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ON THE SCENE: Broadway Belts for cancer
March 1, 2019

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Ever attend a Broadway production and been wowed by a singer who can rattle the rafters? That big voice is called "belting" out a song. A good Broadway belter can give people sitting up in the nosebleed seats goosebumps. A classic belter was Ethel Merman, who paved the road for singers who could project over the pit orchestra and make sure everyone in the hall could clearly hear the lyrics of the song, particularly in unamplified halls.

Before Merman, lead singers were classically trained "legit sopranos," an example being Julie Andrews. Merman wasn't the first belter. Before her, most belters had character roles. Nor was belting the province of Broadway; it can be heard in many musical traditions along with religious singing the world over. What Merman did in the 1930 performance of George Gershwin's "Girl Crazy" was put it front and center, and provide those singers who often trained as actors an opportunity to take center stage.

More contemporary belters are Patti LuPone ("Evita"), Betty Buckley ("Cats"), and Bernadette Peters ("Sunday in the Park with George"). Belters are not confined to women; Hugh Jackman has a big voice, as does John Cameron Mitchell. Nor is belting limited to Broadway; gospel divas such as Mahalia Jackson, the Clark Sisters and Kim Burrell can raise the rafters, as can rock singers like Tina Turner and country-western singers like Reba McEntire.

For a woman, belting requires the ability to reach and sustain C5, though more recently producers seek those who can hit an F5.

On Monday evening, Feb. 25, I had the privilege of hearing some of Broadway's best at a benefit for pulmonary fibrosis held the Hotel Edison Ballroom in New York.

The invitation to attend the benefit came from my dear friends Sis and Jerry Levin, longtime peace activists in the Middle East, a career taken on after Jerry - then a CNN Middle East station manager based in Beirut, Lebanon - had been abducted and held hostage by Hezbollah for nearly a year in the Beqaa Valley. Early in his journalistic career, Jerry, along with two other producers, launched WCBS Radio's 24-hour all-news radio station in 1967 in New York City - a harbinger of what was to come with CNN, MSNBC and Fox News along with public radio.

I met Jerry through Sis, then a mover in Birmingham, Alabama's local arts community. A mutual friend thought we'd hit it off, and we did, now counting our friendship over four decades. Another passion in common was music; for Jerry, that meant opera. Back when I was directing events at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, Jerry introduced me to his good friend Victor Callegari, lead makeup artist for the Metropolitan Opera. I loved watching him work; he was like an Impressionist painter, creating a personality with just a few quick strokes of his fingers. And then, of course, there was the music.

So when Sis and Jerry extended the invitation and said Victor would be there, along with others passionate about the arts, my response was an instant yes. Further, my main passion is promoting the arts as a vehicle for healing; thus to be in a room filled with people using their talents to that end - a slam dunk. No was not an option.

Jerry's former colleague Ralph Howard joined WCBS a few years after the station went all news, first as a writer and then as a producer. After a few years, Jerry left the station and Howard went on developing a career as radio news anchor first in Chicago and later on WINS, and all-news station in New York. He was on air when the 9/11 terrorist attack took place and, following his shift, covered the event for the next several days from Ground Zero. Tragically, several years later he acquired pulmonary fibrosis, not uncommon by 9/11 survivors and first responders. In time, Howard lost a lung and died as a result of the disease last year.

While at WINS, Howard married the Broadway comedian actress-singer Julie Halston, one of the most beloved performers in the city, known for her roles in "You Can't Take It With You," "Hairspray," "Gypsy" and "Anything Goes," among many others, as well as such television hits as "Sex in the City." When their friend, Associated Press theater critic Michael Kuchwara, caught idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and died, they decided to tap into the talents of people they and his family knew to raise money for research led by a foundation of the same name.

The outcome was Broadway Belts, now held in the Edison Hotel Ballroom.

Soon outgrowing their initial nightclub locale, Belts has raised a million-and-a-half dollars, leading to significant advances in clinical research and sustaining vital patient programs including educational resources. Fighting the disease became very personal; the year before the first benefit, Howard received a life-extending lung transplant, enabling him and Julie to have eight more good years together.

Pulmonary fibrosis, a disease that affects one out of 200 adults over 60 in the United States, is a catch-all name for about 200 diseases that all look very much alike and cause scarring of the lungs, making it hard to get oxygen into the blood. The diversity of diseases makes fighting the disease especially hard; thus, research funded by the foundation is vital.

"When Julie Halston asks you to do something, you say yes," said Ariana DeBose, an original member of the "Hamilton" cast. "When I saw how the Broadway community rallied around her when she lost her husband, as an upcoming young singer I learned that this is how we care for each other. Anything that became important to her became important to me. I learned about a disease that wasn't on my radar and a foundation that's doing so much. I also learned that you've got to be free to fail. As an artist, we fail constantly, but we get up and try again. It's the same for these researchers; if one study doesn't work out, you start another building on what you learned from the last one."

"These are people that I adore," said Halston about the dozen Broadway stars that shared their talents. "I can't express how it moves me. It means just about everything. Through all this, Ralph and I learned that love might not conquer all, but it conquers a lot. Ralph was a newsman. He liked going out and getting the story. So being a patient wasn't his forte, but we learned about that and how to slow down and enjoy certain things. We also learned the importance of networking, the importance of friends and the importance of ask. We learned to ask for help. When you need help, you should ask for it. That's important to know. A lot of people don't ask. People are very generous; they want to help you."

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