How the stars aligned for suburban, city producers to create 'Sweet Home Chicago' video
Days before Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued stay-at-home orders to address the COVID-19 pandemic, writer/producer Jason Brett, producer Scott Silberstein and author Mark Larson were mulling over a new project: producing a documentary based on Larson's 2019 book "Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theater."
Overnight, Chicago area theaters went dark. And "it was evident pretty quickly that nothing was going to be the same for a long time," said Brett, a former resident of Glenview and co-founder of Chicago's Apollo Theater.
Realizing "a different chapter" was beginning in Chicago's theater history and recognizing that abruptly unemployed artists might need financial assistance, they came up with the idea for an ensemble fundraiser: a video set to the blues anthem "Sweet Home Chicago" and featuring current and former Chicago artists filming themselves remotely.
"We all had this passion, love and admiration for this thing we had all participated in which was the Chicago performing arts community," said Brett .
The three men -- along with music director/arranger Jesse Nolan and fellow producer and video editor Matt Hoffman, Silberstein's partner in the Des Plaines-based HMS Media -- leveraged their connections and solicited participants for the project. It premiered earlier this month on YouTube.com and includes a link to the Arts for Illinois Relief Fund at artsforillinois.org/sweethomechicago, where viewers can donate.
More than $35,000 was raised as of Wednesday night.
Brett's first call went to longtime friend and Wheaton native Jim Belushi, who agreed to participate even before Brett finished his pitch. More than 70 artists eventually signed on, including Grammy Award-winning jazz singer Kurt Elling, Tony Award winners Jessie Mueller and Andre DeShields, violinist Rachel Barton Pine, jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis, Rhymefest, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Brad Hall, E. Faye Butler, Keegan-Michael Key, Twista, Michael Mahler and Dara Cameron, Jeff Perry, Felicia P. Fields, Grammy Award-winner Jim Peterik, George Wendt and Joe Mantegna.
"People were so generous, it was an embarrassment of riches," said Brett, but "at some point we had to cap it and give everybody their instructions."
Although he started out as an actor, Brett has devoted much of his career to producing. His wide-ranging credits include Steppenwolf Theatre's remounts of "Balm in Gilead" and "True West" and a production of David Mamet's "Sexual Perversity in Chicago" at the Apollo that starred Jim Belushi. He also produced the film "About Last Night …" with Rob Lowe, Demi Moore and Belushi in a supporting role.
Yet, Brett calls the "Sweet Home Chicago" project one of his most rewarding producing experiences and a labor of love.
Even after countless viewings, the video - which has generated thousands of hits - still puts a smile on Brett's face.
"It's got a narrative arc, a musical arc and everyone's having a great time," said Brett, who collaborated with composer/lyricist Michael Mahler on 2019's Joseph Jefferson Award-winning musical "Miracle."
Brett attributes the project's success to Hoffman and Nolan, who came up with the idea to pair tap dancers with Lewis' piano improvisation and Elling's scatting.
Other highlights include Mueller counting down the intro, Butler's asides, DeShields' belly laugh and Belushi's wistful coda.
"If (the video) doesn't make you want to dance, you should get your vitals checked," Brett chuckled.
In the spirit of a grass roots movement, producers are asking for donations of $2, $5, $10 or whatever viewers can spare to help preserve Chicago area artists. They also hope the video generates some corporate largesse.
"The need is great and it's only going to get more dire," said Brett, who's already contemplating other ways to help their community.
"Sweet Home Chicago" is a start, he says -- "a joyful love letter to the city of Chicago" and the artists who make it second to none.