Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS (BC/EFA) is one of the foremost AIDS charities on Broadway and their four yearly benefits provide not only help to those who need it most, but also provide thrilling showcases for the vast talent on Broadway and off, raising tens of millions of dollars a year for AIDS-related charities. Executive Director of the BC/EFA, Tom Viola, is receiving a Tony Honors for Excellence in the Theatre for his work as an individual this year, as the organization itself has already been singled out for their amazing work by the Tony committee. Here, Viola discusses his feelings on the Tonys, the origins of the many yearly benefits such as Broadway Bares and Easter Bonnet Competition, in addition to his earliest theatrical memories.
What a journey the BC/EFA has taken in the last twenty years: From the first flea market thanks to the cast of A CHORUS LINE, to the original LA CAGE AUX FOLLes Cagelles led by Jerry Mitchell organizing and presenting the first Easter Bonnet competition, all the way to the overflowing coffers at PHANTOM OF THE OPERA every night and Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig donating the very shirts off their back to a good cause as they did at many performances earlier this year at the A STEADY RAIN post-show fundraising time. Tom Viola’s work is amongst the most recognized and prized on Broadway and his help in the AIDS crisis, both then and now, is invaluable. Truly, the Special Tony he will receive at the 2010 ceremony is merely the icing on the cake of a twenty-year-plus career in which he has changed the very state of fundraising with his exemplary work.
PC: Could you tell us about the big yearly fundraisers?
TV: Well, of course: there’s Broadway Bares, Gypsy of the Year, the Easter Bonnett Competition, the Broadway Flea Market. Those are the big four.
PC: Please tell us how you became involved with the BC/EFA in the first place.
TV: In the late 80s I was working with Actors' Equity, I was Equity Special Projects Coordinator and the assistant to Colleen Dewhurst, who was the president at the time. When the Equity Fights AIDS committee was established in 1988 I was assigned to it as their staffperson. Colleen was very determined to make room in the union for it. She really threw the union’s weight behind our efforts which, at the time were very small. Compared to what we’re doing today - raising millions of dollars - early on it was about trying to figure out how to do a bake sale.
PC: How were your some of your impressions of Colleen Dewhurst?
TV: She was extraordinary. She really is, still, the heart and soul of all that we do. How she felt about people in distress, people facing any number of challenges and how they should be treated. How volunteers should be appreciated, what the community could come together to do. How she felt about all of that drives all of what we do today, literally, over twenty years after her death. She died in 1991.
PC: Who else was a vocal proponent of the BC/EFA in the beginning?
TV: It’s hard to pick out a handful of days because from our earliest days - from the late-80s to the early-90s, to today, to this year - it’s really everyone in the community. From the big stars, to the folks backstage, to people holding buckets in the lobby, the musicians, the crew, particularly the stage managers - it has been amazing, collective, generous, unique effort on everybody’s parts.
PC: Can you give me an idea of what one of the first benefits was like compared to now?
TV: I’ll give you an example: the first Gypsy of the Year benefit. It was in 1989 and it raised $68,000. It was an extraordinary success for us. We could not believe how people had come together to help us raise that amount of money. Now, 21 years later, this Gypsy of the Year competition raised $4.6 million. It was an amazing accomplishment, it was an amazing combination of people coming together to do the same kind of work. I had the same sense of gratitude, accomplishment and excitement around the first as I did for the twenty-first. Even though, one raised what seems to be a very small amount of money and the most recent appears to have raised a fortune. It’s not so much monetary success or a particular performance, as much as it people’s continued generosity and enthusiasm and great spirit.
PC: How did you get involved with Actors' Equity in the first place?
TV: Yeah, I moved to town to be an actor in the late 70s. I did it for a number of years, but primarily out of town at regional theatres and dinner theatres...
PC: You wanted to be an actor?
TV: I think that’s why everyone comes to New York. They want to be an actor. I think if you scratch a company manager or a producer or a stage manager or a press agent, I think you find someone who as a kid was attracted to the theatre because they wanted to be an actor. Then, you get to town and realize that there are talents that you have that you may not have been aware of as a kid and they propel you towards another aspect of the business. But, your love for the community and for the process of creating and being a part of the theatre community keeps you there. You’re just doing something else besides acting.
PC: What was the first show you saw on Broadway?
TV: It was 1970. I was a junior in high school. I saw two Broadway musicals. One was probably the third replacement cast of PROMISES, PROMISES and the other was probably the fifth replacement cast of 1776. I still have those Playbills. They’re the only two I’ve kept, the first two shows I saw. I can still remember, vividly, the last scene in Act One in 1776 - where all the continental congress was onstage and the scrim came down with the Declaration of Independence. I was just amazed at how those combination of images made me feel. You know, those moments stay with you.
PC: And PROMISES, PROMISES had that amazing Michael Bennett Act One Finale.
TV: Oh, all credit to Michael Bennett. I couldn’t believe it. I had never seen people dancing onstage like during “Turkey Lurkey Time”. I was blown away!
PC: Did you have any experiences with Bennett? Of course he was an early victim of the disease.
TV: I certainly remember seeing the original production of A CHORUS LINE at the Shubert when I was in college and my breath just being taken away. I was much different than the kid I had been five or six years before. Certainly, Michael’s passing from AIDS in ‘87 had a huge impact on the entire community and how they banded together to respond to the issue.
PC: And of course when Richard Gere played him in AND THE BAND PLAYED ON more people became aware of his legacy. We lost him far too soon.
TV: Very attached to the whole issue as well are all the artists we lost who were about to step up to a theatre career. Those whose creativity we will never know because they didn’t have the success or the opportunity that Michael did.
PC: How does it feel to win a Tony?
TV: Well, I’m not really winning a Tony. It's not a competitive award in this case. But, it’s such a wonderful, unexpected gift. I couldn’t be more thankful.
PC: Thank You, Mr. Viola, for all the work you have done and continue to do.
The 2010 Tony Awards will be broadcast in a live three-hour ceremony from Radio City Music Hall on the CBS television network on Sunday, June 13, 2010.
Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS is one of the nation's leading industry-based, nonprofit AIDS fundraising and grant-making organizations. By drawing upon the talents, resources and generosity of the American theatre community, since 1988 BC/EFA has raised over $175 million for essential services for people with AIDS and other critical illnesses across the United States.
BC/EFA is the major supporter of seven programs at The Actors' Fund - including The AIDS Initiative, The Phyllis Newman Women's Health Initiative, The Al Hirschfeld Free Health Clinic, The Dancers' Resource and three supportive housing residences. BC/EFA also awards annual grants to over 400 AIDS and family service organizations nationwide.
For more information, please visit the BC/EFA website at www.broadwaycares.org