Fundraiser gets down to bare necessities

NEW YORK Summer’s here and it’s time for Broadway’s finest to strip off their clothes. On June 22, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS will produce the 18th installment of “Broadway Bares,” a burlesque fund-raiser that has become one of the most recognizable brands in Gotham legit.

In fact, the annual show’s size and familiarity are now among its biggest hurdles. Last year’s event featured 240 theater performers in various states of undress, raising more than $740,000 for AIDS research and other charities. That number was up from the previous year, which begs the question: Can this strip show keep growing, or is it destined to sag? Will auds and artists eventually feel they’ve been there, flashed that?

Tom Viola, exec director of BC/EFA, says the bump-and-grind show’s incremental growth each season has helped keep it manageable and fresh. “With each year, Broadway Cares has learned how to produce the event more effectively,” he explains.

Way back in 1992, when “Broadway Bares” played peek-a-boo for the first time, there wasn’t much to produce. After watching auds go wild for his flesh-baring turn in “The Will Rogers Follies,” Jerry Mitchell got a handful of dancer friends to strip with him at a Manhattan bar, believing it would be a good way to raise money for the various AIDS charities supported by Broadway Cares.

He was right. Eventually, along with increasing numbers of performers from the theater and dance worlds, celebs like Cyndi Lauper, Alan Cumming, David Hyde Pierce, Harvey Fierstein, Fran Drescher, Christina Applegate, Tim Curry, Bebe Neuwirth and Bruce Vilanch started participating. The event also moved to more expansive digs at Roseland Ballroom, and Mitchell’s own rise as a Broadway choreographer and director drew extra attention to the strip-a-thon. (Mitchell stopped helming Broadway Bares in 2003, though he still serves as exec producer.)

Broadway Cares and Equity Fights AIDS were founded in the late 1980s as separate organizations to raise money for HIV/AIDS-related service programs. In 1992, the groups merged, and though the unified org still grants money to HIV/AIDS initiatives nationwide, it also supports other health-related service projects through a program called the Actors’ Fund, including the Al Hirschfeld Free Health Clinic and the Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative. From 1987-2007, BC/EFA distributed $86 million in donations; the first 17 editions of “Broadway Bares” raised $4.8 million.

To keep pace with its soaring popularity, Broadway Bares added infrastructure — BC/EFA staffer Michael Graziano has been lead producer for more than a decade — and brokered ongoing partnerships with companies like MAC Cosmetics. (This year’s budget for the one-night-only, two-show event is roughly $150,000, not including in-kind donations; tickets range from $55 for general admission to $10,000 for VIP seats.)

While Broadway Cares now produces several high-profile fund-raisers a year, the annual burlesque remains the brightest sequin on the charity org’s g-string. “Other events are a struggle to sell,” Viola says. ” ‘Broadway Bares’ is the exception.”

That may come as a surprise, considering the show’s R-rated content. “People can see this dirty little show because they’re doing it for a clean reason,” Mitchell says. “And as a performer, when you can say, ‘It’s for a good cause,’ you do things you would normally never do.”

But there are only so many ways to take off your shirt. That fact haunts Denis Jones, who has been directing the show since 2005. “Eighteen installments down the pike, it’s definitely a challenge to come up with new ways to shake it,” he says. “You have to come up with a believable story that can result in people disrobing.”

This year, the story is a kinky twist on “Alice in Wonderland,” featuring a school girl (played by Mary Birdsong) who gets sucked into a world of naughty fantasy.  Recent editions have revolved around themes such as doctors and nurses, myths and comicstrip superheroes.

But as the plots get more elaborate, the performance risks losing touch with its fund-raising roots. “In every show, we do like to hit the safe-sex note,” Jones says.

However, Viola adds that a soft sell is crucial. “We need to produce something people want to see, and then be glad they supported a worthy cause,” he says. “But that said, we have to be careful to make sure the funds end up going where they’re supposed to go.”

With so much money pouring in, large chunks of it could easily lay dormant, lost in an administrative black hole. But Viola says there are safeguards in place to oversee where the money goes. A thorough vetting process and site visits, for instance, keep grant recipients accountable.

In a bid to expand the brand, Mitchell’s book, “Broadway Bares: Backstage Pass,” will be released the same night, June 22, featuring a personal reflection, performer interviews and hundreds of photos of half-naked dancers, with all proceeds benefiting BC/EFA. 

“Although we do raise a great amount of money, there’s only so many people you can stuff into Roseland,” Mitchell says. “We’re doing as many things as we can to keep money coming in.”

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