After UNICEF USA’s virtual event “UNICEF Won’t Stop” streamed live on May 9 via www.unicefwontstop.org and NBC’s digital platforms (including NBC News NOW, Peacock (Universal’s streaming service), NBCNews.com and MSNBC.com), the online show has been reformatted into a 60-minute broadcast that will air Saturday, May 23 at 10p.m on MSNBC.
The special broadcast will air in the place of “Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell.” O’Donnell has a storied history with UNICEF, much like that of Téa Leoni and Erich Bergen, who helped organize the special event. The MSNBC host founded the K.I.N.D. Fund (Kids in Need of Desks) in 2010, which has helped raise nearly $25 million since its inception and has helped secure desks for over 900,000 students in Malawi who would otherwise be in overcrowded classrooms that lack the resources they need for a proper education.
Speaking to Variety before the online broadcast — which reached over a quarter of a million people — Leoni and Bergen detailed how they teamed up for the massive undertaking of producing “UNICEF Won’t Stop,” reuniting behind the scenes after sharing the screen for six seasons of “Madam Secretary.”
With Bergen as the event’s executive producer and Leoni serving as a UNICEF ambassador since 2001 and a UNICEF USA national board member since 2006, the pair have helped assemble an all-star list of participants for the special. The event highlights the organization’s COVID-19 response and celebrates the frontline workers, health experts and the children UNICEF supports in over 190 countries.
“It’s super exciting, as much work as it is, the opportunity to give back. I look out my window here in New York and I see all of these people with their masks on, standing six feet apart and I feel honored to be able to participate. This event really was born out of wanting to celebrate and honor all that everybody around the world is doing to protect each other and save lives,” Leoni told Variety over the phone on Thursday, added that she hopes the event can be soothing for audiences.
“The challenge for Téa and I as producers has been — when the situation is as bad as it is here in this country — how do we ask people to pay attention just for a few moments to the international story,” Bergen explained. “So we are doubling down on this idea of what we do right now, what we do tonight actually changes tomorrow for this whole planet.”
“These things always come down to the wire,” Bergen said, explaining that he and Leoni are still pulling together last-minute big ideas for the special. “I just got a text from one star who says they want to re-tape their [part], so I’m like ‘Tick tock.’ I love Téa Leoni and sometimes she has ideas that just hearing the idea is intimidating to execute because you don’t have a choice but to at least chase it with her. And she ends up being right and it ends up being great!” In fact, Lucy Liu and Millie Bobby Brown were added to the already star-studded lineup in the hours between Bergen’s interview and this article’s publication.
An exclusive performance from Cher headlines the list of musical acts, which also includes Chloe x Halle, Sheryl Crow, Peter Frampton, Luke Islam, Matthew Morrison, Musicality, Jordin Sparks, Sting, Rod Stewart, Rob Thomas, Il Volo and The Wailers featuring Julian Marley, as well as a virtual reunion of the Eurythmics with Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart.
The streaming event also features appearances by UNICEF ambassadors, supporters and special guests Halima Aden, Pablo Alborán, Ross Butler, Sofia Carson, Tamsen Fadal, Pau Gasol, Jenna Bush Hager, Laurie Hernandez, Angélique Kidjo, Lucy Meyer, Dirk Nowitzki, Kenna, Lawrence O’Donnell, Salma Hayek Pinault, Pink, and Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA. Emma Kathleen Ferrer will pay tribute to her grandmother, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Audrey Hepburn.
During the special, Cher will debut the music video for her cover of the Spanish-language version of ABBA’s hit song “Chiquitita.” UNICEF teamed up with the singer to produce the music video. Proceeds from the new rendition will be donated to UNICEF, keeping in line with ABBA’s pledge to donate proceeds from the song to the organization after it was featured in the Music for UNICEF concert in 1979.
“I am so proud to premiere this new version during the broadcast of ‘UNICEF Won’t Stop,’” Cher said in a statement. “I’ve long admired UNICEF, especially for their work with young women, since I was a little girl. Now, more than ever, it’s critical that we prioritize every child around the world as if they were our own.”
Bergen says that the Cher idea was a big impetus for the show from the beginning. “We got all of these people to come aboard because of UNICEF, not because it was time to promote a new record or their tour got canceled, but because the people who have been putting together this show had really great conceptualized ideas for song moments — the way you would when you’re putting together a TV special.”
Bergen has quickly become a pro at producing streaming events, after heading up the online revival of “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” and the star-studded “Saturday Night Seder.” So when UNICEF came calling, Bergen got straight to work for the cause, since he’d already fallen in love with the organization after Leoni brought him to UNICEF’s Snowflake Ball in 2016.
“I’m a big believer in the power of art and music,” Bergen said, adding that he hopes these events remind audiences of the importance of arts education. “Watching artists come together from home on their couch, with no makeup and hair — I mean, except Cher, then you have full hair and makeup — it’s kind of amazing. I also think for the nerd in me, growing up as a kid obsessed with Eurythmics records and [then thinking] ‘This Eurythmics song would be so perfect in this spot in the UNICEF show’. Then you email their reps and then they send in videos of themselves performing on their iPhones. It’s the weirdest part of my life; it’s just been wild.”
“This is a really big undertaking,” Leoni said, praising Bergen’s efforts. “I am incredibly impressed by what he’s endeavoring to do and, in fact, now what I can say we’re going to do. What’s been fun has been connecting with friends and being able to say to them. ‘Look, I want your joy, I want your song that will celebrate this [moment].’”
Leoni also shares a lifelong connection to UNICEF, carrying on a family tradition after her grandmother Helenka Pantaleoni co-founded UNICEF USA in 1947 and served as its president for 25 years. Her father Anthony Pantaleoni served as the Board Chair at the organization.
Speaking of the 1979 Music for UNICEF concert, she recalled, “My grandmother met Rod Stewart, because he was donating proceeds from ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?’ She came back and she told me, ‘Oh yes, I met this tremendously energetic, beautiful man who performed for us.’ I said ‘Who?,’ and she said ‘Rod Stewart.’ And I said ‘What? You met Rod Stewart and you didn’t tell me!’”
“We have had a long involvement with the organization and I know that my grandmother would be very proud of all of us,” Leoni added, when asked what she thinks her grandmother would make of this special event. “And I don’t mean all of us, our family. I mean if she were looking out her window today, the way that we all now are this global community and taking care of each other. That would impress her the most I think.”
“UNICEF Won’t Stop” will broadcast on Saturday, May 9, at 8 p.m. ET on www.unicefwontstop.org and exclusively streamed on NBC News NOW, Peacock (Universal’s streaming service), NBCNews.com and MSNBC.com.