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Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jim Carrey and Dick Van Dyke. Photo by Jordan Strauss.

Backstage at the Geffen Fundraiser Brings Light and Laughter

At our annual fundraising gala, Backstage at the Geffen, a peerless group of artists and friends of the Geffen gathered to honor Dick Van Dyke and Lin-Manuel Miranda for their contributions to the world of theater and beyond. Dick Van Dyke, a legend of the stage and screens both large and small, was awarded the Distinction in Theater Award while Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame received the Education Impact Award.

Company of 16 dancers, performing choreography by Mia Michaels. Photo by Jordan Strauss.

From the moment the lobby opened to welcome our illustrious guests the room was filled with excitement for the events of the evening, showcasing an atmosphere of creativity and generosity. The pre-show cocktail hour also featured a silent auction and live music. The main event was a two-hour long show comprised of songs, stories and dances that celebrated the work of the two honorees, and the importance of the arts in education. The twist? Neither of the honorees, nor the other guests knew who would be appearing during the show, adding another layer of excitement to the night’s festivities. The show began with a stunning dance performance choreographed by Mia Michaels (“So You Think You Can Dance”) that made a medley of songs from Hamilton, In the Heights, Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and combined the dance styles of hip-hop, modern, ballroom and jazz to stirring effect. The number all but brought the house down thanks to the thrilling company of 16 dancers, at times performing with beautiful handheld lights.

Aisha Tyler. Photo by Jordan Strauss.

Actress and comedian Aisha Tyler (Friends, Archer), hosted the show with her usual dry humor and effortless charm, introducing every presenter and performer with affectionate anecdotes and one-liners. She memorably began the show with a quip about the two honorees saying, “Two Broadway dynamos, one who conquered Hollywood as a chimney sweep and another who is about to conquer Hollywood as…a chimney sweep,” in a nod to Dick Van Dyke’s famous portrayal of Bert in the 1964 Mary Poppins film, and both men appearing in the upcoming Mary Poppins Returns. Tyler also took the opportunity to share a story of her own about the importance of kindness in Hollywood, in addition to lauding the achievements of the other artists who joined her onstage.

Beth Behrs (at left) and Billy Crystal (at right). Photos by Jordan Strauss.

Among the other storytellers were Geffen Artistic Director Matt Shakman, telling of his early days as one of the founders of The Black Dahlia Theatre, actress and board member Beth Behrs (Two Broke Girls) sharing a hilarious story from her time as a Geffen usher and none other than Billy Crystal. Crystal regaled our audience with several personal stories from throughout his life and career. He began with a story of the first time he saw a play (Sammy Davis Jr. in Mr. Wonderful) and thought “I want that to be me,” then telling of his run-in with Walter Cronkite when he was an understudy and usher in New York City and the time he met Zero Mostel after seeing Fiddler on the Roof (Billy Crystal later had the same dressing room as Zero Mostel when he performed on Broadway in 700 Sundays). He ended with a more recent story about how his grandson (fittingly) dressed up as Lin-Manuel Miranda for Halloween. When he asked his grandson why he chose Miranda instead of his famous character Alexander Hamilton, Crystal reported his grandson said, “Because Lin wrote everything…what did Alexander Hamilton ever do?”.

Amanda Gorman. Photo by Jordan Strauss.

Inaugural Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman received a standing ovation for her rousing original poem about Dick Van Dyke, Lin-Manuel Miranda and the vital importance of supporting the arts. Describing the theater’s ability to “boldly inspire by lighting fires,” Gorman floored the audience with her powerful, creative and moving words which perfectly encapsulated the tone and message of the evening. Though one of the youngest performers present, her perceptive poetry underscored why so many had gathered evening saying, “[A] nation of states depends on the state of the arts,” and, “Art is no luxury, but it is a right.”

Kristen Bell. Photo by Jordan Strauss.

Rounding out the show were truly stellar performances by Kristen Bell and Regina Spektor, who each performed two songs to honor the honorees. Kristen Bell began her performance with a personal and clear-voiced rendition of “The Man I Love” inspired by the Dick Van Dyke’s youth, being born into the era of George and Ira Gershwin, followed by a new song from a familiar character: “More than Just a Spare”, a song originally written for her character but ultimately cut from the movie Frozen. Bell chose the song because to showed, “everything I hold dear about Anna,” and because she felt it was a fitting song to honor Lin-Manuel Miranda with.

Regina Spektor. Photos by Jordan Strauss.

Regina Spektor blew us all away with a special mash-up of “Jolly Holiday” and “Chim Chim Cher-ee” from Mary Poppins (where she even performed the animal voices from the movie), along with her gorgeous cover of the Hamilton song “Dear Theodosia” which she recorded for the album “The Hamilton Mixtape”. She took a moment between songs to share how much both of the honorees mean to her and to the world, saying to Mr. Miranda before performing his song, “I’m gonna try not to mess this up.” We assure you she did not.

Rita Moreno (at left). Mia Michaels, Rita Moreno and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Photos by Jordan Strauss.

EGOT winner and fashion icon Rita Moreno graced us with her presence to present the Education Impact Award to Lin-Manuel Miranda, turning her tribute into a rollicking rap. The verses she so expertly spit told of Miranda’s education as Wesleyan, his professional success with Hamilton and In the Heights, his Tony Awards, Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur Genius Grant and his tireless advocacy and activism. She highlighted his work for arts education, the LGBTQ community and his heroic efforts to support survivors of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico with the organization Hispanic Federation: UNIDOS. Mr. Miranda humbly accepted his well-deserved award saying, “Speechless is weird for me…that doesn’t happen often,” while expressing his gratitude at being honored alongside Dick Van Dyke who he said is, “one of my heroes.” He enjoyed snapping selfies backstage with his fellow artists, and rejoined Mr. Van Dyke at the end of the show for a touching A capella version of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.”

Jim Carrey. Photo by Jordan Strauss.

Dick Van Dyke and Jim Carrey. Photo by Jordan Strauss.

Jim Carrey joined us to present Dick Van Dyke with his award for Distinction in Theater, energetically galloping onto the stage and giving a very personal tribute, sharing memories of watching Dick Van Dyke on TV as a child. Carrey also recounted details of Mr. Van Dyke’s early life and career, telling the little known fact that before he discovered performing, Mr. Van Dyke wanted to go into ministry. Saying that to him, Mr. Van Dyke is, “right up there with [Buster] Keaton and Chaplin,” and that he, “Reminds us that light is in our heart,” Carrey conveyed how much Mr. Van Dyke has meant to him, and how important his contributions to our culture are. Barely able to contain his own excitement, Carrey remained sitting onstage while Mr. Van Dyke accepted his award and also joined in with Lin-Manuel Miranda and others during the final song.

Dick Van Dyke and the Vantastix. Photo by Jordan Strauss.

As for Mr. Van Dyke himself, not even an event honoring his own lifetime of achievement was too solemn to prevent him from cracking jokes and busting a move. In a speech filled with his trademark ability for physical comedy and his obvious vitality he hilariously pointed out that, at 92 years old he was not the oldest there because, “Norman Lear is here.” Commenting on the Geffen’s intimate setting and his desire to perform in On Golden Pond, Mr. Van Dyke reminded us all that though his achievements are great and many, they are by no means over. He closed the show by bringing out his A capella group of over 18 years “Dick Van Dyke and the Vantastix”, to sing a Mary Poppins medley and close the show with the aforementioned rendition of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” Mr. Van Dyke, Mr. Miranda and all of the artists continued the celebration after the show with a reception at the theater that included live music from the Angel Town Combo and much more light and laughter. It truly was an night to remember.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jim Carrey and Dick Van Dyke. Photo by Jordan Strauss.

Beth Behrs, Amanda Gorman, Regina Spektor, Billy Crystal, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jim Carrey, Dick Van Dyke, Rita Moreno, Aisha Tyler and the Vantastix. Photo by Jordan Strauss.

Thank you for reading and for supporting the Geffen Playhouse! You can learn more about our Education and Outreach efforts by visiting www.geffenplayhouse.org/education.

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