Elton John, The Phantom of the Opera and Lynn Swann: The Rush Limbaugh Affair

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“Dave…it’s a Lou Pecarelli on the phone for you” said one of the interns in my office.

Not that I’m a big call screener, but I usually ask whomever answers the phone to find out at least who it is what the call is about so I’m sure that I don’t want to talk to them.

I didn’t know Lou, but I was told it was “something about booking some singers for some event” …nice and specific.  A very pleasant yet somewhat New York-to-the-point, businesslike voice was on the other end from Florida and immediately tore into his mission. “I’ve been calling Creative Artists Agency and Columbia Artists and they can’t seem to help me. They suggested I call you,” he said rapidly. “I’m coordinating the entertainment for a big society wedding here in Palm Beach and I need some really good Broadway singers…ones that have done The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and Jekyll and Hyde on Broadway.  “The bride and groom are big fans of Phantom of the Opera”, he said, so that I knew the music of this show was particularly important.

“I think I can help you there,” I told him (after he let me know subtlety that money was no particular roadblock for us).  Phrases like “money is not an issue” and “we want the best and we are willing to pay for it” are about as rare in the entertainment business as a good musical idea in a Steve Miller song.  Armed with this knowledge, I began to think of artists who would fit the bill. My friend Rob Evan had played both Valjean and Jekyll on Broadway and was chosen to sing the role of The Phantom at The Kennedy Center honoring Phantom of the Opera composer Andrew Lloyd Weber.  Another friend Lisa Vroman  (she was Fantine while during my stint as Valjean on the Les Miz tour) was the “go to”  person to play Christine whenever the company needed someone for a U.S. or worldwide production. I told Lou about them and I began to make phone calls.

The date was months away.  I was able to land the fees the singers wanted, so the arrangements were made and there was plenty of time to put it all together. After Rob and Lisa were all set, Lou called back and told me that there would be “something extra” in my fee and would I please use that to be present at the event, which was taking place at The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach. “I’ll put you up at The Breakers for the weekend…I don’t really need you to do anything but just be here and make sure all goes smoothly.” A weekend at The Breakers?…one of the nicer hotels on the planet?…I was SO there. 

Months went by and the songs began to be chosen (with much consultation with the bride and with a obviously heavy emphasis on Phantom of the Opera) and all seemed to be in order. During another phone call Lou began to mention some song choices and some details about the bride and groom.  The song choices he mentioned began to seem a bit odd (songs sung by people when they were dying…that sort of thing). He went on…”well you know… with him being in the news and all…with his heart trouble…”. I explained I didn’t understand what he was talking about and he asked had he not told me whose wedding this was all for. As he had not, he went on to explain that the wedding was for radio host and controversial political pundit Rush Limbaugh.

I’ll say it here and now…I freely admit to listening to Rush’s show over the years…not because I necessarily agree with his politics but I find him very entertaining and love it when he gets all worked up and “tees off” on some liberal political figure…I look at it as more of a comedy act. I was fine with taking Mr. Limbaugh’s money and I figured my friend Rob was as well but I wasn’t sure about Lisa and her politics.  “Look Lou” I said, “I gotta make a couple of phone calls and make sure everyone is cool with this.” Only after my eardrum burst from Lisa’s scream over the phone when I told her who they were performing for, did I remember that she was a Birkenstock style ragin’ liberal. I saw months of planning going down the sewers of Paris.

Arrangements had been put together in Rob and Lisa’s specific keys and some music had even been recorded to the specifications of these singers. Forget having to redo all of that, there was the scary thought of replacing Lisa which would not be easy given her talent. These two singers were truly the only ones I could completely trust with this.  After some “let’s think of it this way” type coaxing from me, Lisa finally said “you know what… I’ll take part of the fee he pays me and make a donation to The Democratic National Committee…OK…I’ll do it.” All would go on as planned.

We were told that there would be some BIG name entertainment taking place after the reception and we all figured it would be Toby Keith or someone of the like who had already associated themselves with that side of the political spectrum. It was a very hush, hush and no one was supposed to find out until the day. When we all arrived on Friday for the rehearsal, we were told (under penalty of water boarding if we let it out) that the post-reception big name entertainer would be none other than Sir Elton John.

This bombshell was relayed to us as if they were telling us that Beef Wellington would be served for dinner.  For me this was truly exciting, yet it did seem a bit odd…Elton John performing At Rush Limbaugh’s wedding? Only Madonna and Jesse Helms could have been more political polar opposites. Still, it was quite thrilling that we would be seeing an icon (if ever there was one) of the music business.

But how did this come to pass? Rush and his now-wife had been vacationing in Hawaii when Mr. Limbaugh developed what some believed to be heart trouble. Sir Elton happened to be staying in the same hotel and inquired of the manager as to Mr. Limbaugh’s condition. Rush joked in his speech at the reception saying he asked the hotel manager whether Elton was happy or upset at the news was that he was OK. The bride to be wrote a letter thanking Elton for his concern and an email friendship of sorts ensued. As the day drew closer, she sent an email telling Sir Elton that there is no one they would rather have play at their wedding (I would have loved to have heard the discussions in that committee when the decision to ask Elton John was made). With the flash of a few emails (and a reported $1 million dollar fee) suddenly Elton John’s European tour schedule was changed, Rush’s future wife got what she wanted, and we were going to be the beneficiaries of her good taste.

As I sat behind a row of Republican luminaries and pundits during the ceremony, I noticed that right in front of me was Democratic commentator and strategist James Carville and his wife, Mary Matalin…(she does the same thing James does but only for the other side).  Carville was fidgety and looked none to happy to be there throughout the entire ceremony. But other than some exasperated breaths from Mr. Carville, it was quite beautiful and actually a lovely ceremony.

Rob, Lisa and the orchestra began to move thru their “set”. As they sang duets from Phantom… I realized that of all of the people I knew in the musical theatre industry or had heard sing these songs over the years, it would be impossible to beat what I was hearing from Rob and Lisa. They were simply stunning and had already wowed Rush and company the day before at the rehearsal. I think this moment in the ceremony was when I began to feel any sort of “politics” fade away (save Mr. Carville’s obvious chagrin) and the focus moved to the incredible music we were hearing and the joy of a marriage.

The music of the ceremony and went off perfectly and I found that satisfaction I get from having people pleased with my choices for them. Rob and Lisa had made me look good.

The reception hall soon began to fill with a conservative cavalcade of “stars of the right”.  At the table next to me was Senator, Actor (Law and Order, Hunt for Red October) and former Presidential candidate Fred Thompson. Oddly enough, we are both from the same small town in Tennessee so I introduced myself. I explained the connection and he replied in that totally recognizable voice, that he didn’t think there were too many others there from Lawrenceburg, TN. I watched Rudy Giuliani nervously come in and out of the room and knew that somewhere in the midst of the festivities was Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (thus the Secret Service presence). Sean Hannity walked by and everywhere I looked I saw many other political faces made famous by CNN and Fox News. I may not have been able to remember all of their names nor exactly what they did but I knew that you would not find a DVD of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth in their movie collection.

Rob grabbed me suddenly and said that he was just on the dance floor next to Lynn Swann. If you don’t know, Lynn Swann was a 4-time Super Bowl winner with The Pittsburgh Steelers, Hall of Famer, sportscaster and maybe the best wide receiver to ever play the great sport of the tackle football. NOW I was excited. I couldn’t lay eyes on him but hoped I would accidentally on purpose run into him during the evening. Swann has become involved in conservative politics in Pennsylvania, thus his appearance.

Rush made a quick speech and we were told it was time for us to move into a hotel ballroom intimately set for 400 people. A lone grand piano was set on a small stage and it was not long until the the man himself, with little fanfare simply walked to the stage, sat at the piano and adjusted the microphone just so. One has to wonder how many times Elton John has observed this ritual in his over 40 years in the music business. What I knew was that somehow I had never been able to see him live and now I was going to get that pleasure in an intimate setting…an experience probably very few have.

Eb, Ab/Eb, Bb/Eb…these chord changes began to pop into my head as Elton John began his set with “Your Song”. It was one of the first songs I had ever learned to play on the piano and while I rarely play now, I could still spout all of those chords like The Pledge of Allegiance. It hit me that this amazing song was a hit for Elton some 40 years ago (it was off his self-titled 2nd album released in 1970)…it just didn’t seem like that long ago. He sounded amazing as he went from hit to hit to super smash hit. I realized just what an important figure he is and has been for over 40 years in the popular music world. Four #1 hits…Sixteen top 10s…Grammys out the ass with a Tony and an Oscar to bookend all the Grammys. Someone who truly deserves the title and status of “legend” was playing and singing within a short distance of me and I was mesmerized. It was simply wonderful from all perspectives. He sounded great (although I did miss some of his signature falsetto…he sang around it on this nite for some reason) and he played with such style and groove. To quote Mr. Joel…that piano sounded like a carnival as obviously it was a MIDI grand piano and he had a rack of synth units in the back but it was all controlled and played by him. I began to realize how much Elton John was one of my early musical influences. His music was so omnipresent in my youth that I think I began to absorb things from him and didn’t even know it. In my youth, I wore out the grooves in my highly prized Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album as I sang along and mispronounced… well, distorted all the words right along with him. C’mon did you REALLY know the first time you heard “Bennie and the Jets” that the word was “magazine”? “Back to the howling old owl in the woods, hunting the horny back toad” was what this young fan read as I listened to “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road“…. “That’s what those words are?” I would think to myself as I held the double-LP sleeve reading the lyrics and trying to figure them out. Ah, that Bernie Taupin …he had us children of the 70s all phonetically singing lyrics that we didn’t even know what they were much less what they meant. Not that I ever sounded like Elton John or played like him but I do believe much of what went into my early musical formation was influenced somewhat by him. He was just so good and present in music that you couldn’t help but emulate. This all hit me in the flash of “Your Song’s” intro and made the experience all the more moving. It was as if all the conservatives and us, the small band of musicians in the back, were getting our own living room show but instead of the grand-kids, the star was a musical and cultural icon.

At some point during his hit-parade 75-minute set, I began to look at all of the people seated in front of and around me. I again saw Fred Thompson (a bastion of conservative politics), the great Lynn Swann (I had finally met him and gawkingly spoke to him as he showed me his Hall of Fame ring), some other important Republican party official (whose name escaped me) and most surprisingly, an openly gay male couple (wait… how’d they get into the Rush Limbaugh wedding?) with their arms affectionately around each other. What struck me was that all of these people from their various walks of life, were all within 20 feet of each other. What else but this amazing artist and his stunning repertoire could have brought such a vastly different and diverse group of people together. For these hours…from Rob and Lisa singing gloriously to Sir Elton doing his “thing”, there were no politics. There was no left or right. There was no intolerance. There was only the music…amazing music that was a gigantic punctuation mark on a celebration that we were all there to share. Rob, Lisa and I sang all the background vocals sitting in the back of the audience just as if we were on the stage with Elton and had microphones. The fun and the sight-sound-memory flooded our minds as did the energy of what was happening overtake and flood all of those in the room. Needless to say…it has become an important chapter in my musical memoir.

What else but music and great artists performing it has this power to make the divides disappear. “Is there a political divide?” Rush had said in his speech at the reception…”of course there is a political divide between us (He and Elton) but there is also much mutual admiration between two people who are at the top of their chosen professions and tonite, we will focus on that.” Elton said much the same thing during his show but even a bit more passionately…” I am a tearer down of walls and a builder of bridges, so maybe we can tear some walls down and build a bridge or two here tonight.”  He then looked at Rush and his new bride and earnestly asked them to “Please come stay with David and I at our home in England.” Rush nodded. Who knows if he would ever do something like that but you could tell that Elton was dead serious about the invitation.

The audience roared with applause at Elton’s statement as they had while leaping to their feet after EVERY song…seriously, every song got a standing ovation. The power of music and great artistry had taken us all over and for that period of time that is all there was.

Do I think any of these people went back to Washington and changed their political views after this incredible evening of music?…I seriously doubt it. Will Rush Limbaugh suddenly change any of his staunch and sometimes very unpopular views on certain topics?…the odds are not good. But…maybe…just maybe the slightest seeds of tolerance were sewn that night.

Maybe the next time a political agenda, that may not be in ALL our best interests, is on the table, a LITTLE thought may be given before making a rash decision…a decision with a bit of thought given to ALL of us. Maybe someone will take pause before espousing some position that could be viewed as intolerant and think better of it. Just maybe, as we all were bonded by the gifts of the moment, there was some subtle, unknowing change in our minds that night. One hopes that somehow, in some way, it will make our point of view a little broader as we consider the differences between us and realize that they may not be as vast as we sometimes think. An unrealistic hope?…quite probably. Not a chance in hell?…yeah… well…but as the impact of that evening lingers with me, I find myself with a shred of hope… a glimmer of faith in ALL of us that maybe the power and gift of music could be the rare, hard-to-find yet common bond in us all…that it might have the power to make us see things from a different perspective.

It certainly bonded the folks in the room that night. Maybe, hopefully, possibly that bond can permeate that part of us that thinks what we personally believe is what is right for all of us and only if even slightly, open our minds that maybe there are other places that we can meet in the middle. Hell…I can dream can’t I?

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Clem emerged from the underbelly of NashVegas where he began his love of ALL things musical. College found him in the commercial music program at the University of Miami where he actually learned what the hell he was doing. New York was next and whether he “made it there” is still up for debate. From playing in the honky-tonks of Nashville and the dance clubs of Miami to Broadway and theatrical stages around the country, to Carnegie Hall (while practicing one day somebody told him how to get there) and the recording studios of New York and L.A., Clem’s variety of musical experience has transcended the boundaries of genre. He owns a production company, lectures on music in colleges across the country and is on the visiting faculty of Elon Univ. He has a port-o-johns named after him at Bonnaroo, Coachella and Lollapalooza.