NEW YORK — The kids at the Covenant House homeless shelter are always looking for somebody to lean on. They got it one summer night last year, along with a lullaby sung by some of Broadway's best.
More than 50 Broadway artists broke into a serenade of "Lean On Me" while spending the night on the street outside the Manhattan shelter in solidarity with the 350 homeless youth living inside.
"Of course we had to break into song when you put a bunch of us together. We can't not sing," said Rory O'Malley, the Tony Award-nominated former star of "The Book of Mormon." The windows lit up and the kids inside soon joined them in song.
"That's the power of music and the power of art. We were able to tell them that we're here for them, and it was an awesome, awesome moment, something that I'll always remember."
On Sunday, some 70 Broadway figures will join the second Sleep Out to raise money to provide food, clothing and shelter for homeless youth. Participants have already pulled in more than $177,000 as of Friday morning, beating last year's fundraising total of $136,000.
"It gets kids thinking, 'Maybe I'm not broken,'" said Kevin Ryan, president and CEO of Covenant House International. "It lifts kids up thinking that all these people who don't even know them think enough about them to spend the night on concrete."
The event has been spearheaded by two Broadway veterans — Capathia Jenkins, a star of "Newsies," and Stephanie J. Block, who has appeared in "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" and "9 to 5."
Participants on Sunday will be introduced to the homeless youth — many single mothers and others kicked out for being gay — and then break up into groups to share stories and answer questions from stage stars.
"The money is essential to the work we do, but that alone is oxygen for our kids," said Ryan. "They're helium for kids' dreams. They lift young people up and make them believe that they can rise up and do anything."
Then, when the night winds down, the Broadway folk will be handed a piece of cardboard and a sleeping bag and try to sleep outside the Covenant House building, on the corner of 41st Street and 10th Avenue.
"This is not a replication of homelessness," Ryan stressed. "It is just a single night of solidarity, lifting up the dignity of homeless kids."
This year's event has attracted about 70 participants who are soliciting donations to reach their individual goals. There are also teams from "The Lion King," ''The Book of Mormon," ''Les Miserables" and "Newsies."
The group includes a returning Denis O'Hare of "True Blood;" Kyle Scatliffe, who plays Enjolras in "Les Miserables" Tony-nominated Adriane Lenox from "After Midnight"; a returning Caissie Levy, who stars as Fantine in "Les Miserables"; director and choreographer Jeff Calhoun; playwright David Henry Hwang; Elizabeth A. Davis, a Tony nominee for "Once"; Tony winner Chuck Cooper; and Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Productions.
Newly crowned six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald won't be free Sunday but has pledged to sleep outside on a different night and is hoping to raise $10,000 with such prizes as getting her to record a voicemail greeting or a video of her singing happy birthday.
O'Malley will be there, too, even though he figures he only got about 45 minutes of sleep last year between the rumble of trucks going in and out of the Lincoln Tunnel. He has kept in touch with one of the kids he met, meeting over coffee and offering advice.
But O'Malley, whose new show "Partners" just premiered on FX, admits he was anxious in the days leading up to last year's event. Even though his safety was secure, he started to worry about where he'd sleep and what he'd eat.
"As the date got closer I thought, 'My God, this is one night I'm worried about! One night,'" he said. "We're not putting ourselves out there in the same way these homeless kids are having to put themselves out there on the street every single night."
As for any spontaneous singing, he wishes that could be duplicated this year: "I'm hoping that it happens again. Who knows what we'll break out from our repertoire?"
Online: http://covhou.convio.net/site/TR/SleepOut/SleepOutBroadwayEdition?fr_id=1300&pg=entry Mark Kennedy is on Twitter at http://twitter.com