How Disaster! in London Was Almost an Actual Disaster

Seth Rudetsky   How Disaster! in London Was Almost an Actual Disaster This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Seth takes us behind the scenes of the rave-reviewed Disaster! benefit concert he pulled off across the pond—despite tons of crazy obstacles.
Disaster! in London November 2016
Jamie Scott-Smith

Well, I had the grandiose plan to post a column every day from London. Instead, I was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t even post my regular column! I have to do a double whammy column to make up for missing last week, so here goes:

If ya don’t know, I was in London for two weeks rehearsing for two charity performances of Disaster! I’m so thankful that Tom Viola from Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS hooked me up with TheatreMAD, which is the West End version of BC/EFA. TheatreMAD is much more Mom and Pop…they literally have a staff of two! They do programs throughout London to make people aware that being tested for HIV can only help them in addition to helping fund clinics throughout Africa. While I have you on the phone, let me recommend that you do all your holiday shopping at www.BroadwayCares.org. So many amazing theatre-themed holiday gifts and all the money goes to help people with HIV/AIDS. One of the best stocking stuffers (or for Jews, “Yarmulke inserts”) is “Carols for a Cure,” an annual CD with holiday songs sung beautifully—or hilariously—by Broadway stars.

Here’s a deconstruction of one of my absolute favorites with the cast of Hairspray featuring Shoshanna Bean:

So, this Disaster! benefit concert was supposed to be done like we did our Actors Fund benefit concerts of Disaster!, with scripts and music stands. Cut to, the British actors told me before I got there that they were going to memorize their songs…and lines…and soon it grew much, much bigger than I ever expected!

Some of the highlights from my time there: We lost the actor who was going to play Tony, the corrupt owner of the casino (that’s drilled directly into a faultline). It was just a few days before we began rehearsals. I don’t know many British actors, so I had turned to help cast all the roles. The wonderful dresser Murray Lane recommended Wicked’s Alice Fearn for Marianne and Hairsrpay’s Sandra Marvin for Levora (both were perfect in the parts!) and I also asked advice from Matt Lucas, the co-star of the hit TV series Little Britain and Bridesmaids. (See below.)

He had seen the show on Broadway. He recommended an actor named Simon Lipkin. Turns out, Simon had already been cast in the show playing a smaller part! I bumped him up to the role of Tony and he was simply brilliant. An amazing clown who figures out how to laugh at anything. He got his start in the West End at age 19 (!) as Trekkie Monster/Nicky in the West End Production of Avenue Q, which also starred the original Christmas Eve, Ann Harada (who highly recommended him for DISASTER!). Here they are doing the opening number on a U.K. TV show.

Since doing Avenue Q, people always ask Simon if he’ll be doing puppetry in whatever show he’s in. His character in Disaster! had no puppets but, just for fun, while we were doing an interview, he got one of the killer rat puppets from the show and used it to sing his Act I sexy song. He’s so good!

I was told I wouldn’t be able to find a kid to play the role of Ben and his twin sister, Lisa, and I should probably use a short adult. I refused!! Well, our great producer Darren Murphy (who did the job of so many people: he got us our sound designer, lighting, make up, projectionist, theatre, rehearsal space, music director James Taylor—who, himself, got us six back-up singers from Urdang Academy—our amazing choreographer Ashley Nottingham—who got us six sexy/TALENTED dancers to turn it out, etc. Amazing!) knows Matthew Chandler. Matthew runs the British Theatre Academy for children and saw the show on Broadway and immediately thought of teenager Bradley Riches for the role if it ever came to London. I skyped with Bradley and immediately gave him the role. A perfect part for him!!! Here he is in a Facebook Live event we did…such a great belt on the last E flat!

I got to play opposite the amazing Jodie Jacobs, who I cast after seeing this amazing video of her with Shoshana Bean:

Here she is during the beginning of tech rehearsal for Disaster! Her voice is so unique!

The wonderful Sally Ann Triplett played Shirley, and I first came to know of her because she played Sue in the original British and Broadway Carrie.

Disaster! in London November 2016
Jamie Scott-Smith

Here is some bizarre footage of rehearsal and performance of the show. Watch how everyone’s dancing is amazing…and inappropriate. Especially check out the late, great Gene Anthony Ray (Leroy from Fame) while Charlotte d’Amboise is asking him to do her a favor. For some reason, as she’s communicating with him, he’s doing crazy high kicks and splits. Riveting!

There were so many amazing people in the cast including Oliver Tompsett (recommended by Gavin Creel), Paul Grunert (recommended by Sally Ann), Mark Anderson (also recommended by Gavin) and, most thrilling for me, Jennifer Simard recreating her role of the nun.

Disaster! in London November 2016
Jamie Scott-Smith

We were at the Charing Cross Theatre (theatre) and while we were waiting to enter, Jennifer pointed to a Pret A Manger that was around 500 feet away. Turns out, years ago it used to be a hotel and when she was super young in 1988 she came to the U.K. and stayed in that very hotel…. dreaming of performing in London one day. And here she was, years later, just steps away from that hotel making her London debut!

Disaster! in London November 2016
Oliver Tompsett and Alice Fearn Jamie Scott-Smith

I had planned on seeing tons of West End shows while I was there, but we’d rehearse all day, have dinner and then I’d have work to do at night related to my SiriusXM radio show or the benefit and wound up not having any time to see anything. Except for one show I had to see…An Inspector Calls. There was a Broadway production back in 1995 that had a live band and I got to conduct and play the piano for it very often as an understudy. I was obsessed with the show, especially Stephen Daldry’s direction. Well, the exact same production has just been revived in London!

Disaster! in London November 2016
Courtesy of Seth Rudetsky

I’ve been telling James about the show for years and years so we had to see it. OMG…it’s so good. Stephen Daldry’s direction is so creative and the play is more relevant now than ever. It’s about a wealthy family and how they’ve each treated a young woman horrifically. The woman has committed suicide because of how mistreated she’s been, yet the family will not take responsibility. Yes, they didn’t literally kill her, but their actions led to her suicide. The show is about how we are all responsible for each other.

I was in the audience weeping thinking about all the Planned Parenthoods that this new government wants to de-fund and how so many young women are in danger of losing all the health care they provide—how so many young women will soon have circumstances like the fictional young woman in the show. So devastating. The show, the story, the acting…brilliant and so important to see. I truly hope they bring it back to Broadway. Boy, do we need it.

So, because DISASTER! was a benefit, everyone had other jobs and had tons of availability issues. As a matter of fact, the only time the whole cast was together was literally on the day of the show! And there were many problems leading up to that day: We didn’t have much time in the theatre to tech, so we never got to do a run with the band; our sound designer became ill a few days before, so we never got to run the tons and tons of sound cues in the show; our projectionist also got ill, so we never saw the projections displayed until the actual show etc.

Disaster! in London November 2016
Jamie Scott-Smith

The night before the show, I laid in bed and told James that I really had no idea how it was going to go. Well, the first performance began at 4 PM and around 16 measures into the opening number (“Hot Stuff”) Jack lept onstage and stopped the show. Turns out, the breaker at the theatre was overloaded and the entire electrical system shut down. Holy cow. I came out and did some chitty-chatting with the audience, Jennifer came out and talked to everybody and we started again. Even though the system shut down twice that morning, we never had a electrical problem again and the show went amazingly well. We finished the first one and only had an hour until the second show.

I thought that was very little time, but Oliver and Simon told me that when they doing Rock Of Ages on the West End, the shows were so back-to-back, that while they were singing the mega-mix at the end of the first performance, the stage manager was calling half hour for the second one! Holy nodes!

Anyhoo, the second show went fantastically as well and thank goodness it did..because both shows had reviewers there! OMG! I had NO IDEA! If I had known, I would have said absolutely not. We had never done the show as a cast together...and we had never run it with the band and the sound cues and the projections. It was a recipe for (literally) disaster. But I’m so glad they came because we wound up getting rave reviews. I flipped out on the plane home when I saw them! Here’s a smattering:

★★★★★ “The material is so strong that we must all hope that before too long we’ll be able to see a big budget, fully-staged production of this delightfully raucous musical comedy.” – Gay Times

★★★★★ “A knockout show... glitter, flares, medallions & chest hair – we need more Disaster! soon. Make it happen!” – The Spy In the Stalls

★★★★★ “A gloriously funny comedy. I can’t wait for (Another) Disaster! to hit the West End” – Stage Review

★★★★★ “One of theatre’s comedy events of the year - this is one disaster that the West End sorely needs” – Musical Theatre Review

And my favorite review (and one of the many to single out Bradley Riches who played Ben/Lisa) was this one:

Wowza! And the best news is, the shows were both sold out, so MADtrust made lots of money to help their programs. Thank you London and Happy Thanksgiving to all!

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