By Neva Rae Fox
Retta Blaney is a university professor and award-winning journalist whose spirit is grounded in the Episcopal Church (she is a member of Holy Trinity in Manhattan) and whose heart belongs to Broadway.
Blaney is the spark and driving force behind the annual Broadway Blessing, which she described as “an interfaith service of song, dance, and story which brings actors together for a good season.”
Blaney is a frequent contributor to TLC, writing most recently about the Foundation for Spirituality and the Arts. Her weblog, Life Upon the Sacred Stage, “highlights news, reviews and insights into the worlds of faith and the performing arts.”
Broadway Blessing celebrated its 25th anniversary in September and draws between 200 to 500 people. It’s held on the second Monday in September “because Mondays are dark in the theater world.”
Blaney started Broadway Blessing when she was a writer for Backstage, the performing arts weekly. “I regularly talked to young actors who were struggling to make it in their profession and feeling the discouragement of frequent rejection,” Blaney said. “I wanted to bring them together for a joyful event that celebrated their giftedness and would send them out with hope.”
Actors often face difficulties, unemployment, and long down times, she said.
Blaney is not an actress and “never had any desire to be one,” but she believes in a strong connection between faith and the arts.
In her book Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors, she related the early years of Broadway Blessing and shared tales of Liam Neeson, Vanessa Williams, Phylicia Rashad, and the late Edward Herrmann.
In her experience, actors are reticent about mentioning their faith, wanting to avoid accusations of proselyting. But when asked, most are quick to offer their insights.
An article from Broadway World quoted Herrmann about the annual event: “It’s reassuring to know there are so many people out there you know who believe in God, and want to take that part of their life and dedicate it to the theatre, because theatre is a very spiritual endeavor. They come from every conceivable denomination.”
Blaney said her book presents “ten chapters, each one an element of the universal spiritual life — ‘Faith,’ ‘In the Moment,’ ‘Listening,’ ‘Silence,’ ‘Prayer,’ ‘Self-Knowledge,’ ‘Community,’ ‘Hospitality,’ ‘Ritual,’ and ‘Transformation.’ I talked to actors about how those elements are part of their professional and/or personal life.”
Some Episcopal clergy are mentioned as well. “For the end of each chapter I interviewed Jewish and Christian clergy about how those elements are also part of organized religion,” she said. “Bishop [Catherine] Roskam commented on ‘Community’ and [the Rev.] Bill Doubleday was the Christian commentator on ‘Transformation.’”
Broadway Blessing is an interfaith service “because inclusivity is important to me. I want everyone to feel welcome. It is free and open to all.
“We open with Rabbi Jill Hausman of the Actors’ Temple processing in and singing a prayer. She is also a cantor who has sung with operas around the world. This is a way for people to center and get quiet, and the Episcopalian in me loves a procession.
“The pastor/rector/dean of whatever church/cathedral we are in gives a welcome. The Broadway Blessing Choir sings show music throughout, ending with a sing-along.
“An actor offers a theatre reflection. Among those who have filled this role are Lynn Redgrave, Boyd Gaines, Melissa Errico, Marian Seldes, Frances Sternhagen, and Herrmann.
“Musical theatre stars sing solos, and we often have actors performing parts of plays they are in — those are solo, too. Among those who have taken part in some way are Chita Rivera, Stephanie J. Block, James Barbour, Mary-Mitchell Campbell, Tituss Burgess, Kathleen Chalfant, Billy Porter, and Broadway Inspirational Voices.
“We have a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, dancers, and a candle-lighting ceremony.”
For many years Broadway Blessing met at St. Clement’s, the site of this year’s celebration. St. Clement’s says on its website that it “serves the theatre district community, symbolized by our famous Mass in the Theatre (most Sundays). We remain the third oldest, continually operating Off Broadway Theatre in New York City.”
Broadway Blessing met at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine for five years when the Rev. Thomas Miller served as canon for liturgy and the arts. “I was pleased to have Broadway Blessing at the cathedral,” Miller said. “It seemed like the event had outgrown the worship spaces available in the Theatre District.”
He reflected on this year’s event. “I felt it was so right for it to be back in the theatre neighborhood. It was SRO, but I don’t think anyone was turned away. Neighborhood is key to Broadway Blessing’s significance. In many ways, the Broadway Theatre is a small town or village embedded in a global city. So, the coming together of Lutheran, Roman, Episcopal churches, along with the Actors’ Synagogue, in an ecumenical/interfaith initiative is what lots of towns, villages, and cities across America do.”
Miller added: “Since the cathedral days, as I observed this year, Broadway Blessing continues to attract younger talent and is an impressive showcase of rising stars, in addition to the attraction of more seasoned performers. This year’s lineup included Lee Roy Reams, Marta Sanders, and Jeff McCarthy as well as a bunch of ‘kids’ undertaking their first Broadway roles. Lots of energy there, as you can imagine.”