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New York theater community rallies for first Matthew Shepard Foundation fundraiser

On that day, in those 19 hours five Octobers ago, it wasn’t love that embraced him, it was the fence to which he was tied and left to die, slowly, beaten, crucified, freezing, in the desolate hills outside Laramie, Wyoming.

so who cares whose arms I’m all wrapped up in

who cares whose eyes I see myself in

who cares who I dream of

no it doesn’t matter who I dream of

‘cause in the end it only matters that I was loved

and am loved.

When she first heard about the murder of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, Randi Driscoll wrote a ballad and called it “What Matters.” She will sing it as part of the other performances in “Embrace!” a one-night-only concert to benefit the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

The money raised will go toward such projects as Matthew’s Place, shelters established for housing and caring for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered youth who find themselves on the street or in other desperate straits.

Matthew died in October 1998. In December of that year, his parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, established a foundation in his name. Eleven months later, Dennis Shepard made a declaration in court supporting life imprisonment rather than death for one of his son’s two killers.

“Embrace!” is the first major benefit for the Matthew Shepard Foundation. Jamie McGonnigal, the 28-year-old who is directing and producing the event, has asked all participants “to look for music and songs that have some application to the word ‘embrace.’”

Linda Benanti, late of “Nine,” will sing Stephen Sondheim’s “Children Will Listen” from “Into the Woods;” Raul Esparza of “Taboo” will sing Stephen Schwartz’s “Forgiveness Is Embrace;” Michael Arden of “Big River” will sing “Not Afraid” from his own “Easter Rising,” and so on for the 30 or more artists scheduled to perform.

“Luckily we also have some funny people,” McGonnigal said. One of them is Charles Busch, the evening’s host. Musical direction will be by Mat Eisenstein, who worked with McGonnigal on a recent “Children of Eden” concert for World AIDS Day.

At least three Off Broadway shows will be represented en masse: “Fame on 42nd Street,” “Naked Boys Singing,” and “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” the long running hit at the Westside itself.

“Because I’m the same age as Matthew Shepard,” McGonnigal said––the same age, had Matthew lived––“I always felt a kinship.”

McGonnigal saw “The Laramie Project,” that clear-eyed yet compassionate post-Shepard cross-section of that town in Wyoming by Moises Kaufman’s Tectonic Company–– in fact, he read it, saw it on the stage, saw it again on HBO.

“And started sobbing during the opening credits,” McGonnigal said.

There will probably be a few sobs at the Westside Theatre, but maybe also some dedication, uplift, catharsis, and, of course, embrace.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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