President Obama did not say the words “marriage equality,” but the concept hovered over the theater in New York City where a cast of notable performers celebrated his campaign through song on Monday night. Highlights including a “Marriage Medley” with Cheyenne Jackson and Megan Hilty and a Patti LuPone and Audra McDonald performance of a classic Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand duet reminded the audience of what Obama and his booster, Bill Clinton, left largely unspoken as they focused on the economy.
The sold-out event, Barack on Broadway, drew 1,700 people to the New Amsterdam Theatre, home of Mary Poppins, with tickets ranging from $250 to $1,000, including a limited number of discount $100 tickets. A cross section of the Democratic base, including young professionals, African-Americans, and LGBT supporters, attended.
Obama and Clinton, who introduced his successor, hammered economic messages following dismal news last week. The May report from the Labor Department showed anemic job growth and a rise in the unemployment rate for the first time since last June, underscoring the challenge facing President Obama in his reelection bid.
Clinton acknowledged that conditions are “not perfect now” and “a little slow,” but he defended the work Obama has done since taking office after “the deepest crash since the Great Depression.” He noted that 4.3 million private sector jobs have been created in the last 27 months, while 800,000 jobs were lost in the month Obama took office. Clinton argued that Obama had put forward the best possible effort, and he attributed the sluggishness more to problems in Europe and a Republican Congress fixated on “austerity and unemployment now at all costs.”
“And he analyzed this situation properly,” said Clinton. “He did the best he could with a lousy hand. And he will do better if the American people said no, we don't want to go back to what got us in trouble in the first place. Give us a 21st-century economy we can all be a part of.”
Obama entered to loud applause and a standing ovation. His 30-minute stump speech made a case for reelection that contrasted his “forwards” approach with the “backwards” proposals of his opponent, Mitt Romney, and the Republican Party.
“They're not offering anything new, they're just saying, things are tough right now and it’s Obama’s fault,” he said. “You can pretty much sum up their argument. There’s no vision for the future there.”
The president listed the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” among his achievements as Clinton, who implemented the military policy, sat behind him onstage. That was his only explicit mention of LGBT policy, Last month in New York City, at a fundraiser cohosted by Ricky Martin geared toward LGBT and Latino voters, the president said the words “marriage equality” for the first time in public remarks.
“We’re not going to go back to a time when our military could expel somebody because of who they loved,” said Obama. “We believe in everybody being treated fairly and equally, and respecting everybody’s rights. We’re not going to go backwards. We’re going forwards.”
As the applause built, the president continued with an appeal about women’s rights, which culminated in another standing ovation and the strongest cheers of the night.
“We’re not going to go back to the days when somehow women couldn’t get the preventive care that they need,” he said. “We don’t need a situation where women aren’t controlling their own health care choices. We don’t need to eliminate Planned Parenthood. I want my daughters to have the same opportunities as my sons. That’s part of what America is about. We’re not turning back the clock. We’re not going backwards.”
Obama seemed to strain for words at a few other points. He referred to the presumptive Republican nominee by his father’s name on first mention. The crowd laughed.
“George Romney — wrong guy,” said the president. “Governor Romney — he was a good governor. Governor Romney is a, he's a patriotic American. He's had great success in his life, and he's raised a beautiful family. But he has a theory of the economy that basically says, ‘If I'm maximizing returns for my investors, for wealthy individuals like myself, then everybody is going to be better off.’”
The fund-raiser marked the third event of the night for Obama and Clinton. Earlier, events were held at the Upper East Side home of hedge fund manager Mark Lasry, where about 50 donors paid $40,000 each, and at the Waldorf-Astoria, where around 500 attendees paid at least $2,500 and Jon Bon Jovi delivered an acoustic performance of “Livin’ on a Prayer,” according to the pool report. The campaign does not comment on totals raised, but it said that proceeds from the events went to the Obama Victory Fund, the Democratic National Committee, and several state Democratic parties.
The Broadway event, directed by George C. Wolfe, reprised a similar fundraiser organized for Obama at the same theater in 2007. He referenced the previous event in his speech.
“It is good to be back on Broadway,” he said. “I may be a little grayer than I was the last time on Broadway.”
The concert portion of the event was closed to press, but attendees afterward reported content that specifically appealed to the LGBT audience. Marriage equality was a topic from the beginning, according to accounts and copies of the Playbill.
Neil Patrick Harris offered welcoming remarks in which he said the president’s personal support for same-sex marriage announced last month was important to him. Next, Cheyenne Jackson and Smash star Megan Hilty performed a “Marriage Medley” featuring songs including “Marry the Man Today” from Guys and Dolls. When their performance concluded, a man walked onstage to present Jackson with a bouquet.
Mandy Patinkin performed “Over the Rainbow,” and the Judy Garland theme continued as Audra McDonald and Patti LuPone performed her classic duet with Barbra Streisand, featuring Get Happy and Happy Days Are Here Again. The campaign reported that other performances included Nina Arianda, Kerry Butler, Norbert Leo Butz, Bobby Cannavale, Stockard Channing, Chuck Cooper, James Earl Jones, Tony Kushner, Angela Lansbury, Hattienne Park, Patrick Wilson, and Jeffrey Wright.
Attendees expressed satisfaction with the event. They said the content of the president’s speech and the performances struck the right note for the broader Democratic crowd.
"It isn't terribly surprising that there was such an emphasis on the president's record on LGBT issues at an event like this," said Matthew McMorrow, president of the Lambda Independent Democrats, an LGBT political club in Brooklyn. "The LGBT community and its allies are strongly represented in New York's theater and entertainment industry, and this event fell at the beginning of LGBT Pride Month."
Richie Jackson, who attended with his partner, Broadway producer Jordan Roth, said that he was not disappointed the president had not explicitly said more about LGBT issues.
“I think that he is the strongest voice for our community and I think he is a true believer,” he said.
“If you’re going to do it, do it in a medley,” said Roth.
Dean Wrzeszcz said that he purchased his ticket for the event as soon as the president announced his support for marriage equality last month. Prior to that, he said he had been withholding contributions over the issue. His said his attitude before the announcement had been, “He’s got my vote. What’s the alternative? But I’m not giving him any money.”
President Obama will address the largest LGBT crowd to date since his announcement this Wednesday, when he heads from Broadway to Hollywood for the DNC’s LGBT Leadership Gala in Los Angeles. Tickets for the event at the Regent Beverly Wilshire, featuring the singer Pink, range from $1,250 to $25,000.
“The LGBT Gala will be a terrific event,” said Dana Perlman, a cochair of the LGBT Leadership Council. “Right up to the deadline, ticket sales remain extremely strong, all due to the fact that members of the LGBT community and its straight allies are extremely enthusiastic about the president. For many of us Californians, we live in a state where the outcome of the presidential race is pretty much set. So people are glad to have the opportunity to show their support for the president and their commitment to his reelection by coming to this event.”
That same night, Glee creator Ryan Murphy and his fiancé, David Miller, will also host Obama at a private $40,000-a-plate dinner. The last time the president visited Los Angeles, in May, he raised a record-breaking $15 million at a dinner hosted by George Clooney.