Broadway’s brightest stars united earlier this week to record a benefit single for the victims of the massacre at Orlando gay nightclub Pulse.
Wednesday evening, the A-list chorus – dubbed Broadway for Orlando – assembled in New York City to record a cover of the 1965 “What the World Needs Now Is Love.”
Crammed in a wooden room at Avatar Studios, there were Broadway veterans (Whoopi Goldberg, Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, Kelli O’Hara, Jessie Mueller); legends (Joel Grey, Audra McDonald, Carole King, Lin-Manuel Miranda); breakouts (Sara Bareilles) – and even LGBT rights royalty: DOMA challenger and equality pioneer Edith Windsor.
PEOPLE was inside the studio’s control room as the Great White Way mainstays milled about, the studio buzzing with excitement.
The whole scene felt like star-studded high school choir practice: You could feel the theater spirit of community and inclusivity, as old friends and current costars caught up.
The View pals Whoopie Goldberg and Rosie Perez chatted with Audra McDonald, and Waitress star Jessie Mueller laughed and took selfies with the show’s lyricist and composer, Sara Bareilles, before organizers James Wesley and Seth Rudetsky took the director’s podium to address the starry group.
“I am speechless,” producer Wesley told the chorus. (He and husband Rudetsky assembled the stars, who – along with Avatar Studios, an orchestra, Playbill and Broadway Records – donated their time and talents to the tribute.)
“I woke up Monday morning feeling completely helpless,” Wesley added. “I’m a complete news junky – did not want to watch the news at all. I went for a bike ride at 5:30, went down, and at 6:30 had Dionne Warwick’s ‘What the World Needs Now Is Love’ [stuck in my head], and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh: It’s like ‘We Are the World.’ We have to come together and do this song.'”
After thanking everyone for being a part of the benefit track, Rudetsky began directing the chorus.
From the first measure of the song, the singers delivered a goosebump-inducing wall of sounds, their voices filling the entire studio in perfect harmony.
The sheer power of the vocalists wasn’t lost on Rudetsky, who joked with a laugh: “I could use half of you!”
A few minutes into the recording session, Sarah Jessica Parker – who earlier had recorded a solo – snuck in and took her place in the back.
Later, Aladdin‘s Genie, James Monroe Iglehart, ducked out after contributing his Tony-winning baritone to the track – like most of the stars, he had to get back to the theater for the night’s show.
Soon after, Hamilton genius Lin-Manuel Miranda entered the room in between takes, and the entire studio erupted in applause for the recent Tony winner, as everyone from Rosie Perez to Audra McDonald greeted him with warm hugs before he took his place near Nathan Lane, Zachary Levi and Sean Hayes.
After finishing recording the chorus, the men left the studio, with Matthew Broderick catching a quick hug from Jessie Mueller and Carole King on his way out, while the women stayed, regrouping – gathering around the microphones and putting on studio headphones – to cut more harmony parts.
Wrapping their last take, the women began to shuffle out, as some of the singers stayed put to record solos.
As Whoopi Goldberg passed the control room, she greeted Joel Grey, telling him, “Hello, Joel Grey. Goodbye, Joel Grey,” with a hug and a peck on the cheek, before gushing, “You’re book [Master of Ceremonies] is brilliant, by the way.”
And even the talent were in awe of the surreal scene: Waiting in the control room before recording his solo, Joel Grey looked on in delight as Bernadette Peters and Carole King posed for a photo, another onlooker commenting, “That’s a lot of curly hair.”
After delivering a knockout solo in the booth, Audra McDonald passed Carole King on her way out, receiving a big kiss on her growing baby belly from the legendary songwriter.
After a slew of soloist – from Jessie Mueller and Joel Grey to Hamilton star Renée Elise Goldsberry – file in and out of the booth, Lin-Manuel Miranda delivers his, cracking up everyone in the studio with a spot-on Bob Dylan impression in between takes.
It was evident all the stars were humbled to take part in the collaboration. Indeed, on her way out of the studio, The King & I star Kelli O’Hara remarked, “I’m so proud to be a part of this.”
After recording his solo, Joel Grey – who came out in a 2015 PEOPLE interview – spoke about his involvement.
The Cabaret alum said he didn’t simply want to be a part of the collaboration – “I needed to,” he told PEOPLE.
“It was my own way of paying my respect and mourning … mourning. There’s so much loss in our country that that could happen, the way it could happen. It’s so confusing,” he said. “It made me mad – and so sad. Because I don’t just think it was easy; I think it was probably about homophobia and Ameriphobia. We must have some gun control; fair gun control.”
PEOPLE is paying tribute to the 49 victims of Sunday’s mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando showing their faces on the cover. For more about victims of Sunday morning’s shooting in Orlando, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday. Then tune into the June 18 episode of People’s List at 8 p.m. ET on ABC, in which PEOPLE and Entertainment Weekly editorial director Jess Cagle will discuss Broadway for Orlando.
The actor, 84, added how the theater community’s bond is strong – and inspiring.
“There’s so much trust between actors because you have to: You’re out there onstage, naked, and they prove themselves to be the greatest of friends, and that lasts, that feeling. There’s people I saw here today from forever ago! Like Chita [Rivera] and Bernadette [Peters]: She and I were in George M! together in 1967. And here we are,” he said, right before Peters, coincidentally, emerges from a room and kisses him goodbye.
As for what he hopes the world takes away from Broadway for Orlando: “It makes people think for a second, just for a second. And maybe later on in the day, they’ll think about it again. And maybe when they go to vote, it’ll affect that.”
Broadway for Orlando’s “What the World Needs Now Is Love” is available to pre-order for $1.99 on BroadwayRecords.com and will be available for download on Monday. All proceeds will go to benefit the LGBT Center of Central Florida.