Jerry Mitchell was a 32-year-old Broadway hoofer causing a sensation each night by dancing nearly naked in “The Will Rogers Follies” when he had an idea: To shake his bare bum for a good cause.
It was 1992, near the height of the AIDS crisis. Mitchell recruited seven fit fellow dancers from other Broadway shows, and on a rainy Sunday night at Splash, a since-shuttered gay club in Chelsea, they took turns undressing on the bar to raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Two shows and a tray of tequila shots later, the novice strippers had collected $8,000 — and the burlesque spectacle Broadway Bares was born.
“There were people who were confused as to why we were using a strip show to raise money for AIDS,” Mitchell, who is now a Tony Award-winning director and choreographer, said in a phone interview. “It was coming from a place of innocence,” he said, and of paucity: He didn’t have the money to attend big-ticket AIDS charity events, “but I had the drive and desire to help my community.”
Broadway Bares became a hit, outgrowing one establishment after another and becoming steadily more polished, until “we weren’t just a benefit,” Mitchell said. “We were a Broadway show.” On Sunday, that show will celebrate its 30th anniversary at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Midtown Manhattan, with performances at 9:30 p.m. and midnight.
Putting together the event — which involves more than 500 volunteer theater artists, among them performers, designers and stage managers, many busy in current Broadway shows — is a complex and hectic game of logistics, topped by a final rehearsal sprint in which the entire, one-night-only production comes together in a matter of days.
At one of those rehearsals this week, at a studio near Times Square, nearly 30 dancers were spinning, kicking and pretending to rip off their pants. Laya Barak, the director of this year’s show and a creator of the opening number, reminded everyone to “keep it sharp” and “reach from the shoulder.” More pressing, though, was the choreography of clothes. “Whatever your strippable is, that has to travel with you,” she told a group, meaning they needed to cart away their discarded layers. Other items were to be handed off to other dancers or chucked offstage.
“Are you wearing a jock or a G-string?” she asked one dancer of his attire for the show, which bares a lot but stops short of full-frontal nudity. He wasn’t sure; costumes were still being constructed and wouldn’t be ready until Saturday.
That meant Collin Heyward, the lead dancer in another piece, and his castmates wouldn’t get to practice removing his clothes until the day before opening. At the rehearsal, Heyward, who made his Broadway debut in “The Lion King” in February, attacked the hip-hop choreography with confidence but admitted to being anxious about the stripping. “It has to be seamless,” he said. “That’s an added pressure.”
With about a dozen dance routines, each with its own choreographer, Broadway Bares is a high-profile platform for emerging dance makers. The routines use a variety of styles, including hip-hop, Latin dance, ballet and aerial arts, often mashed together into new combinations. But burlesque remains the core of the artistic ethos and attitude.
“Burlesque isn’t only about being naked,” Mitchell said. “It’s about being funny. The humor is the heart.”
Still, the endgame is getting naked. And that has its complications.
The “lead strips,” as the featured dancers are known, might have as many as five layers to remove. The first one is easy, like a hat or coat. “Then it gets a little tricky,” said Nick Kenkel, who has been involved with the show for nearly 20 years and is now an executive producer. A T-shirt might get ripped away (prepared with a small cut to ease tearing), followed by a dancer’s pants, but “you have to do it in a way that the tight boxer shorts underneath don’t pop off,” he said.
Minding such fragile costumes and perfecting their precisely timed removal is a new skill for dancers more used to focusing on counts than on discarding clothes. “If you’re not pulling hard enough, it can ruin the strip,” said Jonathan Lee, the associate director and one of the choreographers for Broadway Bares.
That’s where the costume designers come in, with their tricks and tools to construct clothes that are “comfortable to dance in but aren’t going to break at the wrong moment,” the designer Sarah Marie Dixey said. Quick-rig costumes use a variety of fasteners, each with pros and cons. Dixey called herself “an anti-Velcro person,” adding, “I’m very fond of snaps and magnets. They don’t really get tangled in anything.” From the performer’s perspective, a consensus emerged: “Snaps,” Lee said. “Always snaps.”
Mishaps are inevitable, but “these are people who do this all the time,” Dixey said. “Not necessarily stripping, but being onstage and able to problem-solve in the moment.”
Mechanics aside, stripping “was a challenge for me artistically,” said Aubrey Lynch II, a former dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and “The Lion King” who performed in several early Broadway Bares shows and is now a dean and a director of education at American Ballet Theater. Despite any initial hesitation, Lynch said that what he experienced onstage was freedom — which “added another layer of performance to my toolbox and strangely strengthened my self-esteem.”
That’s a lesson Mitchell is happy for performers to learn. He sees undressing onstage not as a vulnerable act, but an empowering one. “You’re in the driver’s seat,” he said he tells dancers, reminding them that “the audience is on your side. They’re rooting for you. If you’re comfortable, they’re comfortable.”
The Broadway Bares routines, which are three to four minutes long, convey a mini narrative, and have been inspired by things like Greek myths and board games. Some choreographers have also used the dance to comment about societal issues.
In this year’s production, titled “XXX” — a wink at both the show’s age and its naughtiness — Lee reimagined a superhero number from the 2002 event to include characters like Black Panther (danced by Heyward) and Shang-Chi with dancehall music, Afro beats and stepping. “I wanted to honor what we have gained in the past 20 years,” he said.
While the inaugural Broadway Bares featured only well-toned, cisgender men, the next year’s event included women. Later iterations have gone on to feature transgender performers, disabled dancers and all expressions of sexuality. “We’ve even had straight performers,” Mitchell joked. (For all the representation onstage, though, the audience remains mostly gay men.)
When Jessica Castro was invited to create a dance this year, she knew she wanted to embrace body positivity. She cast as her star Akira Armstrong, a plus-size dancer and the founder of Pretty Big Movement dance company. “It’s about celebrating all backgrounds, all body shapes, all types,” Castro said, adding that she found stripping to be an act of agency. “It’s a shedding of all these ideals, all these constructs that society has put on us.”
Over the 30 years of Broadway Bares shows, AIDS has become a manageable condition, especially for those with access to health care and preventive drugs. But the devastation it caused New York’s tight-knit theater scene is a part of Broadway history that is woven into the show’s mission.
The event is “both a fund-raising and an educational opportunity,” said Tom Viola, the executive director of Broadway Cares who attended the first Bares at Splash. (It has raised more than $22 million to date for Broadway Cares to support health and social services for entertainment professionals both locally and nationwide, crucially during the coronavirus pandemic.)
As part of the rehearsal period, the organization helps dancers, most of whom did not experience the worst of the AIDS epidemic, “understand the anger, sorrow, loss and stigma that first propelled us into action,” Viola said. At this week’s rehearsal, dancers were given profiles of beneficiary organizations and encouraged to step up their own online fund-raising efforts.
And while Barak is concerned with all the usual elements of directing a show of this scale, she is also asking: “How do we keep that flame going into the future to continue raising money for Broadway Cares and continue this tradition of community?”
But in the meantime, back at rehearsal, she was ready for another run-through.
“Going from the pants strip!” she yelled.