By Tad Friend
June 14th, 2011
We admire people who can do something we can’t. If we wish we could do that thing, too—or are very glad we don’t have to—then we call those people heroes. Hero worship beamed in all directions at Manhattan’s Beacon Theatre the other night during “Stand Up for Heroes,” a benefit for Bob Woodruff’s foundation, which aids wounded veterans. (Woodruff, an ABC News correspondent, was himself badly wounded in Iraq in 2006.) The show’s array of stars had other stars crowding in backstage to watch. “It’s a little Rat Pack-y thing,” Max Weinberg, Bruce Springsteen’s longtime drummer, said. When Tony Bennett sang “The Best Is Yet to Come,” Springsteen was humming along, just offstage. “Fabulous,” he said about Bennett’s swingy, catfooted phrasing. “Fabulous! I do not want to follow Tony Bennett.”
But he did, ripping into “Open All Night,” backed by Weinberg’s fifteen-piece band. Bob Woodruff stood in the wings, bobbing on the downbeats. “You can’t top this,” he told his wife, Lee, who was shimmying in a purple dress. Nearby, Jon Stewart, the evening’s host, was pounding the air drums alongside a wary Jerry Seinfeld, who stood with his arms crossed. When Springsteen hopped onto the Steinway to play a few licks, the crowd went crazy, and Stewart leaned toward Seinfeld and said, “If you could do that, you would. That’s what you would do.” After a moment, Seinfeld nodded.
The annual “Heroes” concerts were conceived by Andrew Fox and Caroline Hirsch, the producers of the New York Comedy Festival, when they saw a documentary about Woodruff’s experience after his tank was blown up, and about how his struggles, which included thirty-six days in a coma, paled beside those of some of his fellow-patients. Realizing that, by and large, it’s the poor who go to war, Fox and Hirsch wanted to get those who were rich in funds or talent to return the favor. Backstage, Hirsch recalled that during the Vietnam War, when she was a sixteen-year-old in Flatbush, “my eighteen-year-old boyfriends, the Irish and Italian boys who didn’t have the money for college, were the ones who got drafted and came back injured and dead. Just like the soldiers now.”
The Woodruffs opened the show by speaking not to those who’d paid (up to twenty-five hundred dollars) for tickets but to the forty-six wounded veterans in dress blues and dress greens who sat down front. Bob Woodruff, who has a residue of faint scars and the occasional memory lapse, read the names of the wounded to the audience. The soldiers, some missing eyes or limbs, some suffering from brain injuries or post-traumatic stress, rose, often slowly, to stand. In the wings, Stewart said “Wow!” and Springsteen applauded with all his might.
When Springsteen’s guitar was auctioned off, for a hundred and forty thousand dollars, to the founder of Philosophy cosmetics—the showpiece bid in an evening that raised more than $2.5 million—Bob Woodruff privately told Lee, “Now what are we going to do? Really can’t top that.” Then Seinfeld strode onstage, coiled and quizzical, to close the show. He began with a bit about his mother’s physical decline and the high-tech gizmos available to her—“If you need brakes on your walker, perhaps you’ve been misdiagnosed”—and went on to skewer cell phones, Cialis, and the culture of constant hydration. The jokes built and built, spiralling up like a verbal Guggenheim, until the soldiers lay about in a sprawl of helpless joy.
When Seinfeld came offstage, Lee Woodruff ran to embrace him. “Oh!” he said, surprised that she’d breached his perimeter. “Thank you.”
“You have that all memorized?” Bob Woodruff asked. But Seinfeld was gone, like a superhero embarrassed by gratitude.
Springsteen was gone by then, too, at least until next year. His selection as the series’ anchor was Lee Woodruff’s idea: it came about, she explained, when her husband was comatose and she’d talk into his ear for hours, telling him that now he was safe. “Bruce had heard that Bob was a fan, and he’d sent a package of DVDs and a letter saying that Bob was a hero,” she said. “Bob was in a coma—he wasn’t going to know I was lying—so I changed what Bruce said a little and I went, like, ‘Honey’ ”—she snored to indicate his response—“ ‘the Boss wrote to you, and he says if you wake up he’s going to come and play for you and the other soldiers.’ Two days after Bob woke up, he still didn’t have any words, but he started doing this”—she made a strumming motion—“and the first thing he said was ‘I need one of those na-ner-na-ners.’ I said, ‘O.K., a guitar, but why?’ And he said, ‘To be ready to play when the Boss man comes.’ ”