Broadway Strips Down for 25th Edition of Burlesque Charity Show 'Broadway Bares'

Courtesy Photo
Jerry Mitchell

Billboard talks to its creator and director, two-time Tony Award winner Jerry Mitchell

On June 21, New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom will welcome more than 150 barely clothed Broadway dancers for a one-night only charity event: Broadway Bares: Top Bottoms of Burlesque. It’s the 25th installment of the annual show Broadway Bares, which was launched in 1992 by two-time Tony Award winner Jerry Mitchell. The 24 earlier editions of the show (its first two editions were both in 1992) raised $12.6 million for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (BCEFA), and last year’s show alone brought in $1.4 million. That’s a long way from the first show, which raised $8,000 and featured just seven dancers (including Mitchell) stripping on a bar.

Since then, Broadway Bares has grown to become a staple of the New York theater calendar and has featured surprise celebrity cameos from James Franco, Adam Lambert, Jim Parsons, Vanessa Williams, Alan Cumming, Lucy Liu and Cyndi Lauper. This year’s installment, as usual, will be staged twice on June 21: first at 9:30 pm (which is sold out) and then again at midnight. Tickets can be purchased on Broadway Bares’ Web site.

Watch a preview of this year's show, below (warning: it's a bit not safe for work).

Broadway Bares is one of a number of events produced by BCEFA, which, according to the organization, has raised more than $250 million since 1988 for essential services for people with AIDS and other critical illnesses across the U.S. Last year, they awarded nearly $10.7 million to AIDS and family service organizations and continues to be the largest single financial supporter of The Actors Fund -- a human services organization that helps all professionals in performing arts and entertainment.

Mitchell -- who has choreographed more than 50 Broadway, off-Broadway, West End and touring productions -- returns to Broadway Bares this year as its director (joined by co-director Nick Kenkel, who directed the 2013 and 2014 shows). Mitchell last helmed the 2003 edition of the show: Broadway Bares: Burlesque Is Back. In the interim, he has remained a guiding force in the show, while directing and choreographing shows like the Broadway adaptations of Legally Blonde and Kinky Boots. (One of his two Tony Award wins is for choreographing the latter production.)

Billboard spoke to Mitchell via phone on June 16 in Chicago, where he was in rehearsals directing the new musical On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan. The show premieres today (June 17) and runs through July 5 in Chicago. It’s then scheduled to move to Broadway, where its preview performances begin on Oct. 5 at the Marquis Theatre.

Billboard: It's amazing how, 25 years in, a little show that started out with you and six other guys has turned into this gargantuan event that happens every year. And, continues to be such a huge staple of the musical theater. Did you ever think that it would [become] what it has turned into?
Jerry Mitchell: Never. I never thought it would. I actually posted a picture today from last year's finale, on my Facebook page, at Hammerstein Ballroom -- which you know a lot of the rock and roll acts play. And I looked at the picture and I thought, 'We have turned into a rock concert. We've turned into Katy Perry or Kylie Minogue.' I mean, I've seen shows like that in that venue, and we've turned into that event. That one night event. It's just grown. Unbelievable. And it's because everyone… Well, first of all, sex sells. But most importantly, there's such a spirit of community that has been built on this simple idea that I had, that just continues to snowball. And it's also an event that attracts the young people who are working on Broadway, because it's sexy. And they like to be sexy! 

Yeah. You know, that helps. [Laughs.]
Yeah, yeah! And we're dealing with music that, for the most part, always incorporates what's new and what's hot. 

Right.
So, you know, the music is another kind of piece of the puzzle that you don't usually come across in a Broadway show.

The music is really important to the show, obviously. … It looks like it's such a fun spectacle with great music. How much music in the show is actually original [material]?
[In] about the seventh year, [Tony Award-nominated composer] Andrew Lippa -- who saw the sixth year of Broadway Bares -- we happened to have the same representative at the time: Mark Sendroff, who's a lawyer/agent. … Mark brought Andrew to Broadway Bares VI [in 1996] at Palladium. And Andrew wrote me a letter after that show and said, 'I've written this song for Cinderella as an S&M Cinderella strip routine. Maybe you can put it in next year's Broadway Bares.' And I contacted him and I said, 'Well, next year's theme is going to be a circus theme, maybe you could help me write an opening number.' Because we never had a number written for the show up until that point. And that was the year the show changed again, by having a theme song written for the show. And every year since we've had an original theme written by a composing team that's working on Broadway. Andrew's written many of them. He wrote this year's again, with me, because we collaborated on so many, and I came back to direct. And then what happened after that was Lon Hoyt, who's my musical director here at On Your Feet and worked on Hairspray with me [Mitchell choreographed the Broadway show], came on board [for] maybe [Broadway Bares IX in 1999] and we had people doing our own versions of "My Funny Valentine" … we had cast members coming to me and saying 'Oh I want to do this song, can we adapt it for the show?' So we've used original live music, and adapted it for the show, and written new music. But a lot of the music is also [popular hits by] recording artists and then we have DJs and people who work with us to edit [the songs]. We often use songs and mix them. Like I remember one year we did Broadway Bares IV: Revival -- A New Way To Do It, so we would mix songs like "Ascot Gavotte" from My Fair Lady with Madonna's "Vogue." We mixed RuPaul's "Back To My Roots" with "Beauty School Drop Out" from Grease. So we've done crazy, crazy things with music. 

Are there particular numbers that stand out to you as personal favorites?
There are so many to pick from in over 25 years, you know? It's impossible to say any favorites. I was thinking a little bit about that -- I guess somebody gave me a heads up you might ask about [that]. I remember doing… You can go into any strip club in America and you can see a stripper stripping to "You Can Leave Your Hat On." 

Yeah.
It was also used as the finale in the film The Full Monty. So, I loved the song and I already thought it was a sexy recording. I thought, 'How would I do that?' Well, what I did -- the year we did [Broadway Bares VILess Is More [in 1996] I placed the guy [dancer] in a barbershop with a man barber and his manicurist. And so they kept saying "you can leave your hat on," so it's all staged to the lyrics. And they took off all of his clothes, and they put on the barber [smock] and then they lifted [it] up and his ass is bare and they covered his ass with shaving cream. And when he turned around, and they ripped [the smock] off, he was naked with his hat on and his boots, and his front was covered in shaving cream. And then the doors opened and 30 other guys came out from all different walks of life, with like a doctor hat and doctor shoes, or a fireman with fireman boots and a fireman hat. And the only thing they had on? Shaving cream. 

As you do. Of course.
As you do! To this day it's one of the numbers that I think people still remember as being 'Oh my god, that was an amazing strip.' [For another number] I did "Cornflake Girl" by Tori Amos, and I had a milkman coming from a farm with fresh milk, that [he'd] just gotten from the cows. And of course all the girls in their daisy dukes, came out and gave him a milk bath. They stripped the milkman and poured milk all over him. That number was a huge, huge success … 

Every year there's always special surprise guests that show up [for the show]. You know, Adam Lambert has shown up, James Franco was there last year.
Yeah.

Have you asked Gloria Estefan to drop by this year? Might she…
No, because I know she's going to be here [in Chicago]. We're all here in Chicago. I'm actually sort of disappearing for four days while I should be here working. But, when they asked me to direct this [On Your Feet] I said, ‘Look guys, I'm going to direct it. I have to tell you that there are four days in my calendar that are blackout days, and nothing's gonna stop me from being at the 25th anniversary of this event I created.’ 

(Our chat with Mitchell was edited and condensed.)