A few months ago, it might have been unimaginable that multimillion dollar fundraising efforts would be hosted not in black tie from behind a ballroom dais but in ballcaps in front of a refrigerator. But the “RWQuarantunes” livestream music series has proven that show-business philanthropy can take as much of a different tack as anything during the pandemic.
On Sunday night, the series of star-studded, invitation-only live charity shows, hosted by top agent Richard Weitz and his 17-year-old daughter Demi, passed the $4 million mark in contributions made to a wide array of causes. Their ability to pull that off from their kitchen countertop (aside from one online field trip to the shuttered Hollywood Bowl a few weeks ago) may augur poorly for the immediate future of the tux rental business … but it’s been good news for L.A.’s Cedars-Sinai, several New York City hospitals, Nashville’s Vanderbilt Medical Center, the American Cancer Society, Team Rubicon and other causes that have benefitted from these highly casual Zoom semi-galas.
Weitz estimates about 150 musicians have now participated in the weekly or semi-weekly gatherings, including appearances by Rod Stewart, Elvis Costello, Luke Bryan, Smokey Robinson, Hozier, Finneas (with a pop-in hello from Billie Eilish), Josh Groban, Carlos Santana and Rob Thomas (individually and in tandem), Loggins and Messina (separately), Lauren Daigle, Lindsey Buckingham, Sting, Ben Platt, Randy Newman, Alan Menken, Rufus Wainwright, Ryan Tedder, John Hiatt, Jeffrey Osborne, Charlie Puth, the Killers and scores of others. He’s had some of his favorites come back: If you tune into an RWQuarantunes, there’s a very good chance you will be Rick-rolled … although, on Sunday’s show, the song Rick Astley chose to do was not “Never Gonna Give You Up” but an unexpected cover of the Foo Fighters’ “Everlong.”
Weitz, a partner at William Morris Endeavor (WME) and co-head of its scripted television department, has tried to stay away from repeating charities, if not artists. But this weekend, he returned to two early beneficiaries, the United Way and the Saban Community Clinic, the last of which he also serves as president, with some symbolic intent in having both of those come back as the overall two-and-a-half-month tally approached the $4M mark.
Friday’s show for the United Way featured a lengthy introduction by and conversation with Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who stayed on the Zoom call for the entire three and a half run of show — enjoying some banter with LL Cool J, whom she told she’d once approached as a smitten high-school-age fan, and talking about the recordings made by her musician father, Major Lance. (Other politicos who’ve dropped in for intros or visits include California governor Gavin Newsom, L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti and Nashville mayor John Cooper.)
“We were humbled and excited to have her, because she’s such a rock star, in her daily professional life as a mayor,” says Weitz, “and very inspirational during these troubling times. She stayed on all night again, sharing it with her husband and then ultimately her son. And then to wake up on Saturday and see what was going on in Atlanta and just what she had to deal with just less than 24 hours later… That’s why I embrace every guest and moment when I have them, because you just don’t know what’s going to happen with these crazy times every day.”
Going with the United Way as a charity for the first show back after taking a time-out during the national protests felt like a natural. “I wanted to balance it. We had already been focused on the African American communities with the United Way when we raised $600,000 for them a month ago, and I want to make sure that we are continuing to raise money for these communities to help those in need. We do not want to turn a blind eye to the disease, and we also want to acknowledge what is happening in our country today in the Black Lives Matter movement.”
Friday’s show was largely focused on Black music. Kool & the Gang showing up to bookend the three and a half hours. On a less celebrative note, Macy Gray, who’d sung on a previous edition, made a speaking appearance to talk about her new project as an activist, mygood.org, in which she interviews mothers and other survivors of young men who’ve fallen at the hands of police. Newcomer Jac Ross sang “A Change is Gonna Come” and his new social justice anthem “It’s OK to BeBlack.” And John Legend (another return performer) and Andra Day turned in a pre-taped duet of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” (which Weitz offered as a surprise treat to an almost constant presence on the Zooms, Houston mentor Clive Davis). But it wasn’t a completely themed night — also turning up were familiar figures ranging from Frankie Valli to Carly Simon, who performed with an ensemble from her barn in Martha’s Vineyard (all of them masked, including surprise bandmate Tony Shalhoub).
Sunday’s show held an unusual place in RWQuarantunes history: It doubled as the annual benefit gala for the Saban Community Clinic, in place of the formal in-person event that would normally take place in November. Weitz’s usual outreach list for the recent shows was combined with the clinic’s annual invite list, and the Zoom readout of attendees indicated an even higher quotient than usual of some of the top television network executives and executives in the business. The fundraising part was slightly less spontaneous than usual, with City National Bank and Haim Saban already planning to kick in six-figure donations. But a lot of individual contributors promised Weitz one figure in advance and then upped their numbers on the spot as they got caught up in the fever of the fundraiser, with several chiming in to say they were going with 50 grand or more. By the end of the night, about $1.5 million had been raised for the Saban Clinic — not quite as much as the $2 million they would have hoped to raise at their canceled black-tie event, but also without the couple hundred thousand of overhead involved in putting on a formal hotel affair. In other words, as spectacular a result as anyone could hope for…if still a stopgap for a free clinic whose $2 million in monthly operating expenses have gone up by about $200,000 a month during the pandemic.
Among the artists helping raise that cash with living-room mini-sets Sunday were Sam Harris of X Ambassadors, Marc Roberge of O.A.R., a filmed contribution of “What a Wonderful World” from Katy Perry, the aforementioned Rick-Foo-roll and a Barry Manilow hits medley. Last up and maybe best loved was actor-singer Christopher Jackson, who said he’d just seen the “Hamilton” movie the night before and marveled over actually seeing the front of his original castmates in the show, instead of always from the side or behind. Jackson brought down the virtual house with a rendition of “One Last Time” (in the gospelly, Obama-accompanied remix arrangement). “I wanted something that was universal for the time right now that we’re living in” as a finale, Weitz says.
He’s sprinkled some unfamiliar names in among the stars over the last two and a half months. “The War and Treaty have been my number one goal to make sure that everybody knows who they are. Michael and Tanya Trotter have become such great friends, and I really hope that enough people see them and love them and they get the bigger break they deserve.” He’s also showcased Madison Love and had Jac Ross on repeatedly. Teddy Swims, who put in a repeat appearance Sunday at the request of some TV VIPs, may get the biggest boost of anyone out of the series, as a recently Warner Music-signed upstart who looks like Post Malone but sings like a theatrically trained R&B veteran. And then there’s Demi herself, who’s had kind of an ongoing star-is-born moment as an endearing hostess (and budding social activist/philanthropist) the stars can’t stop gushing over.
Weitz has pulled in a lot of favors to keep the Quarantunes going, including some from his contemporaries at rival agencies, as well as friends ranging from Tracey Jordan at SiriusXM to Clive Davis. Initially, Demi’s goal was to raise $10,000, while her dad urged her to dream bigger and think they might get $30,000 out of a few shows. Now they’re at $4 million from about a dozen shows — but they know that livestream fatigue could be a factor as their once-captive audience wants to get out of doors, with masks or otherwise, in the warmer weather. How long can the series keep going?
“There are several places we still need to express our gratitude and help,” Weitz says. “That includes the LGBTQ community, that includes London and the NHS, and then Demi and I would really like to thank the musicians who have participated and give back to MusiCares. That seems to be covering where we want to go. And then we’ll see from there when we’re done. Hopefully everyone’s better and we’re out of our houses. We will take it step by step, but we’re at the tail end, not the front end, of doing these.”
The RWQuarantunes have become a source of interest in and out of the entertainment industry as they’ve been covered by publications like the Los Angeles Times (which reported on the show the Weitzes hosted from the back of the Hollywood Bowl in May, to benefit the LA Phil’s YOLA youth orchestra). Without having seen any of the shows, a polarizing music-industry blogger wrote a post railing against the very idea of these private shows, saying it was elitist not to put them up on YouTube for everyone to enjoy.
“There are very clear reasons why we can’t do that,” says Weitz. “There are copyright issues — one time we extended it as a private stream on YouTube and immediately got dinged by the music companies. And there are privacy issues that, if we made it public, it would lose getting these people to open up and talk and tell stories.” Clive Davis and Jimmy Jam act almost as cohosts in most editions of the series, drawing out anecdotes from guests and acting as what Weitz calls “my wingmen.”
There’s also the personal touches that make high-level show-biz seem like a small town, including a series of long goodbyes that comes to feel like an extended Beverly Hills-based version of “The Waltons.” “When my mom says ‘Richard and Demi, I love you, I’m so proud of you’ (at the close of each night), or someone’s un-muted (accidentally interrupting a superstar performance), that’s the fun of it.
“But the exclusivity is mainly because there’s a limited amount of spaces on Zoom, and because we’re trying to raise money. But the people that are on there include ushers from the Staples Center or from the Hollywood Bowl that I know, or the waiters from restaurants in New York, and frontline (health care) workers, nonstop. It’s not really exclusive. But I’ve never turned one person down who’s asked me — never one, just so you know.”
Weitz still has non-charitable goals. He betrays his age with one of them. “One of the things I would love to do that I haven’t really done is an all-’80s night. I want to get Spandau Ballet and Tears for Fears back, and Corey Hart, who I’ve had to beg to come out of retirement. I’m dying for the Outfield. I’m dying to get Duran Duran! I would love Berlin. I would love to get someone who’s as hot now as Matthew Wilder — I have an ask out to him because TikTok has made ‘Break My Stride’ relevant and huge again. So we’re trying to bring familiarity and the soundtracks of all of our lives to everyone’s house, as we hopefully get to a place of normalcy at some point.”
Weitz knows a lot of boardroom toppers (and ushers and nurses) are going to miss it when they can longer get these all-star shows delivered to their bedrooms. His sub-no-budget telethons “have become appointment television,” he laughs. “But I do it to raise money — and because I’m a fan, and I am living out a dream by sitting on this couch going, ‘What song is meaningful at this time? Who should I ask?'”