Saturday Night Seder captivated audiences with a long list of celebrities paired alongside religious figures.
Saturday Night Seder, a star-filled entertainment take on Passover traditions, was a full-fledged online production mounted from home to raise money for the CDC Foundation’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Emergency Response Fund.
The show streamed live via YouTube April 11 for the fourth night of Passover and is now available to watch anytime at SaturdayNightSeder.com. It captivated audiences with a long list of celebrities paired alongside religious figures. From their homes, in keeping with social distancing guidelines, they sang, joked and recalled personal Passover celebrations to provide fresh luster for the fundraiser.
So far, the special has raised more than $2.3 million for the foundation, which supports the work of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The money will fund access to medical supplies, increased lab capacity, emergency staffing for public health agencies, resources for vulnerable communities, clinical research and much more.
Among the participants were actor-singer-comedian Jason Alexander (Seinfeld), stage and film composer Alan Menken (Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast), comedian Andy Cohen (Watch What Happens Live) and singer-actress Idina Menzel (Wicked), as well as non-Jewish celebs who dabble in Jewish entertainment, like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel lead actress Rachel Brosnahan.
Two participants — producer Rachel Sussman and Rabbi Dana Benson — were raised in Metro Detroit and became enduring friends while performing in a Bloomfield Hills youth theater. They both attended Temple Israel.
Jewish actor James Wolk (TV’s Watchmen), another former Metro Detroiter from Farmington Hills, lightheartedly added his thoughts on Passover food.
“In my gut, I felt Saturday Night Seder was going to be a very moving project,” said Sussman, 30, a New York University graduate who has worked with many theater companies and is co-founder of The MITTEN Lab, an emerging theater artist residency program outside of Traverse City. “I couldn’t get most of the songs out of my head, which is really a good sign.
“The team of people just said ‘yes’ even though they had no idea what they were signing up for. They felt it was a way to celebrate our Jewish identity, foster community, [inspire] everyone lost and afraid right now, and bring people together.”
The seder was the idea of another Sussman friend, songwriter Benj Pasek (Dear Evan Hansen and La La Land), who studied at the University of Michigan, and his producing partner Adam Kantor. Pasek brought Sussman into the project at the end of March, and her responsibilities included determining ways to capture talent, whether through individuals sending videos or getting on Zoom. Sussman, in turn, invited Rabbi Benson.
One of the directions taken by the rabbi was singing parody lines from the rousing “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” written by Stephen Sondheim and Jule Styne for Gypsy. Lyrics became “Everything’s Coming Up Moses,” as developed by Barbara Sarshik for her website “Passover Song Parodies.”
“Saturday Night Seder allowed Jewish communities across America to see Jews supporting each other, talking about their own Judaism and engaging with non-Jewish entertainers mistaken as Jewish,” said Benson, 31, who serves Temple Beth Am in Seattle and gave up acting ambitions for the rabbinate while traveling with Birthright Israel.
As part of the rabbi’s early ambitions — and her only professional stage work— she appeared in Fiddler on the Roof for the Jewish Ensemble Theatre (JET), then located in West Bloomfield.
“I think it was beautiful seeing the Passover story told as well as showing how you can have a little bit of fun with it and make it feel personal,” said Benson, who studied theater and communication at Michigan State University before transferring to Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.
“I’ve been doing Passover parody songs for a number of years, and I put something more together with someone keeping clips for his own Haggadah. I’m nourished by my work, whether it’s being with people at their most enjoyable moments or their hardest moments.”
During these hard moments of social distancing, neither Sussman nor Benson is alone. Sussman, in New York, is with an isolation cell of three friends and two dogs. Benson, across the country, is with her fiancée, Gina Rome.
“Saturday Night Seder has helped with resilience and hope in this process of staying at home,” Benson said. “I didn’t do a lot of social media prior to this, but waking up to so many messages from across the country has made me very grateful.
“It brought me a new platform to offer and enjoy. I’ve been posting more songs. I believe everybody can share a little something that gives strength to someone else.”
Saturday Night Seder is available for views and donations at SaturdayNightSeder.com.