'Rise Up New York': How NYC Star Power Highlighted Life at the COVID-19 Epicenter

On Monday night, Billy Joel one of the few faces lingering in the otherwise largely deserted Times Square; His face appeared high in the sky, beamed onto 12 giant digital billboards in the famously chaotic midtown Manhattan neighborhood. It simultaneously beamed into TVs and internet livestreams as part of the Rise Up New York! COVID-19 benefit telethon, which Joel brought to a close with his 1976 New York City anthem, “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway).” A few blocks away, the lights of the Empire State Building sparkled in time with his piano.

Hosted by Tina Fey and featuring a lineup packed with NYC heavy hitters — from Robert De Niro and Jennifer Lopez to Barbra Streisand and RZA — Rise Up New York! helped raise money for the Robin Hood Foundation, which has been fighting poverty in NYC for over 30 years. The event helped bring the total of Robin Hood’s COVID-19 relief fund up to $115 million. And while the event served as a classic, bighearted benefit with plenty of entertainment, it also sought to provide an honest and unsparing snapshot of life at the center of the pandemic — and to highlight those working tirelessly to ensure the city and its people persevere and rebuild.

May 11th had long been blocked out on Robin Hood’s calendar, which regularly hosts its annual benefit the Monday after Mother’s Day. While putting together any large-scale event is always a hefty haul, doing so with everyone working working remotely and trying to practice social distancing made it a Herculean feat.

“It would’ve been completely understandable if people said, ‘Listen I’m too busy, or I can’t go out on set, I can’t go out on site and do some taping because I don’t want to leave my home’ or whatever the case might be,” Robin Hood CEO Wes Moore tells Rolling Stone. “One thing that’s really happened though is we have a group of people who have not forgotten who it is that we’re supposed to be fighting for. And when you’re talking about doing an event that’s going to not just honor and thank, but actually create resources and pathways for essential workers, frontline people, first responders — many of whom are still essentially the working poor — when people understand who they’re fighting for, they don’t stop fighting. I think that’s been a key part of our secret sauce.”

While Fey hosted the event live, almost every other element of the special was pre-recorded. Still, that meant some crafty technical work to stitch together musical performances featuring multiple people. Mariah Carey, her back-up singers and a pianist performed “Make It Happen,” a socially distanced Bon Jovi came together for “It’s My Life” and Broadway stars Lin-Manuel Miranda, Cynthia Erivo, Ben Platt, Idina Menzel, Chris Jackson, Andrew Rannells and Karen Olivo teamed for a rendition of “Theme From New York, New York.” Even Staten Island’s acclaimed P.S. 22 chorus was able to corral its many individual student voices together for a rousing rendition of Andra Day’s “Rise Up.”   

Moore credits longtime Robin Hood board member and iHeartMedia executive John Sykes with leading the charge to book the big names for Rise Up. One of his biggest gets was New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, whom Sykes convinced to introduce Joel’s closing performance. “When you get an ask from John Sykes, you do it,” Moore quips, though he adds that the New York-centric focus and cause made Rise Up an easy sell to those who’ve called the city home.

“It’s either where they’re from, like Lin-Manuel Miranda, where they built their career, like Cynthia Erivo, or where they’ve devoted their lives to serving, like Andrew Cuomo,” Moore says. “You have people who feel like they owe New York — they owe New York for their hustle, for their swag, for their vision, and at a time when New York has really been the epicenter of this crisis. I think they look at this as a way to say thank you.”

That was certainly true for Fey, who not only ran the proceedings live, but did so not from the comfort of her home, but from her old stomping grounds at 30 Rockefeller Center. “It was her idea,” Moore says. “She said, ‘If we do it, let’s make sure we go out and really do it.’”

Rise Up also made sure to use its all-star cast of locals to highlight the specific industries and neighborhoods in New York that have been hit hardest. Streisand, Audra McDonald and Patti LuPone mourned the loss of Broadway shows and looked forward to their return; chefs David Chang and Angie Mar highlighted the devastating impact COVID-19 has had on the restaurant industry; and RZA, Chris Rock, Fab 5 Freddy, Beastie Boys’ Ad-Rock and Mike D, Rosie Perez, Salt-n-Pepa and Run-D.M.C.’s Darryl McDaniels teamed for a tribute to NYC hip-hop that stressed just how badly the genre’s birthplace, the Bronx, is struggling with the pandemic.

That segment was particularly meaningful for Moore, who spent a good chunk of his childhood in the Bronx and even returned to his old neighborhood to film a short segment that aired at the beginning of the special. To that end, it was no surprise that despite all the star power involved in Rise Up, Moore’s thoughts repeatedly turned to segments peppered throughout the special featuring testimonials from people on the frontlines of the crisis. Robin Hood supports a network of about 300 non-profits in New York City and it used those connections to ensure Rise Up boosted the voices of those like Rev. Dr. Terry Troia, who’s running a homeless shelter out of her church on Staten Island, or Swami Durga Das, whose organization the River Fund is helping feed communities in Queens.

“That’s what we want people to see,” Moore says. “For so many of us, our job is to follow orders and stay inside and socially distance, but we have millions of people who don’t have that as an option. And unfortunately that weight often falls on our communities of color, our communities that were in poverty beforehand, the working poor — those are the communities that we fight for.”

While Robin Hood always has its yearly gala, Rise Up New York! is just the third such event of its kind for the non-profit, following the 12-12-12 concert after Hurricane Sandy and the Concert for New York after 9/11. Similarly, those two catastrophes had marked the only time Robin Hood had been spurred into launching a disaster relief fund prior to COVID-19. But Moore notes that the parallels end there: The circumstances now are drastically different and will require a new kind of solidarity and response.

“Before we’ve had horrific moments, terrifying moments, and then days after, the recovery began,” he says. “That’s not the case with this. Right now, we don’t yet know what the bottom looks like. Right now, we don’t have a full sense of how bad this is going to get on either a health level or an economic level. That’s what makes this so unprecedented and that’s also why something like Rise Up New York! becomes so important as we’re thinking about the many tools that we’re going to have to bring to this fight.”

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