigured the entire concept, seeking out friends to help edit videos as well as musical content.

“We stayed up until about 4 or 5 in the morning on Saturday. Watched one draft at 7 a.m. [and] gave notes. Watched the next draft around 1 p.m. Sent it over to YouTube at 4. It went live at 8,” Bergen recalled.

WATCH | Erich Bergen shares tips on filming segments for a streaming benefit show:

Actor-turned-streaming producer Erich Bergen shares a few lessons he’s learned from pulling together online charity benefits The Rosie O’Donnell Show and Saturday Night Seder during the coronavirus pandemic. 1:59

Now at work on future benefit specials, Bergen says he’s learned that it’s not the biggest splash nor landing the biggest stars that make these projects successful.

“Right now, people are looking for things that are inspirational and full of joy.… It’s about community. It’s about going after [what] some would call it a niche audience, but I call it going after your community,” he said.

Another key point? “You have to take the audience on a ride,” especially when you’re fundraising, he added. “You want to balance out the entertainment with the asks to give.”

Though Bergen predicts “we’ll start to tune out eventually,” he thinks the present is a perfect moment to hook a captive audience.

“A lot of us are tuning in.”

Giving up regular programming ‘made sense’

The drive to connect communities — as well as being flexible — also motivated organizers of Canada Together: In Concert, a five-day, country music-centred series kicking off Monday.

Set to showcase superstars like Shania Twain, Luke Combs, Lady Antebellum, Dean Brody and more, it’s a collaboration between Entertainment Tonight Canada and the Canadian Country Music Association (CCMA) Foundation that will raise funds for Food Banks Canada and the Unison Benevolent Fund’s COVID-19 relief efforts.

Entertainment Tonight Canada reporter Sangita Patel is seen on a monitor during a segment for the upcoming Canada Together: In Concert series. (Global Television)

“We at ET Canada have a show every night for half an hour and so it made sense for us to give up our regular programming and do this,” said Sholeh Fabbri, executive producer of ET Canada and the concert series, which will air in ET‘s 7:30 p.m. TV slot for five nights as well as on Corus country radio stations.

Even given the changes the Canadian entertainment show has brought on since everyone began working from home, the concert series is definitely a break from normal offerings. “Once we started having conversations and more and more artists were putting their hand up and talking to us, it just felt like we didn’t have enough time to do it in one show,” Fabbri said.

“Right now, people are looking for distractions and entertainment.… We know live events bring people together, and there’s not a ton of those happening right now. And so this is our way of being live, but not live, so we’re all having a shared experience.”

WATCH | Concert series producer Sholeh Fabbri on coaching country stars about broadcast basics:

Sholeh Fabbri, executive producer of the benefit series Canada Together: In Concert, on how her team helped prep the artists filming their performances from home. 0:48

As with Bergen’s experience, Fabbri said plans for Canada Together: In Concert came together at lightning pace. The Canadian concert series will also, like Bergen’s benefits, combine pre-recorded performances with segments conducted via Zoom or Skype — an approach that makes for the best quality audio and video for audiences to enjoy, according to Fabbri.

Even with what are likely the significant resources going into Saturday’s One World: Together at Home event, “I think a number of those acts are going to be recorded.… It just has to be. It’s really difficult to do live television from that many people’s houses at the same time.”

Leading up to Monday’s debut of Canada Together: In Concert, Fabbri has a simple goal: for entertainment to turn into action.

“We are doing this in the hope that we are able to take some of that audience interest and generate some real help for our neighbours in need, because we know so many people need help.”

One World: Together at Home will be streamed globally online on Saturday beginning at 2 p.m. ET on a host of applications, including YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Twitch, Instagram, Apple and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. The final two hours will be televised beginning at 8 p.m. ET on major U.S. networks ABC, NBC, CBS as well as on Canadian channels, such as CTV, TSN, MUCH, Global, Citytv and CBC-TV, along with CBC Music, CBC Listen and CBC Gem.

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