Benj Pasek, one-half of the revered songwriting duo Pasek and Paul, was alone at his home in New York in mid-March ― reading tweets about how lonely Passover would be amid the coronavirus pandemic ― when an idea struck him. He texted a few friends and started brainstorming ways they could virtually celebrate the Jewish holiday. After chatter trickled through social circles, Pasek had a creative team of quarantined professionals ready to work pro-bono.
“We had a writers room full of comedians and people from TV who weren’t doing anything, we had a bunch of songwriters who were trying to map out original songs and all of these actors who were looking for an outlet of where they could be helpful,” Pasek told HuffPost. “Everyone was just feeling so helpless at this time and all of a sudden this went from a very small thing that snowballed into something bigger than we would have ever imagined it to be.”
“Saturday Night Seder,” debuting on the fourth night of Passover, was a technical and theatrical triumph featuring two original songs (“Dayenu” and “Next Year”), sketches by comedians and writers including Alex Edelman and Hannah Friedman, and musical performances by Cynthia Erivo, Shoshana Bean, Idina Menzel and Ben Platt. Dozens of Jewish and non-Jewish celebrities took part in the digital get-together, including Fran Drescher, Tan France, Beanie Feldstein, Dan Levy, Billy Porter and Henry Winkler.
“Bette Midler was also at our seder,” head writer Edelman told HuffPost. “Like, that’s something so few Jews get to say.”
It took more than two weeks of 18-plus hour days ― complete with writers rooms, rehearsals, recordings and edits ― to make a 70-minute philanthropic Zoom production look seamless. During its initial stream on April 11, “Saturday Night Seder” was viewed a million times on its personal website and BuzzFeed’s Tasty YouTube channel. And to date, it has raised over $3.5 million for the CDC Foundation’s Coronavirus Emergency Response Fund.
“This holiday is all about telling the story of being in a place of confinement and going to a place of liberation, all while a plague is occurring,” Pasek said. “And so it never felt more timely, especially in the very early months of COVID.”
Jason Alexander got an email from Pasek toward the beginning of the brainstorming process. As a huge fan of Pasek’s songwriting work with Justin Paul, the actor was immediately interested in being a guest at the virtual seder. Little did he know he’d become host of the ceremonies, singing the original opening number “Dayenu” alongside non-Jewish personalities Darren Criss, Rachel Brosnahan and Josh Groban.
“It turned out to be such a great slot to kick it all off and tie it all up,” Alexander told HuffPost. “And it really wasn’t until Benj sent me the song that I thought, wow, they aren’t kidding around! They’re writing, they’re orchestrating, they’re doing this whole production. I thought it was going to be more or less a Zoom conference, taped. And it was so much more than that. It was impressive.”
As a co-writer and executive producer, Pasek takes little credit for the feat his team pulled off. The pandemic-produced project was made with no studio or network backing and created by unpaid individuals using their own resources from home: Slack, Dropbox, Zoom and Google Sheets. Edelman said the crew would sometimes be on a video call for hours ― with one even lasting an unbelievable 25 hours and 51 minutes. “We closed it to watch the last cut. Our work wasn’t even over,” Edelman said, laughing.
“I actually think it changed the way I feel about technology,” he added. “I now have extremely close personal friendships with folks that I’ve never met. I would say that there are people that I worked with on this who hopefully I will be friends with forever. I couldn’t believe how fun and breezy the interpersonal parts of this was over Zoom.”
Fellow writer Friedman was proud to be a part of something so “unprecedented,” considering “Saturday Night Seder” came out around the time of at-home late night shows but before other digital variety specials like “One World: Together At Home” and Sondheim’s 90th Birthday Celebration.
“We were crossing our fingers as things came together, hoping that this would not be a disaster,” she told HuffPost. “We were juggling all these projects and these dream lists of ifs. ‘Who’s going to do what? And what if we get such and such person, that would be incredible! What can we write for them in the next hour because they’re interested to do it, but they want to know what it is?’ It was really by the seat of our pants.”
That energy paid off, as “Saturday Night Seder” is now part of the Emmy race.
The event was submitted for nominations in four categories: Outstanding Variety Special (Pre-Recorded), Outstanding Writing for a Variety Special, Original Music & Lyrics for “Dayenu” and Original Music & Lyrics for “Next Year.” And although nothing is official yet, any nomination would be groundbreaking for a quarantine-created, celebrity-led fundraiser. As the industry shut down amid the ongoing global crisis, storytellers like Pasek, Edelman and Friedman worked within a new format of entertainment to keep the artistic juices flowing ― and now that worthwhile endeavor could go up against well-funded specials from the likes of Hannah Gadsby and Patton Oswalt on Emmy night.
It could also earn Pasek the final notch in his EGOT belt, as he and Paul have already won Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards for their work on the 2015 musical “Dear Evan Hansen” and 2016′s “La La Land.”
But Pasek would rather not think about that.
“It would be crazy if something like that happened for a duct-taped together Jewish special,” he said. “But awards aside, if that were not even a part of the narrative at all, it truly was one of the most joyful, communal things that I’ve gotten to be a part of. Getting to see everybody throw their talents behind something just to collectively make something meaningful, that’s why you want to make things in the first place. It brings you back to that initial impulse of when you’re a kid at theater camp and you just want to play with your friends.”
Edelman and Friedman couldn’t agree more. The Emmy chatter is the cherry on top of a lopsided layered cake that just so happened to earn a gigantic troupe of admirers ― and millions of dollars for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It’s bananas, really,” Edelman said. “Part of me is like, ‘It’s so dumb.’ But also part of me is like, ‘Yeah! Awesome!’ Because this isn’t a network production. This is something that a couple dozen idiots made on their laptops in their basements and attics. In my mind, I have to sometimes remember not to refer to it as ‘The Video.’”
“But even though it was just a video, it had some of the most talented stars and comedians, as well as great thinkers in the incredible rabbis and scholars Alex brought in to speak to the themes of the holiday and speak to the emotions of living through this terrifying moment together,” Friedman added. “We didn’t go into it expecting to have this kind of attention, but I think it spoke to the power of the message of Passover. We had gravitas and humor. We had Jason Alexander! And the fact that it evolved into this really complex variety show is just a testament to all of the people who are involved, and also to the power of that moment of trying to come together.”
For his part, Alexander is honored to be a part of something as daring as “Saturday Night Seder” and thinks it landed at just the right time, given that it celebrates a story of renewal in which tremendous adversity was overcome by tenacity, ingenuity and perseverance.
“What was surprising and thrilling to me was how they took something that I’ve always seen through such a specifically Jewish lens and made it something that everyone could enjoy, whether they came for the spirit of it or the musicality of it or the storytelling of it. It just became something very universal,” Alexander said.
“To have this specific Jewish story in Jewish tradition opened up and re-explored and made so accessible to such a grand audience. Wow,” he continued, “that couldn’t be a sweeter thing. And it couldn’t be more timely because of COVID; it couldn’t be more timely because of what we’re finding now in the divisiveness of our current political divide and cultural divide is all these nascent and not-so-nascent racist tendencies in our society. They are bubbling up and becoming exposed and becoming a raw nerve and the wonderful thing is that we are forced to look at it and address it and hopefully evoke real change.”
You can watch “Saturday Night Seder” here.